No Subject Is Boring With The Right Teacher

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.

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. 🙂

Comments (5)

  1. dougpete says:

    You should stay up and blog in the middle of the night more often, Alfred.  What a great post.  You inspired my entry this morning on my own blog.  I like you insight into the need for research about how to teach Computer Science.  Only when happens will a more mass appeal occur and CS becomes the serious discipline in K-12 that it needs to be.  Way to go.

  2. Garth says:

    I just read Mort Zuckerman’s article.  Talk about poking an ant hill with a stick!  He must have gotten his education from one of those bottom third teachers.

    Who is teaching teachers to teach computer science?  I cannot find a school that is.  I have been taught by computer scientists.  None of them could teach a duck how to float.  I remember taking a math class from one of the most brilliant mathematicians in the nation (from what I was told).  He was “The Man” in the field of category theory.   All his ducks drowned.   In all the CS courses I have taken teaching was not the instructors field, they were in the CS department to be Computer Scientists, not teachers and it showed.

  3. alvick2009 says:

    I think this was a great article.  I agree that there needs to be the right teachers with the right enthusiasm.

    I know that when I was in High School, I had quite a few teachers that were just SO boring to listen to, and it didn’t even seem like they liked what they were teaching, so I completely agree that if a teacher shows enthusiasm and interest, maybe a student will!

    Great article!

  4. Myra Deister says:

    I agree that the teacher can make the class more interesting, but the students have to be willing to put in some effort.  This school year has been very frustrating for me.  I told my Assistant Principal that in my math class I am working harder teaching the concepts – hands on, software demos, graphic organizers, history, etc. and the students are just not achieving.  They don’t think studying is important.  They expect me to do all of the reviewing for them.  One student had not completed one assignment for 3 weeks.  When I asked her why, she replied that it was too hard!  This is in a trig class and she expects to take calculus next year.  I wonder what she will think of calculus.

    I also seem to have the same reaction to my CS class. Just before the AP test I asked some students what type of data a method returned (the code was in front of them) and they couldn’t tell me.  However, they were more than willing to copy code, etc. from their friends without considering the consequences. I have decided to take a more structured approach to my CS class next year.  First by requiring the students take notes and grading them.  I never thought I would have to do that in an A.P., but it seems to have come to that.  

    I agree that with the right teacher no subject is boring, but the student needs to put forth effort to be successful.  

  5. Chris says:

    Teaching is the nice profession but there is starting online teaching is makes a new way to teach students.Computer science is the best subject to understand computer easily.But there is difficult to find a good computer teacher.

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