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2014 November 12

Autodidacts (against and for)

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:05
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Lately I’ve seen a lot of blog posts talking about autodidacts (people who learn things without teachers) as if they were some strange breed of alien being. For example, there is the post Ed tech promoters need to understand how most of us learn | The Hechinger Report, which includes the following paragraphs:

This is a very particular take on learning: the autodidact’s take. We shouldn’t mistake it for most people’s reality. Productive learning without guidance and support from others is rare. A pair of eminent researchers has gone so far as to call the very notion of self-directed learning “an urban legend in education.”

In a paper published in Educational Psychologist last year, Paul A. Kirschner of the Open University of the Netherlands and Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer of Maastricht University challenge the popular assumption “that it is the learner who knows best and that she or he should be the controlling force in her or his learning.”

There are three problems with this premise, Kirschner and van Merriënboer write. The first is that novices, by definition, don’t yet know much about the subject they’re learning, and so are ill equipped to make effective choices about what and how to learn next. The second problem is that learners “often choose what they prefer, but what they prefer is not always what is best for them;” that is, they practice tasks that they enjoy or are already proficient at, instead of tackling the more difficult tasks that would actually enhance their expertise. And third, although learners like having some options, unlimited choices quickly become frustrating—as well as mentally taxing, constraining the very learning such freedom was supposed to liberate.

And yet, to paraphrase the economist Larry Summers: There are autodidacts. Look around. We all know at least one successfully self-taught expert, and the tech world is teeming with them. How’d they get that way?

While I do see a benefit to teaching (or I wouldn’t spend so much of my time teaching), I don’t think that the autodidacticism should be dismissed as “an urban legend in education”. In fact, the end goal of all my teaching is to turn out students who can continue to learn on their own, without needing the continuing crutch of having a teacher lead them. I’m not sure how successful I’ve been in a lot of cases—I see students for a 10-week class and then they disappear, giving me no clue whether they have developed new ways of learning that stay with them or they have just managed to fake it through my course and relapsed to expecting to be spoonfed immediately afterwards.

I think that Annie Murphy Paul has it wrong when she claims that few people can be autodidacts—she seems to be assuming that it is some sort of innate gift that one is born with (Carol Dweck’s hated “fixed mindset”). I am convinced that becoming an autodidact is something that most people are capable of. I recently read an account of one student who turned herself into an autodidact, and what prompted her to do it—How to become a programmer, or the art of Googling well | okepi:

He was the very picture of the competent hacker I held in my head, that I nursed a secret crush for. But most extraordinary, he threw something together using tools that he’d never used before. Yes, he did spend more time on Google than he did coding, but through sheer force of googling and a prior, general picture knowledge of how these things worked, he’d roped together a pretty sophisticated and working app. He knew where Twilio belonged in the grand hierarchy of things, knew exactly where to apply it, and so, even without knowledge prior, was able to figure things out.

And I despaired. How do you get so good that you can build something out of nothing?

The rest of the semester passed glumly, and without incident. Come winter, I began to panic again. Driven by the need to become employable, I tried my hand at a couple Code Academy website tutorials. Hm. Not bad. I made an attempt at my first website—pretty terrible, just one, static page full of boxes and awful colors, but it was something. Something I realized. Just like my code-god compatriot, when I didn’t understand something, all I needed to do … was google it.

To a large extent, the difference between the autodidact and the ordinary student is not one of competence, but of confidence. It is Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset”—the conviction that you can learn the material and are not doomed forever to learn only what someone predigests for you.  There are tremendous resources now available to everyone that can turn them into autodidacts: Wikipedia, for example, has thousands of excellent articles in all sorts of sciences (and the science articles suffer much less from point-of-view problems and vandalism than pop culture articles).  And, as “okepi” says, Google can find all sorts of answers for you (she goes on to much larger accomplishments later in her post).

I learn a lot of stuff on my own by reading Wikipedia articles, reading survey articles, reading research papers, googling stuff in StackExchange, going to weekly research seminars, even (sometimes) taking classes.  [The astute reader will have noticed that I did not include MOOCs or videos in that list—despite the claim that MOOCs are a godsend for autodidacts, I have found them profoundly unmotivating, and videos as a learning tool are just too bloody slow for my taste—I fall asleep before anything has been conveyed.]

