Epistemology and teaching approach

My MA Ed. supervisor Annie Savard, in a recent conversation about developing teachers:

The way you teach depends on how you think learning works.
That’s why it’s so hard to get teachers to change.
Anything you to try to get them to do will conflict with their epistemology.

Is that really true? When teachers reject (or fail to fully adopt) new teaching methods, is it due to the fact that those teaching methods conflict with their epistemic beliefs? Is there such a link between my belief-about-learning and the strategy-I-choose-to-teach-with?

Another way to put Annie’s thought might be: practices are downstream from beliefs. And a corollary: if you can get a teacher to have good epistemic beliefs, then good practices will follow. I’m not convinced that epistemology and pedagogy are linked causally in this way, or at least this strongly.

I think teachers aspire to practice in accordance with what they believe—but I don’t think in real life many of us live up to that. There are all kinds of confounding factors that get in the way of adopting methods that we recognize to be aligned with our theories. There’s cognitive dissonance, yes, but also laziness, lack of practice, lack of focus, nervousness, sheer inertia.

I’ll confess, I’m guilty of this. I know I don’t teach in a way that fully reflects my epistemology.

When it comes to learning I’m a firm constructivist. I am convinced that my students construct their own mental models as they learn. And I think all learning necessarily happens this way. I can’t reach inside my students’ skulls and place a fully-formed, ready-to-use concept in there for them. Every bit of personal experience I’ve had, and every Cognitive Science, Psychology, and Education course I’ve ever taken, have reinforced that.

And yet I continue teaching under the “banking model,” explaining and conveying my own understanding of things to my students.

I hear myself doing it sometimes, and it’s jarring. I should change my teaching approach to take advantage of those construction engines sitting there inside my students’ heads. I should give students’ own ideas more air time than my own. I should be more judicious about telling new information (NCTM). But I’m lazy. I don’t practice my technique often enough or deliberately enough. I sometimes let my focus slip and let myself do what comes naturally. That means I end up doing a lot of explain-explain-explain… zzzzz….

My students would be better served if I spent more mental energy paring down my words and instructional interventions. I’m a better teacher (and—ahem—writer) when I pose an artful question, and let my students think themselves toward an idea that’s laying there just beyond their grasp, an answer that they can’t see yet but I can.

I’m even better, I’ve learned, when I ask students a bare, simple question that is not artful in any way, but simply invites focus and reflection. (There are many good lists of “talk moves” (Conceptua) like this.) Then they are the ones feeling their way from idea to idea, and, while I may see the whole terrain, I let them find the path by way of their own reasoning. It’s their mental construction all the way.

So… can there be a truly epistemically-grounded teaching technique? A methodically developed teacher practice that embodies their beliefs about learning? Sure, it’s possible. Maybe practices are downstream from beliefs—or at least, epistemic beliefs can prime a teacher to conscientiously develop well-grounded practices.

I think I’ve got my beliefs down pat. But my practices? Eesh. Those remain a work in progress.

Being an editor

I keep telling myself that editor is a role I want to play. I don’t want to be the writer — I’ll leave that to you — but I am happy to help shape, re-focus, make your writing better.

And I think I’m good at that. I know I’ve had a real impact helping classmates and colleagues improve their writing and presentations.

But why does editing feel so draining?

It feels, often, like I’m doing the thinking for them.

I hand back the text with small edits here & there, but the greater impact comes (in my own head, anyway) from the long comments I leave where I am questioning their aim, or pointing out lack of cohesion, or other large issues like that.

I do think I’m good at it — at least, this is the kind of feedback I know I value when others edit me — but it’s so energy-consuming.

Does editing just feel like this?

Fighting bias in algorithms – Incoding

Why do we need to think about social issues in technology? Why is it important for technologists (programmers, entrepreneurs, etc.) to go through the inconvenience of inclusion?

Because anywhere that tech meets people, it matters. Tech is almost never purely tech — the only place this may be the case is the code artifact itself. But even that code bears the fingerprints of the person who conceived it and put it there.

At 6:30, a great passage!

  • WHO codes matters
  • HOW we code matters (processes and platforms we build, to be built upon)
  • WHY we code matters

The INCODING movement.


Lost in another research paper

Sighing to myself as I try once again to orient myself in the midst of a 30-page article on an educational study — one that has section headings and everything, and is pretty well organized, but still is a bear to read. 

Research articles should have a table of contents. Jeez.

When I’m in charge, were adding that to the style guide.

