Polymaths, Philomaths and Teaching Philosophy: Why we can’t have the first without the second, and the second should be the goal of the third.

You may have heard the term polymath, a person who possesses knowledge across multiple fields, or if you’re particularly unlucky, you’ve been at one of those cocktail parties where someone hands you a business card that says, simply, “Firstname Surname, Polymath” and you have formed a very interesting idea of what a polymath is.  We normally reserve this term for people who excel across multiple fields such as, to drawn examples from this Harvard Business Review blog by Kyle Wiens, Leonard da Vinci (artist and inventor), Benjamin Franklin, Paul Robeson or Steve Jobs. (Let me start to address the article’s gender imbalance with Hypatia of Alexandria, Natalie Portman, Maya Angelou and Mayim Bialik, to name a small group of multidisciplinary women, admittedly focussing on the Erdös-Bacon intersection.) By focusing on those who excel, we do automatically associate a higher degree of assumed depth of knowledge across these multiple fields. The term “Renaissance [person]” is often bandied about as well.

Da Vinci, seen here inventing the cell phone. Sadly, it was to be over 500 years before the cell phone tower was invented so he never received a call. His monthly bill was still enormous.

Now, I have worked as a system administrator and programmer, a winemaker and I’m now an academic in Computer Science, being slowly migrated into some aspects of managerialism, who hopes shortly to start a PhD in Creative Writing. Do I consider myself to be a polymath? No, absolutely not, and I struggle to think of anyone who would think of me that way, either. I have a lot of interests but, while I have had different areas of expertise over the years, I’ve never managed the assumed highly parallel nature of expertise that would be required to be considered a polymath, of any standing. I have academic recognition of some of these interests but this changes neither the value (to me or others) nor has it ever been required to be well-lettered to be in the group mentioned above.

I describe myself, if I have to, as a philomath, someone who is a lover of learning. (For both of the words, the math suffix comes from the Greek and means to learn, but poly means much/many and philo means lovingso a polymath is ‘many learnéd’.) The immediate pejorative for someone who leans lots of things across areas is the infamous “Jack of all trades” and its companion “master of none”. I love to learn new things, I like studying but I also like applying it. I am confident that the time I spent in each discipline was valuable and that I knew my stuff. However, the main point I’d like to state here is that you cannot be a polymath without first having been a philomath – I don’t see how you can develop good depth in many areas unless you have a genuine love of learning. So every polymath was first a philomath.

Now let’s talk about my students. If they are at all interested in anything I’m teaching them, and let’s assume that at least some of them love various parts of a course at some stage, then they are looking to develop more knowledge in one area of learning. However, looking at my students as mono-cultural beings who only exist when they are studying, say, the use of the linked list in programming, is to sell them very, very short indeed. My students love doing a wide range of things. Yes, those who love learning in my higher educational context will probably do better but I guarantee you that every single student you have loves doing something, and most likely that’s more than one thing! So every single one of my students is inherently a philomath – but the problems arise when what they love to learn is not what I want to teach!

This leads me to the philosophy of learning and teaching, how we frame, study and solve the problems of trying to construct knowledge and transform it to allow its successful transfer to other people, as well as how we prepare students to receive, use and develop it. It makes sense that the state that we wish to develop on our students is philomathy. Students are already learning from, interested and loving their lives and the important affairs of the world as they see them, so to get them interested in what we want to teach them requires us to acknowledge that we are only one part of their lives. I rarely meet a student who cannot provide a deep, accurate and informative discourse on something in their lives. If we accept this then, rather than demanding an unnatural automaton who rewrites their entire being to only accept our words on some sort of diabolical Turing Tape of compliance, we now have a much easier path, in some respects, because accepting this means that our students will spend time on something in the depth that we want – it is now a matter of finding out how to tap into this. At this point, the yellow rag of populism is often raised, unfairly in most cases, because it is assumed that students will only study things which are ‘pop’ or ‘easy’. There is nothing ‘easy’ about most of the pastimes at which our students excel and they will expend vast amount of efforts on tasks if they can see a clear reason to do so, it appears to be a fair return on investment, and they feel that they have reasonable autonomy in the process. Most of my students work harder for themselves than they ever will for me: all I do is provide a framework that allows them to achieve something and this, in turn, allows them to develop a love. Once the love has been generated, the philomathic wheel turns and knowledge (most of the time) develops.

Whether you agree on the nature of the tasks or not, I hope that you can see why the love of learning should be a core focus of our philosophy. Our students should engage because they want to and not just because we force them to do so. Only one of these approaches will persist when you remove the rewards and the punishments and, while Skinner may disagree, we appear to be more than rats, especially when we engage our delightfully odd brains to try and solve tasks that are not simply rote learned. Inspiring the love of learning in any one of our disciplines puts a student on the philomathic path but this requires us to accept that their love of learning may have manifested in many other areas, that may be confusedly described as without worth, and that all we are doing is to try and get them to bring their love to something that will be of benefit to them in their studies and, assuming we’ve set the course up correctly, their lives in our profession.

Sources of Knowledge: Stickiness and the Chasm Between Theory and Practice.

Like all sources, it helps to know the origin and the purity.