There are some things for which teachers are essential—it is very hard to learn a foreign language well on your own, without a native (or near-native) speaker to help you hear the differences between what you say and how a native speaker would say it.  Theater is hard to do on your own (though a group of autodidacts could get together to learn to act).  Feedback on writing is very valuable, as is having an audience for public speaking. And there are times when it is useful to have the structure of a scheduled course to help with time management—to keep you on task to meet an external deadline when there are dozens of other things to do. But in a lot of cases, a textbook is all the structure that is needed, or an on-line tutorial document, or even just a particular problem that needs to be solved shaping what needs to be learned.  I learned those skills decades ago, and I think that my son learned them well by the time he was halfway through high school.

So I know how to be an autodidact, but how do I teach it to others?  That is a question I have no easy answers for. I try giving open-ended assignments, I try scaffolding by having students search for answers to specific questions, I try deliberately leaving material out of a lecture or a lab handout and telling students to go read about it in Wikipedia, and I try whatever else I can think of that will get students to learn on their own.  For some students something clicks, and they start doing more learning on their own—sometimes a lot more. For others, I’ve not found a secret sauce.

I particularly despair of those students who take copious notes in class and want to record my lectures (I have two of them this quarter)—they seem to have developed the attitude that I am the sole source of knowledge, and that if they just cram everything I say into their memories, they’re golden. But I’m not interested in hearing my words echo back to me—if I wanted that, I’d lecture to an empty classroom.  I’d much rather the students wrote down two or three keywords from my lecture, so that they could find what others had to say on the topic using Google and Wikipedia—or even looked up the topics I’m covering in the textbook (which does have an index). I’d rather that they thought about how to derive the algorithms we are learning in class, rather than trying to memorize what are really fairly arbitrary recursive definitions (and ones that are more easily derived than memorized).

Does anyone have any good techniques for converting note-takers into autodidacts?  Those are the techniques I need to learn (and I didn’t really see anything in Teach like a Champion that would help).


2012 November 28

Faculty discussion of online courses at UCSC

This afternoon I attended a Faculty Senate panel discussion on the future of on-line courses at UCSC.  A couple of the panelists had already taught on-line courses, and their presentations were particularly interesting.

One had taught a hybrid course where half the students attended live lectures and the other half watched videos of the lectures.  Both halves had required weekly hands-on discussion sections, so the course wouldn’t scale to MOOC sizes.  The bottom line was that there was no significant difference in performance between the on-line and live-class halves of the class, and that students spent a lot less time looking at the videos than predicted.  (The class has been offered 4 times to about 300 students each time, so this was not a small sample.)

The other professor is currently teaching a tiny boutique class (14 students, I think he said), using software that lets him lecture from his office, with a whiteboard window, a little web-cam video feed, and a chat window.  I’ve used similar software in conversations with the Global Physics Department (whose meeting tonight I missed, because of the panel discussion, but they were just discussing the College Board’s plan to split AP Physics B into two courses, which I’m not all that interested in).  When I gave a presentation to the GPD, I found it very difficult to present material on the whiteboard, talk, and watch the chat box all at the same time.  I asked the professor about this problem at the reception afterwards, and he said that with a small, quiet class, he can usually keep up, but if everyone chats at once, stuff scrolls off screen before he can read it.  He thinks that the technology might scale up to 60 students with a very non-interactive lecture style and sleeping students (I exaggerate his description), but not beyond that.

Another professor presented a course that is going to be offered soon that takes the form of a self-paced e-book (on calculus).  He showed a couple of features of the e-book, and I think that it has many of the bells and whistles that math bloggers have expressed an interest in seeing in math e-books.  Personally, I did not find the examples he showed very appealing, but I’m not part of the target audience. (He also loves math history, which I have always found to be a tedious addition to math books, so I’m really not part of the target audience.)

Some of the panelists just raised questions for us to think about, though they went by so fast that I don’t think anyone in the audience will remember more than one or two of them—the questions they were thinking about before coming to the meeting.  I hope that the Committee on Teaching or the Committee on Educational Policy will send out the list of questions as e-mail.

