Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ada Lovelace Day

I think people who work at the intersection of computer science and other disciplines do some of the most interesting work there is. In particular, I think there are women doing amazing work at the intersection of the social sciences (like linguistics and sociology) and computer science.

Jane Margolis is my hero because she has looked critically at the culture of computer science and not only found ways in which it is unwelcoming to some groups (notably girls and minorities) but has also worked passionately to change it. In particular, her work with the Computer Science Equity Alliance is inspirational. Jane is energetic and thoughtful and perceptive, and she constantly works to make the world of computer science better.

Jane introduced me to another of my heroes, Justine Cassell. I first learned of her because of the book From Barbie to Mortal Kombat. I had the opportunity to talk to her briefly at the Hopper conference this fall and was so impressed by her analytical mind and energetic presentation. Justine has also done a lot of interesting work on gender and technology.

Finally, the researchers of ABI and NCWIT earn my respect every time I talk to them. Catherine Ashcraft had the most interesting observations about gendered behavior and how it is different from sex, which convinced me she's brilliant. Lecia Barker and Caroline Simard produce consistently fascinating research.

This post was produced for my Ada Lovelace pledge. Two other posts on this subject I found inspiring today were "Why Care about Gender?" and "The Impact of Positive Female Role Models"

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mental math

I believe in growth mindset - the idea that you can get better at things by working at them. It can be a hard thing to live at times - we all seem to have certain places where we have blinders about our ability to improve (or our students' ability to improve!)

With that in mind, I have been working on my mental math abilities. I've been playing a game where I keep track of changing numbers by adding and subtracting. The numbers are pretty small - usually less than 10, though not always, but the running total can grow fairly large.

I am sure that it's good for my brain to play this game, that I'm improving my ability to do mental math.

Here's what I wonder, though: does it matter if I get the right answer? I have discovered at times that as I keep track of the running total, I have made computational errors - not particularly surprising, since it isn't something I'm particularly stellar at. My sense is that it's the activity of trying the math rather than getting the right answer that's important, especially since I doubt that I'm reinforcing bad math by occasionally adding numbers incorrectly. However, I can believe it would be a problem to form neural pathways to bad computation. I don't know of any studies that have looked at this, so I'm not sure we know the answer.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Encountering the Other

I've been thinking a lot about constructivism and constructionism and Freire and diversity lately. I can believe that almost totally open-ended discussions and activities can be engaging and educational. (Almost totally open-ended! Not totally open-ended! Though there's a good point in A Mathematician's Lament that anything one doesn't stumble across in 12 years of thinking about a topic probably isn't all that important.)

I am thinking of knowing the kind of activity you want kids to engage in, but allowing them to propose all the particulars. Let them figure out what the important parts are. Say you want them to learn how to write a program. Ask them what kind of program they want to write. What kind of problems do they have that could be solved with a program? Then let them figure out (with support) how to write the program - they figure out the constructs, you provide the syntax. It's just-in-time teaching. At an extreme, you might even be able to let them figure out what they wanted to learn at all in the context of your class, but without them knowing something about the context it seems like proposing problems is a better way to start.

I have a hard time believing this way of teaching is scalable - how can you get all the thousands of teachers in this country to be that open-ended? It's hard and you have to have an incredible grasp of the material to be able to guide students gently. (Or perhaps you could pull it off if you knew nothing, with teacher and class learning it together, but that's not comfortable for most teachers!) That said, as I have practiced open-ended teaching more and more, I've become better at it, which makes me think it is teachable, which means it might be scalable. It would require a sea change in how we think about education - we might not get to all the standards this way.

The extreme educational theorists believe in this way of teaching because of its respect for students' culture and experience. And I haven't ever questioned that, except to contemplate that the historical role of education in the US is to inculturate children into the dominant value set and that if we take underprivileged students and fail to give them that clue, we do them a disservice when they have to compete as adults in the dominant culture. (I am a terrible teacher because I will regularly point out to underprivileged students how to fly under the radar like the privileged kids do.)

So it was with great interest that I read Siobhan Curious' latest post: Encountering the Other about the role of literature in our lives. Specifically, she has a quote from a Harper's article Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School:
Happily ignoring the fact that the whole point of reading is to force us into an encounter with the other, our high schools and colleges labor mightily to provide students with mirrors of their own experience, lest they be made uncomfortable, effectively undercutting diversity in the name of diversity.
One is wise enough to think one should tread lightly on a discussion of valuing diversity vs. valuing the dominant culture (as though one can't value both!) So one will stop writing now other than to wonder what you think?