My head is still full of my current crop of research papers and, while I can’t go into details, I can discuss something that I’m noticing more and more as I read into the area of Computer Science Education. Firstly, how much I have left to learn and, secondly, how difficult it is sometimes to track down ideas and establish novelty, provenance and worth. I read Mark Guzdial’s blog a lot because Mark has spent a lot of time being very clever in this area (Sorry, Mark, it’s true) but he is also an excellent connecter of the reader to good sources of information, as well as reminding us when something pops up that is effectively a rehash of an old idea. This level of knowledge and ability to discuss ideas is handy when we keep seeing some of the same old ideas pop up, from one source or another, over time. I’ve spoken before about how the development of the mass-accessible library didn’t end the importance of the University or school, and Mark makes a similar note in a recent post on MOOCs when he points us to an article on mail delivery lessons from a hundred years before and how this didn’t lead to the dissolution of the education system. Face-to-face continues to be important, as do bricks and mortar, so while the MOOC is a fascinating new tool and methodology with great promise, the predicted demise of the school and college may (once again) turn out to be premature.

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”, you’ll be familiar with the notion that ideas need to have certain characteristics, and certain human agents, before they become truly persuasive and widely adopted. If you’ve read Dawkin’s “Selfish Gene” (published over a decade before) then you’ll understand that Gladwell’s book would be stronger if it recognised a debt to Dawkins’ coining of the term meme, for self-replicating beliefs and behaviours. Gladwell’s book, as a source, is a fairly unscientific restatement of some existing ideas with a useful narrative structure, despite depending on some now questionable case studies. In many ways, it is an example of itself because Gladwell turned existing published information into a form where, with his own additions, he has identified a useful way to discuss certain systems of behaviour. Better still, people do (still) read it.

(A quick use of Google Trends shows me that people search for “The Tipping Point” roughly twice as much as “The Selfish Gene” but for “Richard Dawkins” twice as much as “Malcolm Gladwell”. Given Dawkins’ very high profile in belligerent atheism, this is not overly surprising.)

Gladwell identified the following three rules of epidemics (in terms of the spread of ideas):

  1. The Law of the Few: There are a small group of people who make a big difference to the proliferation of an idea. The mavens accumulate knowledge and know a lot about the area. The connectors are the gregarious and sociable people who know a lot of other people and, in Gladwell’s words, “have a gift for bringing the word together”. The final type of people are salespeople or (more palatably) persuaders, the people who convince us that something is a good idea. Gladwell’s thesis is that it is not just about the message, but that the messenger matters.
  2. The Stickiness Factor: Ideas have to be memorable in order to spread effectively so there is something about the specific content of the message that will determine its impact. Content matters.
  3. The Power of Context: We are all heavily influenced by and sensitive to our environment. Context matters.

Dawkins’ meme is a very sticky idea and, while there’s a lot of discussion about the Selfish Gene, we now have the field of memetics and the fact that the word ‘meme’ is used (almost correctly) thousands, if not millions, of times a day. Every time that you’ve seen a prawn running on a treadmill while Yakity Sax plays, you can think of Richard Dawkins and thank him for giving you a word to describe this.

My early impressions of some of the problem with the representation of earlier ideas in CS Ed, as if they are new, makes me wonder if there is a fundamental problem with the stickiness of some of these ideas. I would argue that the most successful educational researchers, and I’ve had the privilege to see some of them, are in fact strong combinations of Gladwell’s few. Academics must be, by definition, mavens, information specialists in our domains. We must be able to reach out to our communities and spread our knowledge – is this enough for us to be called connectors? We have to survive peer review, formal discussions and criticism and we have to be able to argue our ideas, on the reasonable understanding that it is our ideas and not ourselves that is potentially at fault. Does this also make us persuaders? If we can find all of these “few” in our community, and we already a community of the few, where does it leave us in terms of explaining why we, in at least some areas, keep rehashing the same old ideas. Do we fail to appreciate the context of those colleagues we seek to reach or are our ideas just not sticky enough? (Context is crucial here, in my opinion, because it is very easy to to explain a new idea in a way that effectively says “You’ve been doing it wrong all these years. Now fix it or you’re a bad person.” This is going to create a hostile environment. Once again, context matters but this time it is in terms of establishing context.)

I wonder if this is compounded in Computer Science by the ability to separate theory from practice, and to draw in new practice from both an educational research focus and an industrial focus? To explain why teamwork actually works, we move into social constructivism and to Vygotsky, via Ben-Ari in many cases, Bandura, cognitive apprenticeship – that’s an educational research focus. To say that teamwork works, because we’ve got some good results from industry and we’re supported by figures such as Brooks, Boehm and Humphrey and their case studies in large-scale development – that’s an industrial focus. The practice of teamwork is sticky, that ship has sailed in software development, but does the stickiness of the practice transfer to the stickiness of the underlying why? The answer, I believe, is ‘no’ and I’m beginning to wonder if a very sticky “what” is actually acting against the stickiness of the “why”. Why ask “why?” when you know that it works? This seems to be a running together of the importance of stickiness and the environment of the CS Ed researcher as a theoretical educationalist, working in a field that has a strong industrial focus, with practitioner feedback and accreditation demands pushing a large stream of “what do to”.

It has been a thoughtful week and, once again, I admit my novice status here. Is this the real problem? If so, how can we fix it?


