TITLE: Starting to Think AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 10, 2009 9:48 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Today one of my students tweeted that he had started doing something new: setting aside time each to sit and think. This admirable discipline led to a Twitter exchange among students that ended with the sentiment that schools don't teach us how to think. I'm not sure what I think about this. At one level, I know what they mean. Universities offer a lot of courses in which we expect students to be able to think already, but it's rare when courses aim specifically to teach students how to think. Similarly, we don't often teach students how to read, and in software engineering, we don't often teach students how to do analysis. We demonstrate it and hope they catch on. (Welcome to calculus!) Some courses take aim at how to think, or at least do on paper, but they tend to be gen ed courses or courses in philosophy that most students don't take, or don't take seriously. Majors courses are the best hope for many, because there is some hope that students will care enough about their majors to want to learn to think like experts in the discipline. In CS, our freshman-level discrete structures course is a place where we purport to help students reason the way computer scientists do. In Software Engineering, I've decided the only way we can possibly learn how to build software is to do it and then analyze what happens. Again, I am not teaching students so much how to think, so much as hoping to put them in a position where they can learn. This is one part of my attempt to start where students are. But where do we go, or try to go, from there? That said, lots of people in education and academia spend a lot of their time thinking about how to help students learn to think. Last month, I saved a link to a post at Dangerously Irrelevant on Education and Learning to Think. That post assumes that one goal of education is "higher-order thinking" -- thinking about thinking so that we can learn to do it better. It lists a number of features of higher-order thinking, goals for our students and thus for our courses. The list looks awfully attractive to me right now, because my current teaching assignment aims to prepare prospective software developers to work as professionals, and these are precisely the sorts of skills we would like for them to have before they graduate. Systems analysis and requirements gathering are all about imposing meaning, finding structure in apparent disorder. Building software involves uncertainty. Not everything that bears on the task at hand is known. Judgment and self-regulation are essential skills of the professional, but much of our students' previous fourteen or fifteen years of education have taught them not to self-regulate, if only by giving them so few opportunities to do so. When faced with it for the first time, they tend to balk. Should we be surprised? There are other possible thinking outcomes we might aim for. A while back, I wrote about a particular HS teacher's experience as a summer CS student in Teaching Is Hard. Mark Guzdial also wrote about that teacher's blog entries, and Alan Kay left a comment on Mark's blog. Alan suggested that one of the key traits that we must help students develop is skepticism. This is one of the defining traits of the scientist, who must question what she sees and hears, run experiments to test ideas, and gather evidence to support claims. One of the great lessons of the Enlightenment is that we all can and should think and act like scientists, even when we aren't "doing science". The methods of science are the most reliable way for us to understand the world in which we live. Skepticism and experiment are the best ways to improve how we think and act. There is more. People such as Richard Gabriel and Paul Graham tell us that education should help us develop taste. This is one of the defining traits of the maker. Just as all people should be able to think and act like scientists, so should all people be able to think and act creators. This is how we shape the world in which we live. Alan Kay talks about taste, too, in other writings and would surely find much to agree with in Gabriel's and Graham's work. All this adds up to a pretty tall order for our schools and universities, for our apprenticeships and our workplaces. I don't think it's too much of a cop-out to say that one of the best ways to learn all of these higher-order skills is to do -- act like scientists, act like creators -- and then reflect on what happens. If this were not enough, the post at Dangerously Irrelevant linked to above closes a quote that sets up one last hurdle for students and teachers alike:
It is a new challenge to develop educational programs that assume that all individuals, not just an elite, can become competent thinkers.
100% may be beyond our reach, but in general I start from this assumption. Like I said, teaching is hard. So is learning to think. -----