TITLE: How We Share Teaching Practice AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 13, 2007 8:23 PM DESC: ----- BODY: ... or When the Seventh Commandment Doesn't Apply I have had Warren's Question, a paper by Sally Fincher and Josh Tenenberg, in my to-read/ folder for a while, since soon after it hit the ICER 2007 conference web site. (The paper will be presented on Saturday.) I grabbed it on my way to get a sandwich yesterday, for a nice lunchtime read. I am glad I did, and that surprises me. I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did. Why wouldn't I enjoy it? Well, it's a CS education paper. That sounds wrong, I know, but "education papers" usually turn me off before I can get to the value. Section titles such as "The political context of self-disclosure" make my technical self cringe. I am sympathetic to the goals of CS education research, but the jargon and methodological baggage usually overwhelm me. By skimming through the paper I was able to find the basic story, and it drew me in, and I soon realized that the paper makes some good points and raises some interesting questions. The story of Warren's question is one of teachers sharing their practical knowledge. Fincher and Tenenberg deconstruct several messages on a mailing list of CS instructors, starting with a couple of questions from Warren seeking help on teaching interactively and on fixing a broken lab grading procedure. He receives answers off-list to some questions, and some answers on-list that answer obliquely but offer advice of a more general nature. This is how most teaching knowledge is shared: one-on-one, or in small groups of friends. Many people refer to this style exchange as stealing. There is almost a badge of honor among some of my friends and colleagues to steal from as many accomplished, creative teachers as possible. I steal shamelessly from people such as Owen Astrachan, Robert Duvall, Joe Bergin, and Mike Clancy , and I've heard from others that they have stolen ideas from me. Good ideas spread through networks of friends and colleagues, sometimes jumping into new pools through journal publications and conference presentations. Fincher and Tenenberg point out that this means of sharing knowledge has several shortcomings. It's not that stealing is wrong, or that most folks mind that their ideas have been lifted. I'm happy to hear that someone has found one of my ideas or techniques so useful that he has adapted it for his own use. My friends and I share ideas with the expectation that others might find them useful -- that's the point. But informal sharing of this share results in a loss of provenance. In the arts, a work's provenance is the record of the work's history, in particular its ownership. This "audit trail" offers some measure of confidence in the authenticity of the work, which reduces the risk of being defrauded in exchange. When it comes to teaching practice, provenance isn't really about the risk of being sold a fake; it's more about trusting the efficacy of the technique in practice:
If we do not know the history of the practice we examine, then we take it as if new. We cannot tell whether this is long-established and well-evolved, worked on by respected educators over time, or whether it was fresh-minted yesterday. Not only that, but we cannot know why any adaptations, or changes, have been made.
If I knew a technique originated with Owen Astrachan, has been adapted by Nick Parlante for use in an object-oriented course, and has been "ported" to interactive classes by Robert Duvall, then I'll feel a lot more confident about using the technique in my interactive OOP classroom than if the technique comes to me blind, from a source I don't know -- and so, out of safety, trust less. In a network of friends, provenance is part of the group's collective memory. But groups evolve over time, and ideas leak out into into groups who do not share the memory. This loss of provenance leads to a "rootlessness and reinvention of practice" that hampers the improvement of teaching everywhere. We all keep reinventing the wheel. How does this differ from the research side of academia? In the research culture, stealing from others is strictly forbidden. One must cite the work of others and acknowledge the source of ideas. This plays several important roles in the culture, among them giving credit for the development of theories, authenticating the trail of ideas, differentiating work done in different contexts, and evaluating the efficacy of theories. When I speak of lifting ideas as standard practice, I am exaggerating a bit. Stealing isn't really okay. Whenever I see someone using an idea I think I developed, I feel a violated, much as I do when someone steals my treasure. When we appropriate an idea, we should share credit. I may steal shamelessly, but I tell everyone where I got the candy. But when we share credit informally, we still lose the provenance of the idea. Publication and citing the work of others is still the primary way to document teaching practice formally. When there is no archival publication to cite, the author becomes the first line of history and has to document her sources in the new paper. Documenting teaching practice, beyond documenting research results, would help us to teach computer science better, and that would help us to improve computer science and help the CS community serve the world better. This is one of the insights of the software patterns community: that documenting software development practice from the trenches can improve the state of software development. The writers' workshops of PLoP both help to share practice and to help practitioners communicate their practice more effectively. The patterns culture came to the teaching world in the form of pedagogical patterns, which draw their inspiration from software patterns but aim to record the practice of experienced instructors. This movement started in the domains of software development and computer science, but that is an artifact of history. The techniques so far documented as pedagogical patterns are more general. The CS education community has non-pattern venues for sharing teaching practice. In addition to refereed papers, SIGCSE has for several years offered nifty assignments sessions that open what once was a closed network of colleagues to the broader community, and that now offer a platform to a wider set of instructors. Likewise, at OOPSLA one once found workshops on teaching OO design and recently has offered a series of "killer examples" workshops. Fincher and Tenenberg argue that, even if we had a more complete literature of teaching practice, the task of finding what one needs would be difficult. It is hard to specify all of the variables in play within most teaching scenarios, which makes it hard to index resources and then traverse the literature. In the language of patterns, teachers have a hard time characterizing the problem that a technique solves and the context in which the technique applies. I experienced this difficulty when trying to write pedagogical patterns, and observed it when I read pedagogical patterns written by others. How does one define the context and problem concretely enough to be useful? Without such boundaries, a pattern has more the character of a sweet sentiment than a teaching technique. Researchers engage in abstraction and instantiation. So do teachers. They tell stories. Together, the story teller and the hearer generalize the story out of the teller's context and adapt it to work in other contexts. I gain from being a part of networks of colleagues who discuss and share practice. I'm on a couple of mailing lists like the one described in "Warren's Question", and they all enrich my teaching, as well as my appreciation for computer science. I play a slightly different role on each list and enjoy a different status. On one particular, I am a peripheral member of a core group of friends who are master CS teachers. Over the years, I have become friends with several of them through various ways and thus came to be attached to the fringe of the group. On another, I am a core member and a leader. Whatever my role, I find that I learn much from my interactions with the group, as we share ideas and their results. That's one of the reasons I like to blog. It gives me a venue in which to tell an occasional story about what I do and how it turns out in the trench with my students. Many of those ideas are "stolen" -- from friends one-on-one, from other blogs, and even from from other contexts. For example, I love to make connections between software development and teaching, and between software development and running. I like to look for ways to improve how I teach from writing, other arts, running and other sports, almost any source. But my blog gives me a way to give credit to the source of my ideas -- colleagues, authors, and whole other disciplines. A blog may not be as formal as archival publication, or as highly respected, but it does allow a more immediate exchange of ideas and a far wider conversation than I could ever have with just my friends. As usual for me, reading "Warren's Question" is just a starting point. I have long known about Donald Schon's books on the reflective practitioner and heard of how good they are. But I must confess... I have never read Schon. Given the applicability of his ideas to so many ideas that have occupied me over the years -- apprenticeship and studio instruction among them, I really should be embarrassed. I was really intrigued by Fincher and Tenenberg's discussion of Schon's "hall of mirrors" and how one's ideas are reflected back when adopted and modified by others, and so I think I'll be making a short trip to the library soon! -----