Beautiful Corrections

(Sorry about the delay in today’s post. Yesterday afternoon, I took an early minute, and my wife and I went to view Australian Aboriginal art at the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide, had a drink in a pub and then had a long and relaxing dinner at a local ethically-sourced Italian restaurant with a wickedly good pizza oven and a great Langhe Nebbiolo. This didn’t leave much time for blogging. Work/life balance-wise, however, it was a winner.)

Yesterday, I referred to an article on New Dorp high school and I wanted to bring out one of the other things that I really liked about their approach to a ‘get the kids writing’ program. As the article says, thinking, reading and speaking are all interconnected and are reinforced through sound instruction in good writing. This immediately leads to the conclusion that teaching people to write is going to lead to improvements across the board and, as a Probationary-plated social constructivist, I immediately think about constructive interaction between students based on great confidence in speaking, fuelled through a greater depth of understanding and ability to express your ideas.

The article discusses this, because classroom discussion became an opportunity for students to listen, think and be more precise in the way that they discussed their ideas. This can be a trap, as most educators know far too well, if students feel that they have to say something rather than that they have to say something that they can defend, explain or shows signs of reflection. (We see this in writing, too. “What I did on my holiday” is a relatively unassailable personal anecdote with no great guarantee of depth or need for defensible statement, yet “What was the most useful thing that you did on your holiday?” requires thought, comparison, reflection and review. To a degree, obviously. I’m not going to start early writers on a detailed comparison of Yves Klein blue and its apparent lifting from Picasso…)

It is very easy to take classroom discussion in the wrong way. You don’t always have to be cheerleadingly positive (warning: not a real adjective), but framing a critique or a question makes a big difference when you want to encourage discussion and build confidence. That’s why I like what I’m reading about in New Dorp (and I’ve seen elsewhere to a lesser degree), in that the students have a poster at the from of the class that lists ways to respond. For example:

  • I agree/disagree with ___ because …
  • I have a different opinion …
  • I have something to add …
  • Can you explain your answer?
  • I agree with ___ but I disagree with your conclusion (because) …

This is a far cry from the passive responses to a tired questioning approach of “Now, hands up if you think that John is correct”. With this framing, students are encouraged to contribute, contest and expand, but using a formal approach to the argument that reduces dependency upon ad homimen or genetic fallacy issues: we have to address what was said rather than the person or the group that it came from. It’s very easy to say “You’re wrong” or “That’s stupid” and it’s an easy answer that completely undermines what the faculty at New Dorp are trying to achieve.

It’s easy to see how this approach is useful in the higher educational sphere, especially once we get into student-based activities, because we can’t always be the facilitators ourselves, so the training of our sessional staff becomes crucial. One challenge for our sessional staff is how to respond to questions without ending up giving the answer away immediately or doing the work for the student. We expend a lot of time on training (Katrina does a great deal of work in this area) and this simple set of guiding questions and framing, as a training device for our staff as well as a template for our students, will allow us to keep the important lessons fresh and in everyone’s mind. We focus a lot on Contributing Student Pedagogy (CSP), a pedagogy that encourages students to contribute to other students’ learning, including valuing other contributions, generally using a high degree of role flexibility (sometimes you lead, sometimes you support and sometimes you organise, for example). We have a paper in the upcoming special issue of Computer Science Education on CSP, where we talk about this at length, but a simple semi-formal structuring of questions to assist people in thinking about how they are about to contribute or evaluate someone else’s contribution is a valuable component of this kind of approach.

To return to what New Dorp is attempting to do, these questions encourage all participants to think about the why and the because and how their contribution will work in with what has already been said. However, and this is non-trivial, having a semi-scripted start to a response also encourages the correct use of language, familiarity with key phrases and the correct use of modifiers and conjunctions. One of the issues identified at New Dorp was that poor writers couldn’t pull a U-turn in a sentence with much success. Although, despite, and words like that were effectively a mystery – sentences had to be artificially short, tightly focussed and lacking in complexity. Such a limitation greatly limits the degree of expressiveness available to the writer. Sentences don’t have to be long, but they have to be long enough. Sentences don’t have to contain long words, but they have to contain the right words. Ideas need to be expressed in a way that makes them easy to understand but this requires practice, practice and even more practice.

The script on the poster at the front is not a rigid proscription. The poster doesn’t say “Explain the use of adjectives in the sentence.” Instead, it provides a hook that a student can hang their own ideas upon, the leading sentence that starts the invasion of text into the bleak white space of a new page. It encourages discussion, support, interaction and the development of thought.

It appears that New Dorp’s approach is working. Students are improving. Students can write. Students can communicate their thoughts to other people successfully. They can use language. What a great improvement!

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?


The Most Terrifying Compliance: The Inert Student

I’ve been doing a lot with schools recently – enough that I won’t be identifying any particular students with this next post – and I’ve had an opportunity to see how students react when they haven’t yet made it into Uni. My first-years are a pretty energetic lot and, for the most part, it’s more of a challenge to get them to stop talking than to get them to start. (Part of that might be me, I’m un petite peu de Energiser Bunny.)

Captured using a laser flash and 1/100000 second shutter.

