Monday, August 8, 2011

Programming, Body Language and Poetry

I had the most interesting discussion (here at the ICER conference) today with a doctoral student from the University of California Berkeley: Colleen Lewis. She gave an overview of her dissertation work called: "Integrating Prior Knowledge Into Pedagogy". As part of her work Colleen provides students with code and asks them to talk aloud about the code. Colleen believes that successful students are integrating non programming knowledge from other fields into their programming. Her mention of the humanities got my attention so I went over and spoke with her and asked for some detailed examples of what she has observed.

Critical Reading Skills. Most of you have likely been involved in discussions of code or sat in when someone was describing code. Colleen told me she hears students not simply saying what the line of code is or what it does, but explaining it in terms of what it means in a greater context. She told me when she listens to successful students she hears a story. She used the words "narration" or "narrative" repeatedly. Although she didn't say it in so many words, what I was hearing / interpreting from Colleen's narrative was that as she listens to successful students she hears a story much like the one I am writing here. Not just a sequence of statements, or an algorithmic description, but a more holistic contextualized explanation. Interesting.....Have you ever thought about code as a story?

Gestures and Body Language. Colleen took American Sign Language in college and perhaps this is what disposed her to notice that when she asks students to trace code aloud, some students actively use their body as part of the description. For example they might speak like this: "n equals 1; ok, now n equals 2; now n equals three..." while using their arms to show the movement. Colleen demonstrated by starting with her right arm out, palm up on "n equals 1", then placed her left arm inside her right arm, palm up, then moved her right arm inside her left arm, then the left inside the right again, while explaining "they are saying and showing: 'the code moves from here [right arm/palm], to here [left arm/palm] to here [right arm/palm] to here [left arm/palm]' ". These students not only narrate with words, they narrate with physical movement.

The discussion of movement caused us to look up. There were several of us standing together; Colleen and I were in motion and two others were standing, listening, with arms crossed. We then observed how some people are more physically demonstrative than others. Colleen and I for example use our bodies a lot (even while furiously taking notes, I was not standing still).  Two other people commented that they tend not to use their limbs as much when they talk...what might this mean for coding?

Watch people in action as they talk or listen - it is very interesting to tune into. Psychologists know about the messages body language sends - it isn't something we talk about as much in computing.

Poetry. This is where conferences are such wonderful synergistic experiences. I asked Colleen for yet another example and she started describing a process she observes where programming students read a challenging chunk of code, rephrase it in their head, re-read it, and re-read it, and think it through some more. At that moment another conference participant, Nanette Vielleux from Simmons College, spoke up to say that the process sounded like studying poetry when you are having trouble with a poem. She suggested that perhaps some techniques used to teach poetry could be used to teach programming. Now that is a fascinating idea.

I got an immediate visual of a page of code in a language I don't know well sitting next to a page of poetry from a writer whose style is alien to me (I often find poetry challenging). I have found that if I read poetry aloud several times and roll it around in my head I have a greater chance of making personal sense of it. If some students successfully use the same process with challenging Cool idea. I have no idea how poetry is "taught" in the classroom. Wouldn't it be interesting to apply selected poetry pedagogy to the study of existing code and see what happens?


  1. When one teaches at a school with over 1000 deaf or hard of hearing students, many of whom matriculate to our computing degrees, it is quite routine to have an American Sign Language interpreter working your classes. It becomes rather second nature for most of us to be rather animated when trying to "bring to life with animation" something as dry as a block of code.

  2. Jim,

    That is a very interesting observation. It makes me wonder to what extent the hiring process and promotion take into account body language more than we normally and mostly subconsciously do.

  3. I've heard of several body language experts who develop a natural skill for reading people because they were immigrants from another country and read body language before they could learn to speak English. Our bodies are communicating so much more than we even know!

  4. Sarah,

    That is very thought provoking. For one thing, I wonder if the discipline of Intercultural Communications has incorporated this area of study. It certainly adds a new dimension to understanding cultures and subcultures. Of course, body language can be thought about from a psychological perspective as well - emotional signalling - or from a linguistics perspective, as you imply. I suspect there is a relationship between spoken language and body language that goes beyond what I observed in my brief encounter at ICER.

    Taking it back to the world of technology and software design and development, reading body language is a very important part of ethnographic observations of users. What people say and what they signal do not always match and it is important to notice when this happens.

    Thanks for sharing this!