TITLE: I Got Nowhere Else To Go AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 09, 2008 5:53 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Some days, things go well, beyond expectation. Enjoy them! Today was one for me. I've been thinking a lot about how students learn a new style of programming or a language that is quite different from their experience. Every class has its own personality, which includes interaction style, interest in Big Ideas, and curiosity. Last night it occurred to me that another important part of that personality is trust. I was grading a quiz and suddenly felt a powerful personal connection to Gunnery Sergeant Foley from one of my favorite movies, An Officer and a Gentleman. There is a scene halfway through the film when he catches the protagonist, Zack Mayo, running an illegal contraband operation out of his barracks. The soldiers are in their room one afternoon when Foley walks in and declaims, "In every class, there's always one guy who thinks he's smarter than me. In this class, that's you, Mayo." He then dislodges a ceiling tile to reveal Mayo's stash of contraband and lets everyone know the jig is up. Sergeant Foley breaking Mayo down Beyond the occasional irrational desire I have to be Lou Gossett breaking the spirits of cocky kids and building them back up from scratch, while grading solutions to a particular exam problem I couldn't help but think, "In every class, there's always one guy who thinks he's smarter than me..." Some of the students seemed to be going out of their ways not to use the technique we had learned in class, which resulted in them writing complex, often incorrect code. More practically for them, they ended up writing more code than they needed, which spent extra time they didn't have the luxury of spending. I felt bad for them grade-wise, but also a little sad that they seemed to have missed out on the beautiful idea beyond the programming pattern they were not using. (Don't worry, class. This irrational desire of mine is fleeting. I don't want your DOR. Quite the contrary; I am looking for ways help you succeed!) Sometimes, I wonder if the problem is that students don't really trust me. Why should they? Sure, I'm the teacher, but they feel pretty good about their programming skills, and the patterns I show them may be different and complex enough that they'd rather trust their own skills than my claim that, say, mutual recursion makes life better. They'll learn that with enough experience, and then they may realize that they can trust me after all. In many ways, though, a bigger part of the problem may be a failure of storytelling. On my side are the stories I tell to engage students in an idea and its use. To paraphrase Merlin Mann paraphrasing Cliff Atkinson, I need to tell a story that makes the students feel like an character with a problem they care about and then show how our new way of solving their problem -- their problem -- makes them winners in the end. I think I do a better job of this now than I did ten years ago in this course, but I always wonder how I can do better. On their side is, perhaps, a failure of their own storytelling -- not just about bugs, as Guzdial writes, but about the problem domain itself, the data types at play, and the kind of problem they are solving. I suspect writing code over nested symbolic lists that represent programs is so different from the students' experience that many of them have a hard time getting a real sense of what is going on. As long as the domain and task remain completely abstract in the mind, the problems look almost like random markings on the page. Where to start? That disorientation may account for not starting in what seems to me to be the obvious location. As a teacher, failures in their storytelling become failures in my storytelling. I need to reconsider how I communicate the "big picture" behind my course. Asking students to create their own examples is one micro-step in this direction. But I also need to think about the macro-level -- something like XP's notion of metaphor. That practice has proved to be a stumbling block for XP, and I expect that it will remain a challenge for me. -----