What I saw in some of the school-aged children was the same: bouncy, participating, not quite getting the filter going between brain and mouth. All the good energy that I can work with, use in collaboration and build upon to teach. Culturally, of course, this varies wildly and some of my students from other cultures would rather be electrocuted than say something in class. (Note: No evidence to support this exists, nor have we even applied for ethics approval for this.) So what these differently-acculturated students often do is… nothing. (When they first come to u.s)

They just sit there. Ask them a question. They say nothing. You have to wait it out. Eventually, they’ll say something and doing this, with care, over time brings them into the collaborative zone where we can really start to work. What is interesting, however, is that they are still (if you watch carefully) involved in the class. They take notes. They discuss things between themselves, to a degree. They’re doing something – they just aren’t that keen on answering questions. That’s ok, I can deal with that.

However, there’s a more advanced form of doing nothing which I’ll talk about now, because it bothers me.

What chilled me the first time that I saw it was the students who actually do nothing. And, by this, I mean nothing at all. In between answering questions, if they answered to any degree, they sit there and they’re not surfing the internet, doodling, talking or doing anything else. They will sit, still, looking into space, for up to an hour. Maybe two. No apparent registration. Can talk. Can communicate well. But don’t. (Note: I’m not talking about isolated students, I’m talking about students grouped by school.)

I would really like to believe that they are thinking about other things but, especially in a space that is active, that is engaging other students, that is full of the sound of discussion, laughter and enjoyment… this inertia is terrifying.

In my experience these students are terribly polite. If you tell them to do something then they will. But step away or give them a moment and they stop doing anything. My apologies to the teachers in the space who are nodding wisely (if this is just a thing that I don’t often see) but all of my students do something else when they’re not doing what I ask them to do – even if it’s sleeping. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one sit there politely, staring into space, not doing anything that could get them into trouble but, because they don’t want to participate, not actually doing anything.

As far as I could tell, this wasn’t a cultural issue but what it does make me wonder is if I had run across compliant students from a particular school rather than interested students. After all, as I’ve said several times, I get the results of the Year 12 filter: the ones who really have behavioural issues don’t make it to me. The ones who couldn’t sit still, yelled out, played up – if they couldn’t rein it in then I don’t see them.

When some teachers receive a letter offering an opportunity for students to come to something or to bring them to something where I come to the school, do I see the ones that should be coming, or the ones that won’t embarrass the school?

I have no real idea how to even think about this but I sincerely hope that this inertia is an accidental construct and not something that has been engineered as anything desirable. Yes, iconoclasts and heretics can be really, really irritating to teach but – oh! the potential rewards to us and the rest of the world! More importantly, considerate behaviour to peers and educators does not start and stop with mindless and silent compliance.

Let’s hope that this was an unfortunate juxtaposition of very shy people who will all contact me later to ask me more – once they’ve thought about it. Because I’d really prefer that suggestion to the idea that there are schools out there who are engineering these kinds of zombies and sending them along just because they’ll sit still.

I’m happy for “The Midwich Cuckoos” to remain fictional.

Group feedback, fast feedback, good feedback

We had the “first cut” poster presentation today in my new course. Having had the students present their pitches the previous week, this week was the time to show the first layout – put up your poster and let it speak for itself.

The results were, not all that surprisingly, very, very good. Everyone had something to show, a data story to tell and some images and graphs that told the story. What was most beneficial though was the open feedback environment, where everyone learned something from the comments on their presentation. One of my students, who had barely slept for days and was highly stressed, got some really useful advice that has given him a great way forward – and the ability to go to bed tonight with the knowledge that he has a good path forward for the next two weeks.

Working as a group, we could agree as a group, discuss and disagree, suggest, counter-suggest, develop and enhance. My role in all of this is partially as a ‘semi-expert’ but also as a facilitator. Keep the whole thing moving, keep it to time, make sure that everyone gets a good opportunity to show their work and give and receive feedback.

The students all write down their key feedback, which is scanned as a whole and put on the website so that any good points that went to anyone can now be used by anyone in the group. The feedback is timely, personal and relevant. Everyone feels that these sessions are useful and the work produced reflects the advantages. But everyone talks to everyone else – it’s compulsory. Come to the session, listen and then share your thoughts.

This, of course, reveals one of my key design approaches: collaboration is ok and there is no competitiveness. Read anything about the grand challenges and you keep seeing the word ‘community’ through it. Solid and open communities, where real and effective sharing happens, aren’t formed in highly competitive spaces. Because the students have unique projects, they can share ideas, references and even analysis techniques without plagiarism worries – because they can attribute without the risk of copying. Because there is no curve grading, helping someone else isn’t holding you back.

Because of this, we have already had two informal workshop groups form to address issues of analysis and software, where knowledge passes from person to person. Before today’s first cut presentation, a group was sitting outside, making suggestions and helping each other out – to achieve some excellent first cut results.

Yes, it’s a small group so, being me, now I’m worrying about how I would scale this up, how I would take this out to a large first-year class, how I would get it to a school group. This groups need careful facilitation and the benefit of inter-group communication is derived from everyone in the group having a voice. The number of interactions scale with the square of the group size, so there’s a finite limit to how many people I can have in the group and fit it into a two-hour practical session. If I split a larger class into sub-groups, I lose the advantage of everyone see in everyone else’s work.

But this can be solved, potentially with modern “e-” techniques, or a different approach to preparation, although I can’t quite see it yet. There’s a part of me that thinks “Ask these students how they would approach it”, because they have viewpoints and experience in this which complements mine.