One thing that disturbed me about this meeting was the average age of the attendees. I think I was well below the median age there, and I’m turning 58 this week.  If we are talking about the future of online education at the university, then we absolutely need to be talking with the people who will be the faculty in that future.  It can’t be only us old farts who will retire in the next decade (and the professors emeriti, who have already retired)—where were the assistant and associate professors?  I’d be very surprised if there were more than 4 assistant or 6 associate professors there.

My personal feeling is that UCSC should not invest large amounts of money in online education.  It does not seem to be much cheaper than conventional teaching methods, and UC does not have a good track record for providing infrastructure cheaply, nor for running businesses.  I think that UCSC should be concentrating its shrinking resources on the things where there is enormous value added by being a UC: on lab courses and small seminar courses where students get direct hands-on experience and interact with faculty.  If this means outsourcing the teaching of the 1000 students a year taking precalculus,  well, that’s too bad, but high schools and community colleges can teach those courses ok.  I don’t believe that UC should be teaching precalc—certainly not to a quarter of each incoming cohort!

Unfortunately, the budgetary pressure in recent years has been towards eliminating small grad courses and expensive-to-teach lab courses, and creating more and more mega-lecture courses.  These mega-lecture courses are relatively easy to replace with MOOCs, since the teaching in mega-lectures has already been degraded almost to the level of video lectures, with no interaction for most students. Once you start moving to a factory model of education, it starts becoming “obvious” to outsource the production to cheaper labor elsewhere, or to look for “economies of scale” that allow you to mass-produce a course.  I’m not convinced that there are economies of scale in education—I don’t think that it is really more cost-effective to teach 1000 students at once than 20 students at once.  You can make the course cheaper per student, but the cost in quality is pretty high.

The calculus e-book looks like a promising alternative to big lecture courses, though I suspect that not that many students will slog through it without someone holding their hands and cheering them on.  Even my son, who is very interested in math and quite good at it, finds it much easier to learn in the context of a class with regular meetings and feedback from the teachers than in a self-paced course with the same content—lack of time-management skills ruins self-paced courses for most students.  Of course, there is no reason that e-book has to be used in a self-paced course, but adding math coaches or teaching assistants to the course raises the cost of offering it to nearly the levels of a conventional  course. Furthermore, the time, money,  and effort involved in creating such an e-book means it is unlikely that UCSC will create many such resources.

The chair of the Committee on Educational Policy suggested that there would be a market for on-line courses in bioinformatics from UCSC, since UCSC is an acknowledged world leader in bioinformatics.  And it is true that there might be a market, but as the teacher for our core graduate bioinformatics course, I don’t think that our quality of education would survive a transfer to on-line format.

My “lectures” are very interactive—I try to get students to derive things like the Smith-Waterman algorithm and the forward-backward algorithm for HMMs from reasoning about how to break problems into sub-problems for dynamic programing.  I could present the algorithms in a textbook-like way in a quarter the time, eliminating the long waits for students to digest and idea and suggest a next step, eliminating the cold calls, eliminating the checks for understanding at every key point, … .  I can teach a group of 20 students in the same room with me, but I’d lose most of the useful feedback in an online setting.  I’d also lose the chats with students between classes—e-mail and forums do not bring up the same issues that come up when I stop by the grad office to get more hot water for my tea. Even recording my extemporaneous presentations would flatten them—I’m likely to be just enough nervous about making mistakes on camera that I’d play it safer, doing pre-canned examples, rather than riskier live-action math and algorithms that show how I think about problems, rather than just showing “the solution”.

Just Monday, when I was presenting a numeric example of computing HMM probabilities, I made a serious mistake that amounted to multiplying by two transition probabilities instead of just one in the first step.  It was caught by one of the students, and I could correct it and go on.  Today, after we together derived the more general recurrence relation for the forward algorithm, one student suggested an optimization that wouldn’t quite work, and I could point out that it was exactly the same as the mistake I had made near the end of Monday’s lecture.  With an online course, either the mistake wouldn’t have happened in the first place (if I polished my examples before presenting them, following a script rather than extemporizing), or the students would not have had the involvement to correct me or to propose optimizations that didn’t quite work.  Having a small class that has been encouraged to present ideas, to challenge me when I may be making a mistake, and to ask questions when they don’t understand is crucial to my teaching style, and having a record of the class is likely to ruin that.

