TITLE: Are We Curious Enough About Our Students? AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 17, 2019 10:59 AM DESC: ----- BODY: I ran across an old interview with Douglas Crockford recently. When asked what traits were common to the weak programmers he'd seen over his career, Crockford said:
That's an easy one: lack of curiosity. They were so satisfied with the work that they were doing was good enough (without an understanding of what 'good' was) that they didn't push themselves.
I notice a lack of curiosity in many CS students, too. It's even easier for beginners than professional programmers to be satisfied with meeting the minimal requirements of a project -- "I got the right answers!" or, much worse, "It compiles!" -- and not realize that good code can be more. Part of our goal as teachers is to help students develop higher standards and more refined taste while they are in school. There's another sense, though, in which holding students' lack of curiosity against them is a dangerous trap for professors. In moments of weakness, I occasionally look at my students and think, "Why doesn't this excite them more? Why don't they want to write code for fun?" I've come to realize over the years that our school system doesn't always do much to help students cultivate their curiosity. But with a little patience and a little conversation, I often find that my students are curious -- just not always about the things that intrigue me. This shouldn't be a surprise. Even at the beginning of my career as a prof, I was a different sort of person than most of my students. Now that I'm a few years older, it's almost certain that I will not be in close connection with my students and what interests them most. Why would they necessarily care about the things I care about? Bridging this gap takes time and energy. I have to work to build relationships both with individuals and with the group of students taking my course each semester. This work requires patience, which I've learned to appreciate more and more as I've taught. We don't always have the time we need in one semester, but that's okay. One of the advantages of teaching at a smaller school is time: I can get to know students over several semesters and multiple courses. We have a chance to build relationships that enrich the students' learning experience -- and my experience as a teacher. Trying to connect with the curiosity of many different students creates logistical challenges when designing courses, examples, and assignments, of course. I'm often drawn back to Alan Kay's paradigm, Frank Oppenheimer's Exploratorium, which Kay discussed in his Turing Award lecture. The internet is, in many ways, a programmer's exploratorium, but it's so big, so disorganized, and of such varying levels of quality... Can we create collections of demos and problems that will contain something to connect with just about every student? Many of my posts on this blog, especially in the early years, grappled with this idea. (Here are two that specifically mention the Exploratorium: Problems Are The Thing and Mathematics, Problems, and Teaching.) Sometimes I think the real question isn't: "Why aren't students more curious?" It is: "Are we instructors curious enough about our students?" -----