Every week that goes by, I wonder if we will keep improving, and keep rewarding the (to be honest) risk that we’re taking in running a small course like this in leaner times. And, every week, the answer is a resounding “yes”!

Here’s to next week!

Grand Challenges Course: Great (early) progress on the project work.

While I’ve been talking about the project work in my new “Grand Challenge”-based course a lot, I’ve also identified a degree of, for want of a better word, fearfulness on the part of the students. Given that their first project is a large poster with a visualisation of some interesting data, which they have to locate and analyse, and that these are mostly Computer Science students with no visualisation experience, they are understandably slightly concerned. We’ve been having great discussions and lots of contributions but next week is their first pitch and, suddenly, they need a project theme.

I’ve provided a fair bit of guidance for the project pitch, and I reproduce it here in case you’re interested:

Project 1: First Deliverable, the Pitch

Due 2pm, Wednesday, the 8th of August Because group feedback is such an important part of this project, you must have your pitch ready to present for this session and have the best pitch ready that you can. Allocate at least 10 hours to give you enough time to do a good job.

What is the pitch?

A pitch is generally an introduction of a product or service to an audience who knows nothing about it but is often used to expand knowledge and provide a detailed description of something that the audience is already partially familiar with. The key idea is that you wish to engage your audience and convince them that what you are proposing is worth pursuing. In film-making, it’s used to convey an idea to people who need to agree to support it from a financial or authority perspective.

One of the most successful pitches in Hollywood history is (reputedly) the four word pitch used to convince a studio to fund the movie “Twins”. The pitch was “Schwarzenegger. De Vito. Twins.”

You are not trying to sell anything but you are trying to familiarise a group of people with your project idea and communicate enough information that the group can give you useful feedback to improve your project. You need to think carefully about how you will do this and I strongly suggest that you rehearse before presenting. Trust me when I say that very few people are any good at presentation without rehearsal and I will generally be able to tell the amount of effort that you’ve expended. An indifferent presentation says that you don’t care – and then you have to ask why anyone else would be that motivated to help you.

If you like the way I lecture, then you should know that I still rehearse and practice regularly, despite having been teaching for over 20 years.

How will it work?

You will have 10 minutes to present your project outline. During this time you will:

  • Identify, in one short and concise sentence, what your poster is about.
  • Clearly state the purpose.
  • Identify your data source.
  • Answer all of the key questions raised in the tutorial.
  • Identify your starting strategy, based on the tools given in the tutorial, with a rough outline of a timeline.
  • Outline your analysis methodology.
  • Summarise the benefits of this selection of data and presentation – why is it important/useful?
  • Show a rough prototype layout on an A3 format.

We will then take up to 10 minutes to provide you with constructive feedback regarding any of these aspects. Participants will be assessed both on the pitch that they present and the quality of their feedback and critique. Critique guides will be available for this session.

How do I present it?

This is up to you but I would suggest that you summarise the first seven points as a handout, and provide a copy of your A3 sketch, for reference during critique. You may also use presentations (PowerPoint, Keynote or PDF) if you wish, or the whiteboard. As a guideline, I would suggest no more than four slides, not including title, or your poster sketch. You may use paper and just sketch on that – the idea and your ability to communicate it are paramount at this stage, not the artfulness of the rough sketch.

Important Notes

Some people haven’t been getting all of their work ready on time and, up until now, this has had no impact on your marks or your ability to continue working with the group. If you don’t have your project ready, then I cannot give you any marks for your project and you miss out on the opportunity for group critique and response – this will significantly reduce your maximum possible mark for this project.

I am interested in you presenting something that you find interesting or that you feel will benefit from working with – or that you think is important. The entire point of this course is to give you the chance to do something that is genuinely interesting and to challenge yourself. Please think carefully about your data and your approach and make sure that you give yourself the opportunity to make something that you’d be happy to show other people, as a reflection of yourself, your work and what you are capable of.


We then had a session where we discussed ideas, looked at sources and started to think about how we could get some ideas to build a pitch on. I used small group formation and a bit of role switching and, completely unsurprisingly to the rest of you social constructivists, not only did we gain benefit from the group work but it started to head towards a self-sustaining activity. We went from “I’m not really sure what to do” to something very close to “flow” for the majority of the class. To me it was obvious that the major benefit was that the ice had been broken and, through careful identification of what to happen with the ideas and a deliberate use of Snow’s Cholera diagram as an example of how powerful a good (but fundamentally) simple visualisation could be, the group was much better primed to work on the activity.

The acid test will be next week but, right now, I’m a lot more confident that I will get a good set of first pitches. Given how much I was holding my breath, without realising it, that’s quite a good thing!

A Design Challenge, a Grand Design Challenge, if you will.

Question: What is one semester long, designed as a course for students who perform very well academically, has no prerequisites and can be taken by students with no programming exposure and by students with a great deal of programming experience?

Answer: I don’t know but I’m teaching it on Monday.

While I talk about students who perform well academically, this is for the first instance of this course. My goal is that any student can take this course, in some form, in the future.

