# Gas station without pumps

## 2014 November 24

### A seat at the table

We in the Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) community are aiming to achieve a similar kind of social engineering that the Gamergate supporters are complaining about. I am part of a vast, international (though maybe not particularly well-organized) conspiracy to change computing culture and to invade computing with many women and members of under-represented groups. We are “actively plotting to influence” computing. The Gamergate supporters argue that the conspiracy is about “artistic aspirations.” In BPC, we say that we’re about social justice, equity, and diversity. From the perspective of the “engineered,” the difference in purpose may not make much difference. One of the pushbacks on the call I shared to eliminate nerd culture was, “Can’t we just shape/change nerd culture?” Do the nerds want to be changed?

What might a response to BPC look like? Might well-prepared, privileged male and white/asian CS students complain about efforts to give seats in classes to women or under-represented minorities whom they may perceive as less-prepared?

I have no objection to giving seats in classes to anyone capable of  learning the material, but I believe that this needs to be done by increasing the number of seats, not taking them away from other students.  I’m all in favor of expanding the pipeline, but not of holding back those who have already started on the path, so that others can “catch up”.

There’s a general awareness that there’s a problem, but there’s less conviction that it’s an important problem or that there’s an obvious way forward to fixing it.

I agree that the problem of gender imbalance and racial imbalance in CS is an important one, but I’m less convinced than Mark that there is an obvious, equitable way to fix the problem. He seems to think that lotteries are the way to go:

I understand why caps are going into place. We can’t support all these students, and there are no additional resources coming. What else can CS departments do? We might think about a lottery or using something beyond CS GPA to get those seats, something that’s more equitable.

I disagree with him strongly on this. I responded on Mark’s post with the following comment:

I’m not sure that I agree with “We can’t support all these students, and there are no additional resources coming. What else can CS departments do? We might think about a lottery or using something beyond CS GPA to get those seats, something that’s more equitable.”

Granting access to a limited resource to those whose prior achievement is highest seems to me to be highly equitable. Denying higher achievers because they are of the wrong race or gender does not.

Increasing the resources available for teaching, so that we don’t have to restrict who majors in a field seems like a good strategy, as does providing slower on-ramps for those who did not have good early training. But denying entrance to those who may have dedicated their lives to the field, just because others did not have (or did not take) the opportunity to reach that level of achievement—that does not seem “equitable” to me.

Note: I may be biased here, because my son is a white male majoring in computer science who has been doing recreational programming as a major activity since he was 10 years old. I would be very offended if he had to win a slot in the major by a lottery—college admissions alone is enough of a lottery these days.

Are we then to tell students not to form any intellectual passions in middle school or high school, because doing so will get them labeled as “privileged” and denied further opportunity? Or should they only form passions for things that no one cares about, so that no one will try to take their passions away from them?

Although I’m not fond of sports analogies, it is common for people to point out the absurdity of the lottery position by suggesting that the same be applied to sports teams. The football teams at the Big 10 schools should not consist of those privileged athletes who started young, got the best training, and had the best performance in high schools, but should be assigned by lottery to anyone who is interested in playing, even if they have never picked up a football in their lives. Why should only those who had the good fortune to be large, fast, and strong be allowed to play?

Michael S. Kirkpatrick countered my comment with

It’s often so hard to be objective when it comes to perceptions of equity. As Anatole France observed, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.” The open question is whether those students truly are higher achievers, or if they are just starting from an advantageous position. In that case, would it not be more equitable to give the opportunity for students who did not have prior opportunities?

His argument makes the assumption that primary goal of college education is a social justice function—to provide opportunity for those who have not previously had it. While a generous impulse, this philosophy taken to extremes results in eliminating grad schools and upper-division courses to create more freshman courses, and even replacing freshman courses with remedial courses, resulting in college as very expensive high school (or, in the case of some athletes in scandal-ridden schools, grade school).  Increasing opportunity is a great thing, but it shouldn’t be allowed to kill off the other great things about universities: like the opportunity for people to stretch their minds to the limit, to share ideas with other intelligent and passionate people, and to advance the state of the art. While universities do serve an important role in aiding social mobility, it is not, in fact, their primary function in society.

A variant of Kirkpatrick’s argument has often been used to kill off gifted education in public schools (because of a correlation between socio-economic status and identification for gifted programs)—forcing the parents of gifted students to take on educating their children themselves, which only the wealthy (or upper middle class) can easily afford to do. This approach increases the disparity between the wealthy and the poor, as the gifted students with less wealthy parents get much more limited educations—defeating the original goals of “equity” that killed off the public programs for gifted students.

There are good reasons why many parents of gifted kids started referring to “No Child Left Behind” as “No Child Allowed Ahead”, as it was much easier for schools to reduce their achievement gaps by slowing down the students who were learning fastest than by speeding up those learning slowest. Guzdial’s approach to rationing CS education seems to be following the same model.

Bonnie responded to Guzdial’s post with comments about what her college is doing to broaden participation, speaking both of successes and failures, and ending with

I just don’t know how we can make up for the poor education they received in K12. And that, I think, is where the true inequity lies.

Here I agree with Bonnie—if the problem is that some students get support early and others get support late, the solution is not to slam the door in the faces of those who got early support, but try to extend early support to more people. For that matter, I’m not in favor of slamming the door shut on anyone.  I don’t buy Guzdial’s assumption that this is a zero-sum game and that the only way we can have more women and URMs in CS is to have fewer white or Asian males. I think that there is plenty of room in the tent still for everyone who is interested and willing to work at learning the material.  We should not be rationing education, but providing enough education that everyone can get as much as they want.

