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C'est la Z

Preparing CS teachers - Curricula don't add richness, teachers do

I've frequently been asked for curricula. I'll hear from a school or someone otherwise involved in a school or education and they'll ask for a course they can drop in and teach.

I explain it doesn't work that way. A syllabus or curriculum is only so good. A great curriculum with a bad teacher will still be bad but a great teacher can do a lot to salvage a horrible curriculum.

A curriculum only goes so far. At it's most sparse, it's a list of topics. At the other end we frequently see worked out prescribed lessons that can be a boon to a beginner but in the end constrains great teachers.

As a side note, this was something I noticed years ago when touring elementary schools for my own children. We saw one school where everything was in lockstep - every classroom looked basically the same. Every teacher taught the same subject at the same time as every other teacher each day and what they taught and how they taught it was tightly controlled. We opted for a school where the teachers were much more free to actually teach. The school in question was well regarded and the more we dug in the more we realized that the strictness the principal imposed helped bring the bad teachers up to a certain level and got most students through the standardized tests but there was no joy. Great teachers weren't allowed to teach. It was a perfect example of a Bloomberg era stat mill.

Anyway back to CS.

I was thinking about this while we watched the summer cohort's topic presentations. Three of the topics were ones that I teach annually - AI Search, NLP, and Cipher decryption. Some of the others I'm planning on mixing in next year. The presentations and supporting materials were all terrific but in every case, the teachers chose to spin and emphasize aspects different to those I would emphasize.

In the case of the cipher decryption lesson, the cohort emphasized the machine learning type aspect. I spin the lesson more towards a recommender system. Neither is better or worse. My guess is that we each selected aspects that were exciting to us and riffed on those. Similarly the other groups brought up nuances and emphases that differed from mine.

It was terrific.

If you look at a syllabus, the search topic might just say "Depth First Search." It might be in the recursion section of the class and thus lead you to teaching a recursive solution or it might be in the data structure / stack section and lead you to implement your own stack. If the curriculum is fleshed out it'll give more specifics but will it talk about states and state space? How about implicit data structures?

There's so much richness to a well taught course that's never captured by a curriculum and that includes tangents, side stories and limitless discoveries.

When I talk to my students decades later it's usually not those lines on the syllabus they remember but the richness that lives in the ether of a well taught class.

So cool that our certification program created an environment where we've been able to mix the spices from so many different chefs and each of us is leaving with something new and richer.

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