3 Challenges As Hands-On, DIY ‘Maker’ Culture Moves Into Schools : NPR Ed : NPR

Three challenges:

  1. link making to curriculum that teachers are doing in the classroom
  2. not corporatize it with tests, common core alignment, accountability, structure (BUT WHAT’S WRONG WITH STRUCTURE?)
  3. make it not only the purview of middle/upper-class white kids and white teachers whose schools can afford laser cutters, drones, 3d printers.

Creative and fun “maker spaces” are popping up in more schools. But administrators and teachers face big hurdles if they want them to be a sustainable part of the curriculum.

Source: 3 Challenges As Hands-On, DIY ‘Maker’ Culture Moves Into Schools : NPR Ed : NPR

Greg Wilson on training with video

Greg Wilson uses video recording for feedback of his trainees. But, interestingly, not just for themselves to review.

Greg Wilson’s The Third Bit: Just Keep Swimming (Dec 2015)

When I do in-person instructor training for Software Carpentry, I have trainees film each other teaching short lessons. The main goal isn’t to give people feedback on their presentation skills: they could get that without being recorded. The real aim is to teach them how to scale their evaluations of themselves. Almost without exception, people will give themselves an F when others would give them a B; knowing that, they can adjust their self-assessment to be more accurate. And knowing that, they can start to improve.

Activity idea: prediction

From EDEC-625 notebook, Fall 2015, 19 Oct 2015.

Setting up a prediction activity. This is a classic technique for Science classes, where labs and experimentation are part of the process. But it should work really well for Math and CS too, where the algorithm/formula/steps are complex enough that students have to do some mental gymnastics to go from seeing them on paper to knowing what they will do.

What to do:

  1. Activate the students’ prior knowledge, as needed.
  2. Show the setup of something new. Don’t execute it yet.
  3. Ask for predictions. Probe for understanding of the details of the setup and the underlying concepts at play. Discuss in small groups and/or large group, and record the students’ ideas visually as per usual technique.
  4. Execute the program/problem/algorithm, and confirm the results.
  5. Was the outcome understood? Which theory “won”?

Go through this cycle with a well-chosen case, and then do it again with new inputs–maybe once or twice more with inputs that you choose for specific reasons (they generate good illustrations, highlight edge cases or unintuitive results, etc.). Then repeat a few times with the students suggesting the inputs. Repeat until everyone is able to predict together how it will behave.

Allow students to give you crazy inputs. Don’t think too hard about what the result will be, and (unless it’s too crazy) don’t say “no” to a student’s suggestion. The idea is to (a) let go of the usual tight curricular control that we usually exercise, and (b) to help the students poke and prod the concepts you are illustrating.

The overall cycle is: Input > Predict > Execute > Discuss

Key objectives:

  • The teacher holds back his/her own knowledge of the outcome.
  • Teacher draws thinking out of the students, builds ideas before executing, gets them to reflect and understand after the execution.
  • Teacher embraces unknown, novel, or surprising results.
  • Teacher relinquishes control over inputs and problem design.

Activity idea: peer challenge

From notebook EDEC-625 Fall 2015, 19 Oct 2015.

Have students in groups. Each group creates a programming challenge for the next group to solve. They have to come up with something that’s within the class’s ability, using the blocks and techniques they’ve all learned up to that point. Ex:

  • Make the sprite draw _______.
  • Make the sprite do _______.
  • Animate a conversation about ____ with appropriate costumes.

Each group formulates a challenge and passes it to the group to their right. They receive a challenge coming from their left, and they have to carry it out.

The idea:

It’s great to solve a challenge… but it’s an even richer task to think up a challenge. You have to see through it, understand how a person might go about it, understand where the pitfalls are (or maybe intentionally place some). That’s good meta-cognition.

Kate and Kids Code Jeunesse on MAtv

Yesterday our Kids Code Jeunesse founder and chief badass Kate Arthur chatted on Montreal local tv with Richard Dagenais. Great interview — I think Kate did a good job positioning code as a common everyday medium that anyone can (and ought to) get a taste of and put to use, even without becoming a programmer.  And maybe some folks in the audience will come away a little less intimidated by learning to code. 🙂8b8db55d7dcb2cb6_150_montreal

Episode: MONTREAL BILLBOARD October 13, 2015 (Kate starts at ~8:30.)

Cited in the interview: our partner codecademy, who has a great lineup of well-documented, self-paced lessons in a variety of coding platforms. (Seriously, check out their HTML + CSS sequence. It’s not perfect, but they align well with my axioms of programming instruction. It’s a very good entryway for kids and newcomer adults.)