TITLE: SIGCSE Day 2 -- Limited Exposure AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 10, 2011 9:21 PM DESC: ----- BODY: For a variety of reasons, I am scheduled for only two days at SIGCSE this year. I did not realize just how little time that is until I arrived and started trying to work in all the things I wanted to do: visit the exhibits, attend a few sessions and learn a new thing or two, and -- most important -- catch up with several good friends. It turns out that's hard to do in a little more than a day. Throw in a bout of laryngitis in the aftermath of a flu-riddled week, and the day passed even more quickly. Here are a few ideas that stood out from sessions on either end of the day. Opening Keynote Address Last March I blogged about Matthias Felleisen winning ACM's Outstanding Educator Award. This morning, Felleisen gave the opening address for the conference, tracing the evolution of his team's work over the last fifteen years in a smooth, well-designed talk. One two-part idea stood out for me: design a smooth progression of teaching languages that are neither subset nor superset of any particular industrial-strength language, then implement them, so that your tools can support student learning as well as possible. Matthias's emphasis on the smooth progression reminds me of Alan Kay's frequent references to the fact that English-speaking children learn the same language used by Shakespeare to write our greatest literature, growing into it over time. One of his goals for Smalltalk, or whatever replaces it, is a language that allows children to learn programming and grow smoothly into more powerful modes of expression as their experience and cognitive skills grow. Two Stories from Scratch At the end of the day, I listened in on a birds-of-a-feather session about Scratch, mostly in K-12 classrooms. One HS teacher described how his students learn to program in Scratch and then move onto a "real language". As they learn concepts and vocabulary in the new language, he connects the new terms back to their concrete experiences in Scratch. This reminded me of a story in one of Richard Feynman's books, in which he outlines his father's method of teaching young Richard science. He didn't put much stock in learning the proper names of things at first, instead helping his son to learn about how things work and how they relate to one another. The names come later, after understanding. One of the advantages of a clean language such as Scratch (or one of Felleisen's teaching languages) is that it enables students to learn powerful ideas by using them, not by memorizing their names in some taxonomy. Later in the session, Brian Harvey told the story of a Logo project conducted back in the 1970s, in which each 5th-grader in a class was asked to write a Logo program to teach a 3rd-grader something about fractions. An assignment so wide open gave every student a chance to do something interesting, whatever they themselves knew about fractions. I need to pull this trick out of my teaching toolbox a little more often. (If you know of a paper about this project, please send me a pointer. Thanks.) ~~~~ There is one unexpected benefit of a short stay: I am not likely to leave any dynamite blog posts sitting in the queue to be written, unlike last year and 2008. Limited exposure also limits the source of triggers! -----