Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Up Where We Belong

Yesterday's entry seems to have awakened a few things in me again. Like, f'rinstance, the feeling that no matter how good I may seem to be at this programming game, or at math, electronics, and so forth, I'll never be more than a grunt. That is, I can do the job and do it well, but I'll never be counted in the ranks of people who go beyond mere competence. Yeah, I've had a few good ideas, but this game is all about creativity and exploration. Or at least it should be.

There is one thing, though, that I'm more than just good at, and that's teaching. It wasn't something I went into on purpose. I was an avionics technician in the Canadian Forces (they used to be Armed, but that sounds a little bit too aggressive for Canadian tastes — I'm sure they'd get rid of the "Force" part if they could find another word) when the decision was made to close the small base I was posted to. (It's entirely coincidental, I'm sure, that both Rocky and I were doing pretty much the same job at the same time.) There was an opening at the Canadian Forces School of Communications and Electronics for an instructor in the basic electronics stream, so that's where I was sent. My contribution to the decision was the fact that I couldn't come up with a reasonable objection to the order.

As a student, I never had much use for the classroom, and in the few classes I sat in on before being loosed on my first group of students, I quickly realised why. The guys I watched hit every teaching point in the lesson plan, all right, and I could even tell what the really important points were — they read the lesson plan a little more loudly at those points. Okay, there was more going on than reading from the lesson plan, but not much more. I was determined to do better.

You've probably heard it said that those who can, do, and those that can't, teach. That may be true to a great extent, but it absolutely not the way it should be. If students are to understand what is being taught, most need to be able to relate the new information to concepts thay already have in hand. Understanding is object-oriented; new concepts ought to extend the old. The challenge in teaching is determining the "base class" upon which one's students can build, and since every student comes into the class with a unique set of interests and experiences, an off-the-shelf analogy will rarely be as effective as one would like. A good teacher, then, needs to be at least somewhat connected to the world the students inhabit, must be willing to engage his or her students at a level that makes it possible to see where working analogies can be drawn from, and needs to know enough about the subject matter to create relationships between what the students know and what they need to learn. To a young private who has been assigned archery as a compulsory hobby while in training (welcome to the military, kid), a strung longbow is a perfect model for explaining FM radio spectrum signatures. A good teacher of FM theory should know that, and know why — and should know why somebody who has never drawn a bowstring wouldn't get it.

I've done a lot of things for a living over the years, from sweeping streets, shining shoes and flipping hamburgers to playing jazz saxophone, from graphic design to programming computers. All of those have been the answer to the question, "what do you do?" There has only ever been one occupation in my life that answers, "what are you?" I am a teacher. It's what I do best. It's what I enjoy most.

Now I have to figure out how to get back into the classroom.


Jess said...

"If students are to understand what is being taught, most need to be able to relate the new information to concepts thay already have in hand."

That's interesting... I was reading up on teaching methods last week. I needed a fun way to explain the concept of the Internet to 8-11 year olds. (starting tomorrow, I'm teach ing them one hour a week as part of an after-school program, I can't wait!) One teacher explained that before you can begin teaching basic browsing, people need time to free-play online. Click, explore, learn the interface, do anything they like, to a point, until the real structured class begins.

They need the familiarity if they plan on understanding the concept, which is exactly what you are saying. I remember when I was in college learning C++, we had barely begun learning, and I practically begged my father to see if he could print out just one page of real-worl d code. I just wanted to see it. One page, that's really all I'd need. That would have given me an enormous head-start in seeing what my end goal of learning was going to be.

Just like teaching someone board game instructions. It doesn't help to start to say, "roll the dice and take a card." You MUST start with, "the object of the game is _____".

Stan, teach programming fundamentals. We need good instructors. Desperately. :-)

Oh, what do you think of this idea? I'll take any advice, as I'm excited, but have NO idea what I'm doing.

As part of the program, I'll be meeting the kids in the cafeteria and walking them to the computer room. But instead of going right to the computer room, we have to link the cafeteria to the computer room. After all, we know how to get there. But the cafeteria doesn't! Once in the cafeteria, we may want to get a drink from the vending machine (walk to the teacher's room), etc. etc. until we get to the computer lab.

Almost like a "live action" version of linked websites.

Jess said...

Actually, when I wrote "programming fundamentals", I meant to write "programming concepts"... meaning the same higher abstract concepts that you were talking about with mathematics. The concepts themselves are syntax and language independant, and I think once anyone has a solid understanding of those, it's downhill from there. :-)

Stan Rogers said...

Good idea! I did a fundamentals course once where the students essentially role-played writing and running a program. The "computer" was given a list of instructions that "it" would be allowed to understand, and the "programmers" were given that list along with a task to complete. The "computer" did EXACTLY what it was told to do, and a great laugh was had by all -- the "computer" did a great comic take whenever an "object variable was not set".

Jennifer said...

Hello Stan (and fellow Canadian :o),

I did read your blog from the other day and was a little put off until I realized you were presenting ideas and not necessarily what you believe to be fact. Genetics, gender bias and teaching really provide a huge realm for discussion!

I was just watching a news report on some of the research that has been done in studying the differences in how boys and girls learn. They suggested ignoring the gender differences is a mistake as the geometry center in a 12 year old girl’s brain is 3-4 years behind a boy’s and the language center in a 12 year old boy’s brain is 3-4 years behind a girl’s. If we generalize that to be ‘logic’ and ‘creativity’ then should we, based on age and gender, be teaching different things to boys and girls? Should we only teach people the things they have an aptitude for? This just introduces a whole new set of problems. One of the simplest problems being, what if the person doesn’t WANT to do what they have an aptitude for?

