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C'est la Z

From Scripts To Freestyle

I just read this post by Bethany Crystal - Going off script.

Bethany writes that while she normally essentially scripts important presentations, this time she went more off the cuff.

It made me think about how I teach and a disturbing trend I've seen in CS education and education in general.

I've never strictly used a script for teaching. When I started I did use very detailed lesson plans. Back then I was teaching math. It was also pre internet or at least pre internet as we now know it. I had an account on Panix and the internet did indeed exist but you couldn't just look for teaching materials. I actually remember bringing a modem in to Seward Park one day and showing a bunch of kids this up and coming thing called the internet. I showed them usernet news, a gopher server and a couple of other things.

In terms of teaching materials, you could buy sample lesson plans from the teacher store near the Board of Ed in Brooklyn. These were books that were compilations of mostly handwritten lessons.

I basically copied and modified them. I had an aim, a do now key questions were written as were definitions and summary statements. Of course there were numerous sample problems and exercises, all worked out in advance. It wasn't quite a script but it was a very well fleshed out guide

As I gained experience and also shifted from math which wasn't my passion to CS, my plans become sparser. I'd still write down definitions, maybe some solutions and a list of key points but a lot of the particulars were gone. I didn't write out key questions or solutions to all the problems in advance.

As time went by the plans got sparser still. I'd still list the key points I'd want to cover as well as notes on tricky parts of the lesson but more often than not I'll just go in with a bullet list.

Here's my plan for a recent lesson:

  • Go over cipher soution
  • How to we solve if already ciphered?
  • Rotate 26 times.
  • What about using stats
  • Frequency of letters - look up
  • Find freq of letter in string then use distance formula against model
  • Get frequencies from a book
  • try it in another language

We didn't get to the last two bullet items so that's where we'll start off on Monday. This plan was all I needed but it in no way tells the full story of the lesson to anyone but me. It doesn't include the motivation, ancillary stories and materials nor how the lesson was developed or delivered. I knew how it would play out because I was teaching it and for me these notes were more than sufficient.

All this is not to say that I don't spend a lot of time planning my lessons. I do. I just don't create detailed scripts. I know what I want to cover and how I want to cover it. Then it's just got to the class and go.

A big advantage of this is something that Bethany mentioned in her piece - the ability to "read the room." This is a big part of teaching. If you're following a script, you're not reading the room and you're probably not really teaching the class. You might be following a script but your students certainly aren't and once they veer off program you've got to abandon your script or you're not doing right by the class.

Having a direction but not a script makes it easier to "call and audible." That's what led me to teach the question answering system lesson the other day. It was unplanned but as a class we were having a discussion and that's where it led.

As I mentioned, when I started out I couldn't do this. I needed much more detailed plans. That said, as a teacher gains more experience they can better connect to their classes and do more for their students by not sticking to the script, reading the room and adapting.

This brings me to that trend that disturbing trend. I'm talking about pushing scripted lessons. These crop up in charter schools and no excuse environments and are typically used as ways of "compensating" for teachers that don't really know the subject area or how to teach and to standardize teaching. To me it's an attack on the teaching profession. A script is great for a play. It's great for a speech and for some presentations but not for teaching.

I understand having something that's more scripted to use when you're faced with novice teachers or teachers that are new to a subject area but I fear that at times the scripted lessons are the end game.

I was talking to a friend a few years ago. He's doing great work in the CS Ed space and among other things, he develops curricula. I mentioned to him that I loved his work (still do) but I was concerned that his materials were becoming much more scripted. His reply was something like "I agree with you in theory but the truth is most teachers aren't you." I understood his point as most of the teachers that used his materials were novices but I disagreed that they were "not me." I'm nothing special. I'm just a reasonably bright guy who works hard at his craft. If I can teach script free so can anyone. Maybe not at first, but certainly after time and we subvert our profession by settling for less.

As a final note, at this point in my career I actually find it very hard to use a script - even for a presentation. Over the last couple of years, I've been spending my Falls visiting high schools to talk about Hunter's Honors CS program. As much as I tried, I couldn't script a presentation. No matter what I did, when I got in front of the students I just ended up doing my thing and talking to them. At the end of the day I ended up working things backwards. Over my first few school visits, I developed a set of key points that I kept coming back to and finally ended up with a list of bullet points that I can pretty much follow when I do the "navigating from high school to college in tech" talk. I guess I'm now working in reverse. Starting free style and working back to a script.

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