I sometimes deliberately make mistakes and hope for the students to catch them—if they don’t, I have to spend more time stepping them through the pitfall, so that they can see it and avoid making the same mistake themselves.  At the beginning of the quarter, the students were pretty shy about saying anything, but I now have over half the class participating on a regular basis,  and even the weaker students are willing to ask about potential errors, though they ask more timidly than the stronger students, since there is a bigger chance that they are misunderstanding something, rather than pointing out my error.  Encouraging the students to correct my mistakes does get me more feedback about misunderstandings, when their attempts to correct something that is actually already correct highlights where they did not quite grasp a concept.

Even if we could somehow magically provide online all the visual cues and social interaction of the face-to-face classroom, I don’t think that we could scale up other aspects of the course: I’m already spending almost all my weekends providing detailed feedback on programs and papers for a class of around 16 students.  If we scaled the class up by even a factor of 2, we’d lose that detailed feedback, which I see as an essential part of the homework.  For many of the seniors and grad students, my reading of their programs and papers is the first time any professor has read any of their work closely—and they desperately need to hear how to fix their in-program documentation or how to reorganize their sentences to avoid flow problems.

Incidentally, in my other class (which includes many of the same first-year grad students), the students just finished doing 10-minute presentations on techniques from Teach Like a Champion.  Tomorrow, before we start reviewing the video recordings of their presentations, I think I’ll have them try to think about which of the techniques they presented that they have seen me use in the bioinformatics core course.  This year they presented Circulate, Ratio, Cold Call, the Hook, Pepper, Warm/Strict, Wait Time, No Warnings, Check for Understanding, Stretch It, Positive Framing, No Opt Out, Board=Paper, Call and Response, and Begin at the End.  I think that they’ll find that I use about half of those on a regular basis. (I leave it to my readers to guess which of these I don’t use much—those who had me as an instructor a decade or more ago might make different guesses than those who’ve had me recently, as I’ve gotten better about some things.) Note that most of the teaching techniques in Teach Like a Champion are difficult to apply in an online course.

I’m not planning to teach any on-line courses in the near future, and I’ll be putting my efforts into creating more of the interactive, lab-style courses that are difficult to replicate on-line (like the Applied Circuits course I’ve been designing for the past 5 months).  I think that the future of the university is in these high-interaction-level courses—artisanal education, not mass-produced factory education.  There will undoubtedly be a huge market for the Wal-marts of education, but that’s not where I want to work, nor where I want my son to be a student.


2010 November 6

Teach like a Champion in grad school

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:06
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I have previously posted on Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (and a critique of his “Name the Steps” as applied to math). But the book seems practical enough to be worth exposing students to.

I teach a how-to-be-a-graduate-student class to first-year grad students in my bioinformatics department, with the intent of preparing them for careers in research and teaching. New faculty members in many fields complain that they were never taught anything about how to teach, and so I thought it would be worthwhile to have the students learn something about teaching. This course is also the only training they get for being TAs, and we have students TA in several courses that require real teaching skills (for example, the Bioinformatics Tools course, which is taken by biologists with no understanding of computers, and the Bioethics class, where TAs have to run discussion sections in which students discuss difficult ethical questions).

This year I have instituted a new assignment, which takes up one of our nine 105-minute class periods:  each student is required to select one technique from the book and present it to the class.  I recorded the presentations with a video camera and will review them with the students individually.  This serves two purposes: getting the students to do some reading and thinking about teaching techniques and giving the students practice and feedback on presentation skills.

I bought a new video camera specifically for this assignment, an Everio HD620BU, a fairly low-cost HD camera that supposedly has good low-light performance.  Low-light performance was important to me, because I also want to use this camera for recording my son’s plays.  What I had not realized is how long it takes to download and process HD video.  The download from the camera to my laptop ran at about half real time (45 minutes for 90 minutes of movie), and exporting the video from iMovie into a low-resolution (640 × 360) format that can be shared takes about real time.  The movie took up 10 Gbytes on the camera, expanded to 47.7 Gbytes in iMovie, and exports in low-resolution format to about 1Gbyte. After verifying that the low-resolution movie is watchable, I’ll have to delete the HD version—47.7 Gbytes is too much disk space on my laptop for me to be comfortable keeping.

