Humans: We Appear To Be Stuck With Them

I’ve just presented a paper with the ‘lofty’ title of “Computer Science Education: The First Threshold Concept” and the fundamental question I ask is “Why are certain ideas in learning and teaching in Computer Science just not getting any traction?” I frame this in the language of Threshold Concepts, which allows us to talk about certain concepts as being far more threatening than others but far more useful when we accept them. It doesn’t really matter why we say that people aren’t accepting these things, the fact is that they aren’t. Is it because of authority issues, from Perry’s work, where people aren’t ready to accept more than one source of truth? Is it because of poor role management, which leads us to the work of Dickinson? Is it because many people struggle in the pre-operational stages of Neo-Piagetian theory and, even if they can realise some concrete goals, they can’t apply things to the abstract?

It doesn’t matter, really, because we all have colleagues who, on reading the above, would roll their eyes and reject the notion that this is even a valid language of discourse. Why, some will wonder, are we making it so hard when we talk about teaching – “I know how to teach, it’s just sometimes that the students aren’t working hard enough or smart enough”.  When I mentioned to a colleague that I was giving this paper, he said “Feeling sensitive, are you?” and what he meant was, possibly with a slightly malign edge, that I was taking all of this criticism personally.

Yes, well, probably I am, but let’s talk about why. It’s because it’s important that students are taught well. It’s because it’s important that students get the best opportunities. It’s important that my assumptions about the world, my presumptions of my own ability and that of my students, do not have a detrimental effect on the way that I do my job. I’m taking money to be a teacher, a researcher and an academic administrator – I should be providing real value for that money.

But I am not, by any stretch, the best ‘anything’ in the world. I am not the best teacher. I am not the best researcher. I am not the best speaker. If you are looking for an expert in this area, look elsewhere, because I am a tolerable channel for the works of much better scholars. And, yes, I’m sensitive about some of this because, like many people I speak to in this community, I’m getting tired of having good, solid, scientific work rejected because people feel threatened by it or are dismissive of it. I’m sick of rubbish statements like “we can’t tell people how to teach” because, well, yes, actually we can but it requires us to define what teaching quality is and what our learning environments should look like – what we are trying to do, what we actually do and what we should be doing. Lots of work has been done here, lots of work is yet to occur, and, let me be clear, I am not now, or ever, saying that the “Nick way” is the only way  or the desired way – I’m saying that the discussion is important and that we should be able to say what good teaching is and then we must require this.

In my talk, I mentioned the use of social capital – the investment into our social networks that leads to real and future benefits – and how we spend a lot of time on bonding but too little time on bridging. In other words, we don’t have great ways to reach out and we miss opportunities but, a lot of the time, once we bring someone into the educational community, we can build those relationships. Unfortunately, this is not always true and politics, the curse of academia, too often raises its ugly head and provides too many possible venues, or excludes people, or drives wedges between the community when we should be bonding. I was saddened to discover that politics was traipsing around my current activity, as I was hoping that this would be a launchpad for more and more collaborative work – now we are in the middle of a field of politics.


So much energy – so much lost opportunity unless we use that energy to connect, build and work together. It’s not as if we don’t have enough people saying “Why are you bothering with that? I don’t see the need therefore it’s not important.” But this is humans, after all. My paper opened with a quote from Terence in 163BC,

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

and I then proceeded to shoot this down because threshold concept theory says that one of our key problems is that so much is foreign to us that, unless we recognise this, we are in trouble. However, some things are horribly familiar to us and the unpleasantries of academic politics are one that is not foreign to anyone who has spent more than a couple of years post-PhD.

When I looked at the recent ACM/IEEE Curriculum, the obvious omission was any real attempt to provide a grounding for pedagogy in the document. Hundreds, if not thousands, of concepts were presented with hours attached to them as if this was a formal scientific statement of actual time required to achieve the task. I see this as a wasted bridging opportunity to share, with everyone who reads that document, the idea that certain ideas are trickier, however we frame that statement. If we say “You might have some trouble with this”, we give agency to teachers to think about how they prepare and we also give them a licence to struggle with it, without being worried that they are fundamentally flawed as teachers. If we say “Students may find this challenging”, then the teachers can understand that they do not have a class of bad or lazy students, they have a class of humans because some things are harder to learn than others.

My point from the talk was that, however we slice it, we are fighting an uphill battle and need to focus on bringing in more and more people, which means focusing on bridging rather than division and, where possible, bridging with the same vigour as we bond with our current friends and colleagues. As for politics, it will always be with us, so I suppose the question now is how much energy we give to that, when we could be giving it to to bridging in new people and consolidating our bridges with other people? Bridges are fundamentally hard to build, because it’s so easy for them to fall down, and that’s why the maintenance, the bonding energy, is so important.

I don’t have a solid answer to this but I hope that someone else has some good ideas and feels like sharing them.

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