The new course in our School, Grand Challenges in Computer Science, is part of our new degree structure, the Bachelor of Computer Science (Advanced). This adds  lot more project work and advanced concepts, without disrupting the usual (and already excellent) development structure of the degree. One of the challenges of dealing with higher-performing students is keeping them in a sufficiently large and vibrant peer group while also addressing the minor problem that they’re moving at a different pace to many people that they are friends with. Our solution has been to add additional courses that sit outside of the main progression but still provide interesting material for these students, as well as encouraging them to take a more active role in the student and general community. They can spend time with their friends, carry on with their degrees and graduate at the same time, but also exercise themselves to greater depth and into areas that we often don’t have time to deal with.

In case you’re wondering, I know that some of my students read this blog and I’m completely comfortable talking about the new course in this manner because (a) they know that I’m joking about the “I don’t know” from the Answer above and (b) I have no secrets regarding this course. There are some serious challenges facing us as a species. We are now in a position where certain technologies and approaches may be able to help us with this. One of these is the notion of producing an educational community that can work together to solve grand challenges and these students are very much a potential part of this new community.

The biggest challenge for me is that I have such a wide range of students. I have students who potentially have no programming background and students who have been coding for four years. I have students who are very familiar with the School’s practices and University, and people whose first day is Monday. Of course, my solution to this is to attack it with a good design. But, of course, before a design, we have to know the problem that we’re trying to solve.

The core elements of this course are the six grand challenges as outlined but he NSF, research methods that will support data analysis, the visualisation of large data sources as a grand challenge and community participation to foster grand challenge communities. I don’t believe that a traditional design of lecturing is going to support this very well, especially as the two characteristics that I most want to develop in the students are creativity and critical thinking. I really want all of my students to be able to think their way around, over or through an obstacle and I think that this course is going to be an excellent place to be able to concentrate on this.

I’ve started by looking at my learning outcomes for this course – what do I expect my students to know by the end of this course? Well, I expect them to be able to tell me what the grand challenges are, describe them, and then provide examples of each one. I expect them to be able to answer questions about key areas and, in the areas that we explore in depth, demonstrate this knowledge through the application of relevant skills, including the production of assignment materials to the best of their ability, given their previous experience. Of course, this means that every student may end up performing slightly differently, which immediately means that personalised assessment work (or banded assessment work) is going to be required but it also means that the materials I use will need to be able to support a surface reading, a more detailed reading and a deep reading, where students can work through the material at their own pace.

I don’t want the ‘senior’ students to dominate, so there’s going to have be some very serious scaffolding, and work from me, to support role fluidity and mutual respect, where the people leading discussion rotate to people supporting a point, or critiquing a point, or taking notes on the point, to make sure that everyone gets a say and that we don’t inhibit the creativity that I’m expecting to see in this course. I will be setting standards for projects that take into account the level of experience of each person, discussed and agreed with the student in advance, based on their prior performance and previous knowledge.

What delights me most about this course is that I will be able to encourage people to learn from each other. Because the major assessment items are all unique to a student, then sharing knowledge will not actually lead to plagiarism or copying. Students will be actively discouraged from doing work for each other but, in this case, I have no problem in students helping each other out – as long as the lion’s share of the work is done by the main student. (The wording of this is going to look a lot more formal but that’s a Uni requirement. To quote “The Castle”, “It’s about the vibe.”) Students will regularly present their work for critique and public discussion, with their response to that critique forming a part of their assessment.

I’m trying to start these students thinking about the problems that are out there, while at the same time giving them a set of bootstrapping tools that can set them on the path to investigation and (maybe) solution well ahead of the end of their degrees. This then feeds into their project work in second and third year. (And, I hope, for at least some of them, Honours and maybe PhD beyond.)

Writing this course has been a delight. I have never had so much excuse to buy books and read fascinating things about challenging issues and data visualisation. However, I think that it will be the student’s response to this that will give me something that I can then share with other people – their reactions and suggestions for improvement will put a seal of authenticity on this that I can then pack up, reorganise, and put out into the world as modules for general first year and high school outreach.

I’m very much looking forward to Monday!

HERDSA 2012: What is the New Academy?

I attended some (more) interesting talks today on building research capacity, how we build the connection between education and research (the dreaded research-teaching nexus) and how we identify ourselves as academics. If I were going to summarise all three of these talks, it would be as:

How are we defining the Academy of the 21st Century?

There is no doubt that research is a crucial component of what we do – you can’t even be registered as a University in Australia unless you pursue research – but it often seems to be the favoured child in any discussion of importance for promotion and allocation of serious resources. Now I realise that a lot of work is going into fixing this but research has, for many years, counted for more.

So it’s interesting that, as Winthrop Professor Shelda Debowski, UWA, observed after returning from her Churchill Fellowship, we don’t really bother to do as much training as we should for research. Research success doesn’t automatically flow from finishing a PhD, any more than a PhD is an indication of readiness or aptitude to teach – yet many early researchers don’t get a great deal of development assistance. This leads, in some cases, to what Debowski refers to as middlescence: a great PhD but after 5+ years it all dies.

Succesful research requires many capabilities and ongoing learning and, while our universities try to support this, we’re not often sure what the best way is to support this. Staff are seeking guidance – research leaders are keen to help. How can we connect them usefully and efficiently? For me, I rephrase the question as:

How are we defining the Research Academy of the 21st Century?

Research is a simple world with a complex set of concepts behind it. Are we looking at the basis of inputs, outputs, strategy and impact? Are we looking at industrial interaction with collaboration, engagement and support? Are we being productive and effective, innovative and creative? There is, for many people’s careers, not much room for failure.