The idea of women teaching girls and men teaching boys wouldn’t fix the problem either. I think women (more so then men the other way around) are just as guilty of gender bias against women as men are. Obviously, the question of bias doesn’t end with gender: if you’re good looking, you can’t be smart, if you’re smart you can’t be athletic…

If we were to change teaching, both methods and subjects, based on scientific research that proves girls and boys are genetically restricted to learning differently, we would still have a flawed system. What about the people who are equally adept at creativity and logic? I would say my brother and I are pretty much genetically identical as far as what we have the ability to learn. We are both very ‘center brained’ and excel at anything ‘logical’ as well as being able to create music, art, prose and poetry. If he had been restricted to learning logic at a certain ages, he may never have developed the ability to create the beautiful things that he has. If I had been restricted to only producing ‘creative’ things, I might be on the street right now, starving and waiting for my death before my art became a commodity. :o)

So now we have issues with what to teach, how to teach, when to teach and who to teach it to. Maybe if you are heading back to the classroom, you can find a solution and develop a new teaching method which can individualize en masse, if that makes any sense.

Stan Rogers said...

"Individualise en masse." I like that -- and it's what I always tried to bring to the classroom. The cookie cutter approach has always been a non-starter for me. The language vs. spatial, logical vs. creative argument is, I think, a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy -- people tend to advance more quickly in the areas that suit the way they think.

As for aptitude versus attitude, well, I have a wall full of mathematical awards from my high school days (from the Waterloo contests, the American Mathematical Society, etc.) and had a long list of scholarships that would have allowed me to attend the University of my choice at a significant profit -- but I thought it would be a much better idea to drop out and become a garbage man. I'd had quite enough of desks and paper and whatnot, and was (I think) frightened of the word "actuary".

I do not for a minute endorse teaching to the "inherent flaws" of one sex or the other. My observation was that the traditional methods of teaching mathematics address the needs of a relatively small number of students, and that by chance a slightly larger number of the students for whom the method is suitable happen to be male -- at least among younger students. Keeping in mind that these kids can learn equally well through alternate means, it becomes the teacher's job to find a method that will reach the students currently being missed. That doesn't mean dumbing math down at all -- it means making it relevant so that it can become accessible.

Of course, there is no way to make everyone equally capable (without resorting to Harrison Bergeron-style "handicap" collars), as Jess noted, but slightly tweaking the method of teaching and, yes, making the teaching as individual as the student, will at least give everyone an equal shot.

That way, when maturity of thought allows the free-thinkers to adopt a modicum of precision and the black'n'white crowd to see shades of grey, all of them will be able to take part in the same great conversation -- and maybe fix some of what's wrong with this ol' world.

Kathy Creaner said...

I like this version.

Those who can, do.
Those who can't, teach.
Those who can teach are worth their weight in gold!

As a former high school maths teacher, I've been following your comments with interest. The challenges involved in teaching girls and boys equitably are enormous. For instance, girls generally develop fine motor skills earlier than boys. It's one of the reasons that their work is neater. When grading a science project, often teachers will increase a boy's grade if his work is neat but make no corresponding adjustment for neat work from a girl.

I remember being hauled up by the Year 12 (last year of high school in Australia) coordinator for treating boys unfairly in my maths class.

To give you the background, I had an equal number of boys and girls in this particular class. Invariably, boys get a much higher percentage of the teacher's attention. As a result, they tend to ask more questions because they expect to get responses. Many studies have been done on this and it really doesn't matter what gender the teacher is or how "aware" they are of being equitable - boys still come out ahead.

To encourage the girls to ask questions I instituted a policy of answering a question from a girl then a boy then a girl and so on. Obviously, if only the boys had questions then they got the answers. I found the girls more willing to join in discussion when they knew they would get a turn. The policy was intended to get as close to a 50-50 share as possible. In practice, it worked out at about 30-70 (girls/boys) as the girls struggled to overcome their early conditioning.

An unintended consequence was that one of the male students felt that the girls were getting way too much attention and complained. I was asked not to continue my policy by a FEMALE coordinator. Even after explaining the intention and the actual outcome, I was still told to stop. Amazing, isn't it?

Incidentally, it's fascinating to see at what point people believe (without counting) that half the students in a classroom are female. Try it out.

Jess, why not try some string and rings? Give each child an "address". Doesn't have to be in IP format. Get most of the students to hold strings between them. For example, 10 Smith Street has a string to 15 Maple Avenue. 15 Maple Avenue also has a string to 20 Wilson Drive.

Have one of the non-string holding students slide a ring from 10 Smith Street to 20 Wilson Drive. The strings can be all sorts of lengths and the number of "jumps" can be as many as you like. You can even have people "out of the room but connected by string".
You might want to start with a handful of students to demonstrate or divide the students into groups at first, and then try it with everyone together once people know what to do.

When you have a few people sliding rings around the strings you'll start to see areas of high and low traffic. The addresses could be countries or cities or even stars rather than streets. I'm sure you'll be able to come up with some great variations.

Have fun.

Anonymous said...

Interesting and good luck Stan. I remember a movie called "Stand and Deliver" about an inner city math teacher. He wasn't willing to leave any student behind. I believe the ability to inspire goes hand in hand with the ability or methodology of teaching. The real challenge in teaching is to make the bottom 20% successful, but this is much more work than making the top 80% successful.

Tony S Lee

Warren Sutton said...

I remember the bow drawing analogy....

Stan Rogers said...

Warren -- if you is still out there, drop me a line. It's been a long, long time and a lot of not-nice has transpired since I left Kingston. It'd be nice to hear from someone who remembers who I was before the bad times....

Justin said...

Hey Kathy Creaner,

I remember you teaching me maths and my gd, how good of a student was I. (that's definately a joke Kathy)

I hope you are well and if you are ever in Sydney give me a call.
I'm still stock broking with Ord Minnett.