More on Computer Science Education as a fundamentally challenging topic.

Homo sum, humani a me nihil alienum puto (I am a [human], nothing human is foreign to me)” , Terence, 163BC

While this is a majestic sentiment, we are constantly confronted by how many foreign ideas and concepts there are in our lives. In the educational field, Meyer and Land have identified threshold concepts as a set of concepts that are transformative once understood but troublesome and alien before they are comprehended. The existence of these, often counter-intuitive, concepts give the lie to Terence’s quote as it appears that certain concepts will be extremely foreign and hard to communicate or comprehend until we understand them. (I’ve discussed this before in my write-up of the ICER Keynote.)

“Terry” to his friends.

Reading across the fields of education, educational psychology and Computer Science education research, it rapidly becomes apparent that some ideas have been described repeatedly over decades, but have gained little traction. Dewey’s disgust at the prison-like school classroom was recorded in 1938, yet you can walk onto any campus in the world and find the same “cells”, arrayed in ranks. The lecture is still the dominant communication form in many institutions, despite research support for the far greater efficacy of different approaches. For example, the benefits of social constructivism, including the zone of proximal development, are well known and extensively studied, yet even where group work is employed, it is not necessarily designed or facilitated to provide the most effective outcomes. The majority of course design and implementation shows little influence of any of the research conducted in the last 20 years, let alone the cognitive development stages of Piaget, the reliance upon authority found in Perry or even the existence of threshold concepts themselves. Why?

From a personal perspective, I was almost completely ignorant of the theoretical underpinnings of educational practice until very recently and I still rate myself as a rank novice in the area. I write here to be informed, not to be seen as an expert, and I learn from thinking and writing about what I’m doing. I am also now heavily involved in a research group that focuses on this so I have the peer support and time to start learning in the fascinating area of Computer Science Education. Many people, however, do not, and it is easy to see why one would not confront or even question the orthodoxy when one is unaware of any other truth.

Of course, as we all know, it is far harder to see that anything needs fixing when, instead of considering that our approach may be wrong, we identify our students as the weak link in the chain. It’s easy to do and, because we are often not scrupulously scientific in our recollection of events (because we are human), our anecdotal evidence dominates our experience. “Good” students pass, “bad” students fail. If we then define a bad student as “someone who fails”, we have a neat (if circular) definition that shields us from any thoughts on changing what we do.

When I found out how much I had to learn, I initially felt very guilty about some of the crimes that I had perpetrated against my students in my ignorance. I had bribed them with marks, punished them for minor transgressions with no real basis, talked at them for 50 minutes and assumed that any who did not recall my words just weren’t paying attention. At the same time, I carried out my own tasks with no bribery, negotiated my own deadlines and conditions, and checked my mail whenever possible in any meetings in which I felt bored. The realisation that, even through ignorance and human frailty, you have let your students down is not a good feeling, especially when you realise that you have been a hypocrite.

I lament the active procrastinator, who does everything except the right work and thus fails anyway with a confused look on their face, and I feel a great sympathy for the caring educator who, through lack of exposure or training, has no idea that what they are doing is not the best thing for their students. This is especially true when the educators have been heavily acculturated by their elders and superiors, at a vulnerable developmental time, and now not only have to question their orthodoxy, they must challenge their mentors and friends.

Scholarship in Computer Science learning and teaching illuminates one’s teaching practice. Discovering tools, theories and methodologies that can explain the actions of our students is of great importance to the lecturer and transforms the way that one thinks about learning and teaching. But transformative and highly illuminative mechanisms often come at a substantial cost in terms of the learning curve and we believe that this explains why there is a great deal of resistance from those members of the community who have not yet embraced the scholarship of learning and teaching. Combine this with a culture where you may be telling esteemed and valued colleagues that they have been practising poorly for decades and the resistance becomes even more understandable. We must address the fact that resistance to acceptance in the field may stem from effects that we would carefully address in our students (their ongoing problems with threshold concepts) but that we expect our colleagues to just accept these alien, challenging and unsettling ideas merely because we are right.

The burden of proof does not, I believe, lie with us. We have 70 years of studies in education and over 100 years of study in work practices to establish the rightness of our view. However, I wonder how we can approach our colleagues who continue to question these strange, counter-inutitive and frightening new ideas and help them to understand and eventually adopt these new concepts?


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