The PhD used to be all that was needed, in theory, because we had the time to make some mistakes, to find our feet, and to iterate towards a better model. Not any more.

My take on this, to go on from what I was saying in the last post, is that we can define the New Research Academy in terms of its environment. Like any species, the New Research Academic must adapt to the environment that they are in or they will perish. Climate change is a threat to the world, similarly Academy Change is a threat to the old inhabitants. The New Academy is fast, hungry, competitive, resource starved, commoditised, industry linked and, above all, heavily dependent on the perception of our efforts. The speed of change makes a difference here because if you were raised in the gentler environment of the Old Academy, but have been around for 20 years, then you have probably achieved enough success to survive. If I may take another biological example, you have accumulated enough resources that you can survive the lean years or the harsher years. The New Academy has frosts and only so many places available for the tribe. You build your resources quickly or it’s over.

Unless, of course, you can find a group to support you. Returning to Debowski’s material, she points out why development of researchers is so critical:

  • Start with PhD – used to be the only thing that you needed to do.
  • Now you have to understand how it fits into strategic research areas and areas of strength (broader sphere of understanding)
  • Need to hook in with a research community (this is your resource sharing group)
  • ECRs need to have to develop: communication skills, team and collaborative skills, project management, track record/profile, time, priority, career management, and grant seeking behaviour
  • Research managers and leaders need to take a professional stance to support this: induction, culture setting, human resource management practices, strategic management, financial management, relationship building, mentoring and sponsorship, project management, risk management, media/promotion.

But, looking at that final list, do some of those look like the behaviours of a professional research academic? I’ll come back to this.

Debowski finished by emphasising the role of mentors and, in the Old/New Academy framework, this makes even more sense. A new PhD student has only a limited amount of time before poor performance effectively removes them from the appointment and job pool – they don’t have time to waste taking false paths. A mid-career researcher needs to work out which path to take and then has to optimise for it – do I continue teaching, do I focus on research, should I take that Associate Deans position? This is where a mentor is vital because the New Academy has a cold wind blowing through it. Huddled together, we’ll see Summer again – but, of course, you have to huddle with the right people.

This brings me to the next talk, on How Universities Connect Education and Research, presented by Professor Lawrence Cram. This was a very interesting talk, dealing with complexity theory to explain the small-scale chaotic relationships in trying to explain which actions get people promoted these days. This is a very mechanistic approach to life in the New Academy. Which X do I need to maximise to achieve Y? Cram, however, very nicely identifies that X is in fact a set of things, Y is a different set of things, and the connections between them operate at different levels at different times.

Cram identified the outputs of Universities as experience goods, where the product is hard to observe in advance, in terms of characteristics such as quality or price, but you’re quickly aware of how good they are once consumed. This generally requires you to sell your product on reputation but once this reputation is established, your pricing model (market position) tends to stay fairly stable. (Amusingly, dropping the price of experience goods, because we’re unsure of how the goods are created, may result in uncertainty because people will make up reasons for the price drop that generally include drop in quality, rather than efficiency of delivery or something positive.)

This makes mapping inputs to outputs difficult and explains why such measurable outputs as number of students, pass rates and research publications are far more likely to form the basis of any funding. Cram is looking across a very large area with a very large number of questions: does research success generate a corresponding success ‘buzz’ in the student body? Does research discovery parallel or assist the student with their own voyage of discovery through their courses?

Ultimately, directives from senior management drive a functional and idealistic approach that produces graduates and intellectual property, but most universities are struggling to unify this with directives and government funding, compared to what students want. Linking this back to the roles that we are expecting research managers to take, we start to see a managerial focus that is starting to dominate our professional academic staff. I rephrase this, and segue to the next talk, as:

How are we defining the Professional Academic in the 21st Century?

The final talk used identity theory to examine the different work ideologies that academics espouse. Wayne O’Donohue presented his and Richard Winter’s paper on “Understanding academic identity conflicts in the public university: Importance of work ideologies” and it was both an interesting presentation, as well as being a full paper that I hope to finish reading this evening.

Fundamentally, managerial and professional ideological beliefs differ on how academic work should be organised. As I have mention throughout this post, we are seeing more and more evidence of creeping requirement to become managers. Managerialism, according to Winter and O’Donohue, has moved us into market-driven entities that regard students as commodities. Consumers need to be swayed by branding and pandering to preferences – we risk basing the reputation of our experience good upon a good marketing campaign rather than a solid academic reputation.

The conceptual framework for this work is that the two identities are, effectively, at odds with each other. Academics who are forced to be managerial find themselves at odds with their idea of what it means to be an academic – they are not being who they want to be and are at odds with what their University wants them to be. If we are to be good managerial entities then we focus on competition and consumer preferences for allocating resources. If we are to be good academics, then we focus on economic and social welfare of all members, stressing normative goals and beliefs. It is hard to think of two more opposing points within this sphere and it is no wonder that the people surveyed by Winter and O’Donohue had to be censored to remove obscene language that reflected their frustration at their own perception of their role.

We know that the market is not all that good at managing public good items. We know the benefits of the educational system in breaking the poverty cycle, reducing crime and violence, improving families, but the market would have to change its short-term benefit model in order to factor this in. We are looking at the substantial differences of short term economic focus versus long term social welfare focus.

