Wednesday, August 14, 2013

ICER Day 3: Theory in Practice via Food

When the inside of the brownies are uncooked it is theoretically much easier to not eat them. Unlike for pepperoni, the theory that removing the bits of sausage from the surface will result in the elimination of the meat from the pizza proves to be incorrect. Fortunately, three days of incredibly stimulating theoretical and applied discussions at ICER have prepared me to apply my newly primed computational thinking skills to the task of applying some of the theoretical constructs we learned in a greater context.

Were I to assess the brownie/sausage learning experience via an Active-Constructive-Interactive Framework (attributed to Chi and discussed as part of Quintin Cutts talk) in conjunction with Peer Instruction (PI) I would have to design a PI-centered analysis such that we moved through the Passive Stage (stare at the offending food items) to the Active Stage (cautiously pick up the offending food items) to the Constructive Stage (wrap the pizza around the brownie taco-style) to the Interactive Stage (turn to my friend and offer to trade my sausage brownie taco for her broccoli) while sending an unhappy message about the brownie via Clicker to the Dining Services food database. The pizza mess up was totally my own doing.*

If I assess the brownie/sausage learning experience while holding a Theory View of food choices I would decide that whether or not to eat raw dough and invisible sausage bits was only relevant if the problem was not NP Complete. If, conversely, I held a Programming View I would write a Python program to compare and contrast the tradeoffs of not eating at all vs. eating food that bordered on the undigestible. If however, I held a Broad View, I would pause and evaluate at length the possible origins of the dough, the sausage, the intermingling of ingredients as the two situate on the same plate, and the effect upon the ecosystem if they pass through my body or go straight into the trash bin.**

In the event that I approach the entire episode from an experiential perspective and applied the Zones of Proximal Flow theory (as presented in Alex Repenning's talk) I would take stock first of the momentary Anxiety I felt after I swallowed the solid lump of dark dough and felt the greasy sausage remainders sliding down after it. Then, as I became accustomed to this challenging experience and realized I could perhaps leverage the unwanted protein and sugar in new ways, I would make a mental note that I was in Vygotsky's ZOPED (Zone of Proximal Development). With the assistance of an experienced wise person, I could be scaffolded into a state of Flow (as made famous by Csikszentmihalyi), buzzing along with full attention on the post-lunch presentations and discussions - totally unaware of the nutritional experience taking place below. Much later, after I had fully mastered the experience of the afternoon I might find myself Bored. I'm happy to say that never happened. Although if I had I might have been challenged to eat something even more offputting and start the whole process over again.***

And so it goes. It was no doubt the depth and solidity of much of the research we heard over the last three days that led to so many members of the audience feeling happily brain fried. Whether presenting quantitative statistical results or rigorous qualitative analyses, or while engaging in dynamic give and take with a sometimes hard core questioner, the bar remained high.  Ray Lister, who is known for his willingness to say it like it is, made the point quite well when he said how much he hates claims that begin with "In my experience...." Ray called this The Yoda Argument. Brownies aside, Yoda was not present at ICER 2013. Yet we had a heck of a lot of fun while we learned - good pedagogical theory seen in action.

*(with sincere apologies to Quintin Cutts who, I hope, will forgive these unwarranted extensions of his rigorous and compelling work on engagement in the university computing classroom)
**(with full apologies to Mike Hewner who presented these Views of Computer Science as the heart of his research results, with absolutely no intention they be applied in this manner)
***(more apologies, this time to Alex Repenning who gave an incredibly  fascinating and solidly supported research talk on integrating computing into the middle school classroom with absolutely nothing remotely resembling unsound nutrition)

*****Overall the food was wonderful!!!!! Just want to make sure I said that***** 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

ICER Day 2 - Variables Are Hard to Grasp?

One thing I love about ICER is the format: it is designed for interaction. We don't just sit there, sliding progressively lower in our seats as the days go on, hoping for the next coffee break. We listen to a speaker and we discuss the talks and we have spirited Q & A sessions.There were quite a few radical ideas tossed out in today's presentations. In great part because the speakers were, for the most part, energetic and comfortable with uncertainty. I can't count how many times I heard something along the lines of "and these results [just presented] leave us with more questions than answers". At which point we all would happily leap into the discussion fray with each other and the presenter. And no one seemed to take offense, as I have seen in some other research conferences when presenters take themselves a bit too seriously.

Cognitive learning theories were at the heart of the first two talks and there was some radical stuff here. For example, in the first talk of the morning Linda Seiter spoke about her work with computational thinking and primary school students. Not high school, not middle school, but primary school. 2nd grade, 4th grade, 6th grade. We don't hear about research on computing in kids this young very often - not by computer scientists at least. That in itself made me sit up in my seat.

One of her fascinating results started with the discovery that kids have an easier time learning computational concepts that we take as given to be harder, and that kids have a much harder time with concepts we assume are easier and thus teach first. For example, multi-threading, blocking, and synchronization come much easier than variables. It turns out that the concept of variables is really really hard - it isn't a natural concept at all. Young kids just don't grasp variables. Whereas they do grasp those OS related terms I mentioned.

