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C'est la Z

Preparing CS Teachers - what to leave in, what to leave out

Teachers always make decisions in their courses - what to leave in, what to leave out. I've seen programming and data structure classes where everything is written from scratch and others where a few things are explained and the students just use built in types like the java LinkedList or Arrays.sort() method.

Do too much from scratch and you'll never finish the curriculum. Do to little and the students won't really understand what's going on and walk a path towards being programmers or coders rather than computer scientists. Most teachers work somewhere between the extremes.

We not only had to make these decisions for our CS content but also for our methods. We decided to leave out two particular methods that are very popular - pair programming and Parsons problems. We did mention both in passing and did a little talk on pair programming but the treatment was far less than say live coding, subgoal labeling or the many other teaching techniques we decided to explicitly cover.

Why did we leave out these two topics?

Partly pragmatism and pragmatism is something that's always left out when talking about teaching. Let's look at Parsons problems. If you're unfamiliar with them, they're basically scrambled code fragments. Students have to put them in order. They're cool puzzles and a nice change of pace. but you have to create them and get them to your students. That didn't fit all that well with us. By the time we got to content that would benefit from Parsons problems our pace or approach didn't really fit using them. It's also worth noting that we haven't seen any good online Parson problem generator systems which would be both a boon to problem creation and potentially distribution and assessment.

There just wasn't that much bang for the buck in giving them more than lip service. Since our cohort was composed of experienced teachers, we were confident that they can find the appropriate Parsons problems resources and use them where appropriate in their classes.

On pair programming we had similar pragmatic issues - it didn't fit all that well given how tight the program was and we had to figure out how bet to do it remotely on the fly. We also knew that the cohort had all been to at least some NYC CS4All training and so were at least exposed to the idea. Still, we, or more accurately, Topher, who's had great success getting student buy in did do a brief talk on the subject. Some of the things we covered were:

  • How to motivate pair programming in a collaborative way
  • What activities can you give the navigator while the driver's setting up the environment to involve them.
  • How in the "real world" some developers love PP and some hate it and that there are many variations on the theme.
  • You'd not always going to get student buy in.

That last point is very important. Teachers are going to try things that don't always work and unfortunately, the system of evaluation doesn't promote such necessary experimentation. What's more every time you go to a professional development or training session or head something online it's about how the presented did it and it worked perfectly and if you follow the same recipe it'll work for you. It might, but then, it might not. It's all about building the toolbox of tricks and using them when appropriate and even then, not every lesson is going to be John Keating or Jaime Escalante on the big screen.

So, in the end we made choices. We're they the right ones? I think so. Next time around the cohort will be different and the circumstances a little as well. Will we make the same choices? Maybe, we'll have to wait and see.

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