Ultimately, the dissonance generated by people doing things that they were asked to do, but didn’t want to do, causes dissatisfaction and cynicism. Dispirited academics leave. Leaving, of course, those who are willing to adapt to the more managerial focus to then rise through the ranks, take positions of power and then impose more managerial focuses.

So what is the New Academy? Is it really a world of bottoms on seats, feudalist in its enforced fealty to existing barons to see you through the lean years, unconnected to funding models and overly metricated in strange ways?

If you want my honest answer, I would say “Not yet.”

Yes, we are heavily measured, but we still have the freedom to challenge and correct those measurements. A great deal of work is being done to produce instruments that give us useful and applicable information, as well as ‘handy’ numbers.

Yes, it helps to be in a research group, but informal communities of practice, faculty and university initiatives, external funding sources such as OLT, ALTA and the ARC do not require you to sign your swords over to a baron or a King.

Yes, we are measured as to our student intakes but we are still, in many important ways, academically free. We can still maintain quality and be true to our academic heritage.

You don’t have to take me word for it. Read everything that I (and katrinafalkner) have been blogging about. You can see all of the work being done, that we have seen at this conference, to draw us all together, to make us remember that we are strong as group, to provide useful metrics, to collaborate, to mentor out of the desire to help rather than the desire to control and the work being down to find and advertise our identity and the way that we can achieve our goals.

Yes, the idea of the New Academy is intimidating, and I write as one who was lucky enough to ride the wave of the new expectations, but in the same way that we bring our students together to learn and explore the benefits of collaboration and social interaction, I am convinced that the best rebirthing of the Academy will occur as we continue to share our work, and meet to discuss it, and go back home and be active and build upon everything that we’ve discussed.

And, being honest, sometimes it just takes sticking to our point, when we’re right, and not doing something that we know is wrong. I know that these are times when people are scared for their jobs, and I’m certainly not immune to that either, but the question comes down to “how much will you put with?” Let me finish with two final questions, which are also, I’m afraid, a call-to-arms:

What have you done today to define the Academy of the 21st Century in a way that matches your ideals and intentions?

What will you do tomorrow?

HERDSA 2012: Session 1 notes – Peer Assisted Teaching Schemes

The second talk I went to in session 1 was more work on A/Professor Angela Carbone’s work in Peer Assisted Teaching Schemes, for which she has highly awarded and, for 2013, will be taking up a senior fellowship at the national level to continue this work. Congratulations, Ange! The subtitle of the talk was “A Way of Creating and Developing New Connections”.

There is a lot of support for new academics in terms of induction and teacher preparation but what about those educators who are already established but have units that are in need of reform or reduce? Who do they turn to in order to get help? What if you just want to adopt new technologies and you’ve been in the game for decades? Who can you ask for help? The core of the PATS work is that we need to think about teaching standards, more experienced staff, transition issues, risks, and new technology.

We are constantly being assessed – CEQ, SETU/SELT, lots of controversy around these instruments. Arts and Humanities seem to appear better than physical sciences, and there is not much research from either side to answer the question ‘why?’ Do student evaluations measure student outcomes or teacher effectiveness? According to the research, they don’t actually measure either. The use of these things for management addds stress to academics and their school – people get stressed when they even just use these measures in their class.

So, if we’re stressed, struggling and trying to adapt, it’s pretty obvious that we need help but the question is “where does this help come from?

What is PATS: academics within a faculty are partnered together and follow an informal process to discuss strategies to improve unit quality and develop educational innovations.


  • to improve student satisfaction with units
  • improve the quality of teaching
  • to build leadership capacity amongst teachers.

A mentor and mentee are linked in a reciprocal partnership. The theoretical basis this comes from a large number of sources including Vygotsky, Lave, Gratch and Boud, looking at our teaching through four lenses, after Brookfield 1995. The four lenses are: the student view, the theoretical view, the autobiographical view and the colleague’s view, where another academic can serve as a critical friend.

The relationship between mentor and mentee begins before the semester, where the relationship is developed, with ongoing catch up sessions through the semester, discussion and review, including subsidised coffee meetings, culminating in a critical review (with a friendly perspective) and self-reflection. This is looking at all of the aspects with a critical eye but alongside someone that you now have a relationship with – a critical friend to assist you in your own reflection. However, within this, there are workshops and deliverables to make sure that both parties are actually working in and at the relationship – it’s not a free coffee club.

I can’t summarise all of the PATS work in one post but I think we can all identify people around us who might fall into this category: people who might need help but are outside of the traditional bootstrapping systems that we employ. A/Prof Carbone also commented that there were people that were taking part who were looking to improve good courses to really good ones, rather than just trying to fix courses that had been identified as under-performing. This was helping to reduce any lingering stigma at being in a PATS relationship with someone. Some of the unexpected results included the mentors and mentees forming a relationship that allowed them to work together on research and development beyond the designated course improvement.

In the framework of this conference, which is all about connections and community, it’s obvious that PATS is helping to link people together, making connections and building community. There are lots of works to read on this, and I enjoy reading through the theoretical underpinnings as well. (Plus, you know I’m a Vygotsky fan…) I already knew about this work but it’s always interesting to see how it’s evolving and developing.