Hold that in your head and then add in this: Linda  also said that 8th graders have similar computational thinking skill abilities as the college students she teaches and they run into the same problems. So although there are periods of predictable cognitive leaps as kids develop (4th - 5th grade seems big) , in terms of skill acquisition ability in computational thinking, there doesn't appear to be much change between 8th grade and freshman year of college.

If that is the case, should we rethink our decades old accepted wisdom about what concepts we teach first and what is necessary as foundational? The work we were hearing about focused on K-12, but what about university computing curricula? We have been beating our heads on the wall for decades on some of the same CS1 and CS2 problems - what if, instead of continuing to rework, tweak, re-present the same basic set of introductory concepts in the hopes of getting them across better - what if instead we look at upending the entire curriculum and putting the so-called hard concepts first? What if many of these aren't really the conceptually hard concepts at all? Conversely, what if the stuff we think of as easy and fundamental gets pushed out much later? Junior year? Senior year?

Why, for example, do we teach variables right off the bat anyway? Because we always have? Because all the textbooks are written that way? Because everyone does it that way? Because they are obviously simpler concepts? Because this is so fundamental to our belief system that we don't question it? Because it would be scary as heck to throw it all out the window? We can come up with lots of reasons why this paradigm shift (as it most definitely is)would be impractical to try. But when have true paradigm shifts ever been comfortable or without large speed bumps along the way?

Here is one of my favorite quotes from this morning: 

"As a teacher you need to forget everything you know and think like a first grader"

Although directed at teachers and researchers working with first graders, I think that it would be healthy for all of us to periodically think like a first grader. Before we have internalized so many fixed notions of how the world works, and, to quote back from yesterday's post, before we have developed Functional Fixations.

Monday, August 12, 2013

ICER Day 1: An Unexpected Foray into Learning & Design

A Layout

Synchronicity can be a freaky and wonderful thing. Within the first two hours of the ICER conference today I realized that I had not left Design behind (see my last several posts), and that a book I am currently reading (and will eventually post about) on egotistical versus empathic people in the corporate world was directly relevant to pedagogy and computing education.

The keynote speaker today was Scott Klemmer, who, in spite of what that link says, has just moved here to UC San Diego, apparently split between the Cognitive Science and Computer Science departments. He was originally trained as a designer and it showed as he took us on an interesting adventure around UI design from the back end - code in other words. He started out with the statement "View Source is a great example of UI design". That got my attention - to spend the next hour talking about the UI (UX) aspects of something users never see (code) but computer scientists see day in and day out. How very very cool.

In contrast to the industry-oriented conference I reported on a few weeks ago, ICER is an academic conference. Thus, Scott's talk was loaded with wonderful theoretical backup, explanations, references and citations, thought provoking ideas and suggestions that researchers love to roll around in. It was great.

So when Scott said "intuition is a difficult thing to teach students" it was the opening volley into wide ranging but highly focused and well supported discussion about using examples to aid learning, to generate creative design, to generate effective design, to arrive at quality prototypes while building group (i.e. team) rapport. One theme: sharing and adapting examples is good technically and good for learning purposes. But in a much deeper way than you might think. The discussion then rolled on into the role of peer assessment in design and how it can be used in software tools. Drool.

One of the interesting areas Scott has worked on is researching single vs. parallel design development. We know (the "research We" for those not used to the lingo) that people become ego attached to their own ideas and are loath to let go of them, even sometimes to their own detriment. It is called Functional Fixation and was written about back in 1945 by a guy named Dunker. But, we are learning that this ego attachment is reduced significantly if people develop multiple ideas in parallel. It becomes much easier to hear critique and drop one idea for another if you have several ideas to compare and contrast. As opposed to if you have only one idea and you are completely invested in it's success or failure.

Lots of very practical application along with some wonderful theory - established theory and theory being built. Some of what Scott spoke about was targeted at formal pedagogy but I can easily see it adapted without too much effort to an industry setting. For example, he spent some time on how to incorporate self-assessment and peer assessment into the development of designs and prototypes in the computing classroom. One of the big challenges, as educators are all too painfully aware, is that novices aren't always very good at providing useful feedback. Even when the faculty supplies an assessment rubric as guide, all sorts of issues arise - if the rubric is too specific, it can stifle creativity and lead students to just check off the boxes without any deep thinking; yet if the rubric is too abstract it can lead students to have no idea what to do with it and either flail or provide random, not very helpful, feedback.

Here comes the useful research note that provides insight into not only the classroom, but the business world too (I refuse to say "the real world", because schooling is real; where ever you are at any moment in time is your real life).

