ICER 2012: Day 0 (Workshops)

Well, it’s Sunday so it must be New Zealand (or at least it was Sunday yesterday). I attended that rarest of workshops, one where every session was interesting and made me think – a very good sign for the conference to come.

We started with an on-line workshop on Bloom’s taxonomy, classifying exam questions, with Raymond Lister from UTS. One of the best things about this for me was the discussion about the questions where we disagreed: is this application or synthesis? It really made me think about how I write my examinations and how they could be read.

We then segued into a fascinating discussion of neo-Piagetian theory, where we see the development stages that we usually associate with children in adults as they learn new areas of knowledge. In (very rough) detail, we look at whether we have enough working memory to carry out a task and, if not, weird things happen.

Students can indulge in some weird behaviours when they don’t understand what’s going on. For example, permutation programming, where they just type semi-randomly until their program compiles or works. Other examples include shotgun debugging and voodoo programming and what these amount to are the student not having a good consistent model of what works and, as a result, they are basically dabbling in a semi-magic approach.

My notes from the session contain this following excerpt:

“Bizarro” novice programmer behaviours are actually normal stages of intellectual development.
Accept this and then work with this to find ways of moving students from pre-op, to concrete op, to formal operational. Don’t forget the evaluation. Must scaffold this process!

What this translates to is that the strange things we see are just indications that students having moved to what we would normally associate with an ‘adult’ (formal operational) understanding of the area. This shoots several holes in the old “You’re born a programmer” fallacy. Those students who are more able early may just have moved through the stages more quickly.

There was also an amount of derisive description of folk pedagogy, those theories that arise during pontification in the tea room, with no basis in educational theory or formed from a truly empirical study. Yet these folk pedagogies are very hard to shake and are one of the most frustrating things to deal with if you are in educational research. One “I don’t think so” can apparently ignore the 70 years since Dewey called the classrooms prisons.

The worst thought is that, if we’re not trying to help the students to transition, then maybe the transition to concrete operation is happening despite us instead of because of us, which is a sobering thought.

I thought that Ray Lister finished the session with really good thought regarding why students struggle sometimes:

The problem is not a student’s swimming skill, it’s the strength of the torrent.

As I’ve said before, making hard things easier to understand is part of the job of the educator. Anyone will fail, regardless of their ability, if we make it hard enough for them.


One Comment on “ICER 2012: Day 0 (Workshops)”

  1. […] have many different ways of understanding exactly how we are assessing knowledge. Bloom’s taxonomy allows us to classify the objectives that we set for students, in that we can determine if […]

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