TITLE: Be Open to What Students Think -- For Real
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: September 02, 2016 4:12 PM
On the first day of my compiler class this fall, I had my students
fill out a short survey to help me set the stage for the course.
After I asked them to list the the three or four programming
languages they know best, I asked them:
We then used their answers to unpack what "easy" and "hard" mean
in these contexts, and what it would mean even to be answer these
While they were completing the survey, one student raised his
hand and asked, "When you easy or hard to compile, do you mean
for the programmer or the compiler?" I laughed almost immediately.
Fortunately, I've had all these students in class before, and they
know that I'm not a mean-spirited person. Even so, I just as
quickly apologized for laughing and let him know that I wasn't
laughing at the question so much as laughing at my own surprise:
It had never occurred to me that someone might interpret the
question in that way!
I realized, though, that from a student's perspective, getting a
Python program to the point of runnability is a very different
thing from getting, say, a Java or Ada program to the point of
runnability. For a beginner, to get his or her first few Ada
programs to compile is indeed a chore. I remember feeling the
same way when I learned Haskell as a relatively experienced
professor and programmer, many years after I had last been a
student in a classroom.
This story came to mind as I read
Required Reading for Math Teachers
this morning. It's actually pretty good reading for teachers of
any subject. Toward the end of the post, the author reminds us
that it helps for teachers to be legitimately open to students'
thought processes, whether or not they think what we think they
should be thinking. In fact, those are precisely the moments
when we want to be most open to what they are thinking. These
are the moments that help us to diagnose errors in their thinking
-- and in ours.
This passage resonated with my experience:
- Based on your experience using these languages, list them
in order from easiest to use to hardest to
- Given what you know about them, list these languages in
order from easiest to compile to hardest to
I have throughout my career been repeatedly surprised by the
discovery that nearly every time a student offers an idea
authentically (i.e. not as just a random guess), it makes
some sort of sense. Maybe not complete sense, and maybe it's
not at all where I was headed. But if I can curb my initial
reaction of "this kid is totally confused" long enough to
actually take in the train of thought, there is almost
uniformly some worthwhile reasoning inside it. Then even if
I need to say "we're going to stick to the topic", I can do
so after acknowledging the reasoning.
Acknowledging students' ideas and thinking is a matter of basic
respect, but it also plays a big role in the environment we create
in our classes. I hope that I have been respectful and open enough
with these students in the past that my question-asker could trust
that I wan't mocking him and that I was genuinely surprised. We
all learned something that day.
As that blog post goes on to say, we have to make sure that the
questions we ask students are legitimate questions. We
communicate this intention by acknowledging people when they treat
our questions as legitimate. We teachers need to treat our
student's questions the same way.