Novices have a very hard time with abstract rubrics. The question becomes how to operationalize a rubric for the particular level of students you are working with? (CS1, CS2, an upper division course)? We have research about how novices become experts and how along the way they gradually become more able to deal with abstraction. Thus, the rubric that works for a sophomore level software engineering class is probably not the same one you'd use for a senior level software engineering class or for a newly hired software engineer or for a seasoned developer.

A technique, one that Scott is working with, is to create the rubric such that up to a certain point it is fairly concrete (i.e. you can get 90% of the possible points) and after that it is more abstract (you want an A, then you have to go above and beyond). What he didn't discuss, but where my thoughts were going, was that you could take the same (or similar) rubric and start shifting that abstraction point downwards as you work with more advanced students or professionals.

Fascinating idea to consider. Fascinating idea to strategize, design, prototype, implement.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Question of a Universal Icon Leads to Bathroom Talk

(Warning: This post is Rated PG-13)

There is this thing called The Noun Project. I find it somewhat challenging to tell from their web pages just what they do. However, my sense, based upon an activity I took part in last night with the UX Speakeasy crowd, is that has to do with ... nouns. And icons? The idea that nouns can be represented with icons. And that there are many possible representations for any given noun - in icon form. (iconic? Icon is a noun; iconic is not ("Of, relating to, or having the character of an icon." )

It is fun to play with words; with nouns. To share icons about nouns. That seems to be what The Noun Project is about. Led, in part with operatic vocalizations, by Jeannel King a Graphic Facilitator and founder of Big Picture Solutions, about 100 of us went through an enthusiastic activity where Jeannel whipped off a series of nouns with only seconds between each one and we had to draw each one. No thinking - just draw it! A round of ten words coming almost as fast as those legalese voices at the end of commercials. Draw each one with large markers "Big Fat Lines for Big Fat Ideas".

There was a certain amount of squawking at first from those who really wanted to "think" - but Thinking Was Out, and Instinct Was In. Whatever you draw is good enough - tough for those who want to get it right. To realize there is no "right".

Which was part of the point. My gut level interpretation of "banana" is not necessarily your gut level interpretation of "banana"; nor the instinctive perception of "banana" held by someone who lives in the far reaches of the Arctic. And we know that much of human behavior comes from gut level rather than cognitive decision making.

The warm up round was comprised of relatively easy nouns: cloud, money, beer, banana, house, tree. Everyone put marker to sticky note and drew their 2 second bananas. And we put them up for all to see and discuss. Although one could justifiably claim that the following rounds of nouns were harder, e.g. "user; interaction; design; context; information; usable; innovation; perception; research; input" that would be too simplistic a conclusion.

At one point the guy next to me said "Are we being mono-culture?" - because so many people put up $ for "money" and no one made a peep about it. GOOD CALL! Yes, that indeed was part of the point, as, seconds later, Jeannel drew everyone's attention to the implicit and often unconscious assumptions we make. Even on the simple things. And if we want to talk to the world, how to guard against assumptions and inherent cultural perceptions?

All of which begs the question: Is there any such thing as a universal symbol? Pulling my investigative
journalist hat on snugly I set out to discover what the crowd thought about this.

The first two people definitively said "no". There can be no symbol which is universal. So I moved on.

The next person said "yes". They seemed surprised when I then asked for an example (you'd think someone would see that coming a mile away!). After the briefest of pauses: "The Play Button". I looked quizzical (so much for being the objective reporter) but they held their ground. Their conversation partner sensed where I was going and stepped in with "it depends upon your anthropological approach". I looked more quizzical, not wanting to let them off the hook just yet. So he said "It depends upon your ethnography".

The next person said "Yes" and "math is the same in every language". Someone else also played the math card and said "+ and - are the same in every language".

Really? Is that so? If one knows one's anthropology and has done some ethnography one might question the universality of math symbols. +, - or otherwise.

The next answer, one which I got from several people, was fun to think about: "Yes". "Guy and girl
bathroom pictures".  Are Universal.

Putting my quizzical expression back on (in the name of investigative journalism) an interesting introspective then took place in which the person started thinking aloud about pants, skirts, men with skirts, putting the same symbol on both doors, and transgender bathrooms with possible symbol (icon) complications. One then wonders: Would a sufficiently transgender icon lead to unisex bathrooms? Or to some people being able to choose either bathroom but others being restricted to one or the other? Would people spend so much time trying to decipher the icon that they would stand outside the bathroom doors puzzling until their bladder burst?

This, I believe, is really what our exercise last night was meant to encourage people to do - think about the meaning behind words, the symbols we choose to use for them, the context and the audience. Do so with some depth and question assumptions and the things we take for granted. If we want to be effective communicators that is.

But just in case you think the matter is settled, the last response I received may be one of the harder to parry. I popped the question about the possibility of a noun with a universal symbol and this person enthusiastically, hopped right over the "yes" part, and not waiting to be looked at quizzically, said "PENIS!".

I leave you to imagine the conversation that followed; and invite you to draw your own conclusion about the possible universality of a symbol for the "p" word.