There is an interesting conversation going on in the comments of Mark Guzdial’s blog that I wanted to engage in a small part of that conversation in more depth than what fits in a comment. It started with a comment by Erik Engbrecht that reads in part:
Boring a potentially great student is a greater crime than failing a mediocre one who could have made it through.
Mark Guzdial replied in part:
I feel *exactly* the opposite of that! It’s not hard to educate the great students — they’ll learn no matter what I do, and they tend to challenge themselves with their own projects and interests.
The comment “they’ll learn no matter what I do” concerns me. It may be true for college students (and is highly likely for the sort of students who go to Georgia Tech) but too often it’s not the case in high school and younger students. The information I heard at a workshop some years ago is that some 50% of drop outs are gifted students. Boredom is a huge problem for bright students before college. We lose a lot of students with great potential because they are bored and/or not challenged. This is a horrible loss for them and for society.
Younger students don’t often have the resources or the base knowledge to create their own projects for learning. Now some do and do it well. I’ve run into some students as young as middle school who have done some very creative projects all on their own. They are self motivated, one might say driven, and very creative. But they are also exceptional. Generally even the potentially great students need some help and focus. They need some help to get started and to help them get some resources. I like to call these the “point them in a direction and get out of the way” students.
I don’t think that losing the potentially great student is necessarily a greater crime than failing a mediocre student. I think they’re both bad. Good teachers find a way to help both kinds of students because we really can’t afford to leave anyone behind these days. Of course differentiated instruction is not a term that one hears that often in higher education. In middle and high school though it is something that has become engrained into the better performing schools and educational programs.
Of course in some high school computer science programs this gets taken to a bit of an extreme with several levels of computer science courses being taught in the same room by the same teacher at the same time. I’m constantly amazed at how well so many teachers handle this sort of thing.
We’re lucky in the area of computer science that there are more and more free tools and resources for students to advance on their own though. For example the Dreamspark program from Microsoft offers professional grade software to students who can use it for their own projects. For university students world wide the Imagine Cup competition provides an outlet for creative learning projects for university students. And of course there are many more resources and competitions available from other companies and organizations. I try to link to many of them from this blog when I can BTW.
A couple of other sites I recommend for the “point them in a direction and get out of the way” students are the Beginning Developer Learning Center and Coding 4 Fun. The first for learning resources and the second for projects to tickle the imagination and suggest interesting learning projects. If a student is too quick, too driven, too something for the pace of the course point them somewhere helpful and get out of the way. But hang around in case they need more pointers along the way. We don’t want them to get needlessly frustrated and turned off.