I found the user interface for iMovie rather unintuitive—nothing like other Mac tools I’ve used.  You can’t click and shift-click to select a region, the precision editor doesn’t scroll, everything has to be dragged (a pain with a touchpad), … .  I did finally manage to get titles in the upper left corner for the first 30 seconds of each clip, but it was much harder than I had expected.  I decided not to try to trim any of the clips, although there were a few seconds at the beginning and end of each clip that should have been cut.

2010 July 5

Math isn’t memory work

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:45
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As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m terrible at remembering things—names, faces, dates, all become a blur for me very quickly. That is why, as a young child I was attracted to mathematics.  There was very little memory work involved, and what little there was fit neatly into patterns, not as a jumble of unrelated factoids (which was my perception of all the history classes I ever had).

I recently read a critique of  Lemov’s Teach like a Champion by The Number Warrior, that points out the similarity between Lemov’s Technique 13, Name the Steps, and Devlin’s satirical title In Math You Have to Remember, In Other Subjects You Can Think About It. I think that both Devlin and the Number Warrior are correct in pointing out a major flaw in much math teaching: emphasis on memorizing procedures rather than understanding them.  Once you understand them most of the algorithms in elementary and secondary math are fairly trivial, but memorizing them without understanding is difficult and error-prone.

One of the great joys of math for me was that by learning only a few facts and some general thinking techniques, I could solve a huge variety of problems.  I was the sort of kid who never bothered to memorize the quadratic formula, because I could rederive it when I needed it.  (By college, I had used it enough that I did remember it, but I still derived most of the trig identities as I needed them, using only a few key facts, like that cos omega + i sin omega is the unit circle.)

In most of the courses I have taught, I am not interested in students learning many facts. What I want students to develop is skill at applying a few facts to a number of problems.  The subjects that develop these skills best are math and computer programming.  Computer programming is particularly good at developing skill at getting the details right (Lemov’s “Right is Right”), since the computer will do precisely what the students instruct it to, even if that is subtly or ludicrously wrong. The need to break big problems down into smaller pieces, work on the pieces separately, and still be able to put the pieces together again is particularly evident in programming.

I have little use for touchy-feely approaches to math education that result in neither memory nor understanding, or ones that insist that no child is capable of abstract thought so everything must be physically manipulable.  I think that the best pedagogy starts with interesting questions (“the hook”), then helps the students learn the tools needed to answer those questions. What’s nice about math is that good craftsmen can get by with a fairly small toolbox, if they learn how to use the tools well.

2010 June 16

Teach like a Champion

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:48
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I’ve been reading Doug Lemov’s new book Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College.  I find the emphasis on tiny teaching techniques interesting, and some of the techniques seem applicable to my university teaching as well as to the volunteer work I’ve done coaching math teams or teaching kids programming.  I am rather put off by the constant puffery of the chain of private or charter schools the author works for, as well as by the very poor copy editing.  I suppose an English teacher can be forgiven for not knowing the difference between a sum and a product (though how anyone gets past grade school without than knowledge is a mystery to me), but punctuation errors are not really excusable—it is the publisher’s job to hire a competent copy editor, even if the author hasn’t the skill to punctuate and choose words carefully.

I’m only about halfway through the book, and I need to return it to the library tomorrow (no renewal for Interlibrary Loan)—I now have to decide whether it is interesting enough to buy my own copy to finish the book. I’ve also been considering whether to require the book for my “how to be a graduate student” course.  Although TAs and faculty often complain about never having been taught how to teach, I doubt that even 10% of the grad students would find the book gripping enough to actually read it, especially as none of the grad students in my department aspire to become elementary-school teachers.  My best bet may be to select out the material I think is relevant for university faculty and teach just those little snippets.  I can get the university library to buy a copy of the book, on the off chance that some student might want to read the source and find out how badly I’ve mangled it.

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