In between trips to stores and working on the yard and cooking on the grill and yes even remembering those people who have fought and died for this country I spent a lot of free cycles thinking about teaching this week end. NSF wants to have 10,000 teachers teaching real computer science courses in the next few years. Great goal. But when I hear students talk about computer science they use words like “hard” and “boring.” These are not the sort of things that attract students. So I ask myself “is computer science hard and or boring?” And the obvious answer is not to me its not. But as my son regular reminds me I tend to look at things differently. So I think about the role of the teacher in all of this.
Some years ago one of my former students paid me a huge compliment. He said that what he enjoyed was not so much learning computer science but learning computer science from me. It made my day as you might imagine. But at the same time it concerned me. I’ve seen students get excited about a subject because of a good teacher and I’ve seen students get turned off from a subject because of a poor teacher. So what then for computer science?
Can we train enough teachers to teach computer science? Probably but it’s not an easy thing. And even then is giving them the base knowledge (say more than a chapter ahead of students) enough for success? Anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. OK there are some crazy good teachers who can teach anything, get students involved, make learning fun and all but walk on water. I don’t think I’m one of them. How many do you know? And can we get them to teach computer science? More common are stories of people drafted to teach computer science to fill up their contract or fill a need that no one else can or will fill and who share their lack of enthusiasm with their students.
So what than can we do? There was a recent article by Mortimer Zuckerman in US New & World Reports and a Bill Gates’ TED talk where they talk about quality teachers and point out that individual teachers make a huge difference. They go on to say that we should take advantage of those teachers.
Now a lot of teachers don’t like either of these position statements. The Gates talk has taken a lot of flack from teachers and people in education for example. Gates and Zuckerman dare to point out that all teachers are not of the same high caliber. That is something approaching blasphemy in the education world. Well, when it comes from people who are not teachers that is. Teachers in the privacy of the teacher’s lounge will complain bitterly about other teachers who are doing a poor job. I’ve heard it myself time and again.
So even if you don’t want to admit it there are teachers who could use some help. And some students who could benefit from a teacher with a bit more knowledge and a bit more enthusiasm for the subject. But how to make that happen?
Both Gates and Zuckerman suggest that there is a role that technology can play here. Video conferencing is one way. There are a lot of guest visits going on via Skype and that might be helpful. Perhaps we could get more outstanding lectures and demos on video so that they can be shown to more students. Perhaps we can get some online support groups (wikis perhaps or maybe online chat rooms) to get students assistance in ways that work for them. There are creative teachers in all disciplines doing great things with web 2.0 tools and we can learn from them.
And maybe we would be better off if it were easier for second career professionals to move into teaching. Some changes to certification requirements perhaps. Or perhaps some financial aid for people making the transition – income while taking certification courses perhaps. There have been industry plans from such companies as IBM and DEC in years past. Perhaps some of today’s high tech firms could invest in education in that way again.
And we need to address the “hard” part of computer science. Is it really hard to learn or are we just teaching it poorly? We have far too little investment in computer science education research. A faculty member in a computer science department can’t get tenure (or so I am told) by doing research in CS education. Education departments seem either uninterested or unable to do the research in their departments. Some universities with both education and CS departments need to invest in our future by taking this on jointly. Perhaps NSF has funds for this? If not they should. And universities will have to reward this work with tenure too!
Above all I think that any subject is interesting if taught by the right teacher and any subject is learnable with the right individualized attention to learning styles. We can do it. We just need the will to make is so.
Note that enthusiasm and fun in teaching seems to be a recurring thought for me. A couple of previous posts for example.
- Loving What You Teach
- We are not here to entertain, but to teach
- Fun or Serious Learning – Why not both?
- The Language is NOT the Important Thing
And on the topic of “hard” see Is science too hard or are other courses too easy?
Note: It bares repeating that these are my personal opinions and not official or policy or representation of any other individual, company or organization. Also I wrote this at 1AM for what ever that may mean. 🙂