In response to a different commenter, Guzdial wrote

We’re not talking about employees, Ian. We’re talking about seats at the table for students. If you get more women and under-represented minorities enthused about CS, there are still not enough seats at the table. If we’re going to allocate seats based on current ability, we have to get women and URM students to be better than privileged white boys. That’s a really high bar.

You may be under the misconception that computing is a meritocracy. It’s not. It’s not those with the most merit. It’s those with the most privilege.

It is almost certainly true the computer industry is not a meritocracy—but we should be trying to make it one, not rationing out education like butter in WW II. If there are not enough seats at the table, then buy a bigger table with more chairs! That will cost less in the long run than squabbling over who gets seated now.

## 2014 November 22

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:08
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A couple of weeks ago, Peter Sipe published an article How to challenge voracious young readers, in which he talked about famous authors who were anti-school (Thomas DeQuincey, W. Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, Roald Dahl, Morrissey, …). He points out that these authors may well have been autodidacts:

Which brings me back to the question of how I can make a difference for my gifted students. What these authors wrote about school does offer guidance. I find it instructive that they seem to have gained their erudition despite school, not because of it. Accordingly, I don’t think young DeQuincey et al. would much need a sixth-grade reading teacher.

But perhaps they could use a helpful librarian.

I think that it is very difficult for the average teacher in the US to make much difference for a gifted student—they don’t have the time, the training, the desire, nor (in some cases) the intelligence to inspire the gifted students. And their job, as set down by the administration and the politicians, is to get the slowest students up to minimal standards, not to help the gifted students move ahead more rapidly. In fact, many politicians and educrats would prefer it if the teachers held the gifted students back from learning, so that all students were performing at exactly the same level, doing exactly the same things. (A lot still haven’t gotten the message that equitable education doesn’t mean giving every student exactly the same lesson at the same time.)

The notion of turning over a lot of the education of gifted students to books is not a bad one—and a good librarian can recommend books to students more easily than a teacher can make up worksheets. A lot of gifted students would benefit more from reading books that are in their “zone of proximal development” than from doing classroom exercises that practice skills they mastered years earlier or from playing teacher’s helper and trying to explain stuff that it obvious to them to kids who really need help from those trained in content pedagogy.

But there are limits to what one can learn from books alone—there are skills that require practice to perfect, and reading about them is not the same thing as practicing them. The hard part with teaching gifted students is in providing them with appropriately challenging problems that will exercise and improve their skills without boring them or frustrating them too much. Finding appropriate problems is a major challenge for teaching any student, but for students clustered near the middle of the range that teachers teach, there are a lot of materials already prepared, and teachers have been well-trained to recognize and address those students’ needs. School districts have to provide specially trained special-ed instructors for students who are way behind the average, but they generally do little or nothing for those who are more advanced.

I think that the fields that have succeeded best at providing materials for challenging gifted students are mathematics (Project Euler and the courses and books from Art of Problem Solving, for example), computer programming (lots of different paths for getting into programming), and engineering (especially with the current popularity of the Maker movement and various robotics team projects).  Students can also progress fairly easily to adult levels in reading, since books at all levels are widely available, but there isn’t much for getting practice in humanities fields, nor social sciences, or even most of the physical and biological sciences.  Students interested in those fields may have to remain content with being autodidacts, and just reading about their fields, at least until they get into college (and sometimes until they get into grad school).

I don’t think schools in general do a very good job of teaching gifted students, but giving them unfettered access to a good library is one way to undo the damage caused by the schooling. Adding in access to challenging problems and tools for making things (with mentors to help them learn to use the tools) could turn the rather dismal current (lack of) education for gifted children into something really productive of learning.  Of course, the same access can and should be given to other students, though few will make much use of the library.

## 2013 August 8

### Hard Math for Elementary School

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:34
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Hard Math for Elementary School by Glenn Ellison: (ISBN 9781489507174) looks like a book I could have used with my son about 8 years ago (too bad it was just published a couple of months ago).

The premise is simple: it is a math enrichment textbook, intended to take the topics of elementary school math deeper for gifted students.

The presentation is good, but the students will have to be reading at the 4th grade level as well as doing math at that level to get much out of the book.  This is not a flashy book with lots of illustrations and stories—it is just cool math, presented as cool math.

Disclaimer: I don’t have a copy of the book, and I haven’t read much of it. I used Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to look at the table of contents and a couple of pages, and saw such gems as calculation tricks for computing some squares (like 552=3025) quickly.  (The trick is based on $(x+y)(x-y)=x^2-y^2$, but the author wisely avoids algebraic notation.)

Reviews from people who have looked at it in more detail can be found at http://albanyareamathcircle.blogspot.com/2013/05/recommended-summer-reading-for-young.html and http://blog.supplysideliberal.com/post/53817714552/glenn-ellisons-new-book-hard-math-for-elementary

Glenn also has a book for middle school students: Hard Math for Middle School

## 2012 May 13

### Advanced Placement for talent development

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:15
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Since we are in the middle of AP testing for this year, it is timely that Hoagies’ Gifted has just posted Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska’s keynote speech from August 2000: The Role of Advanced Placement in Talent Development.

In this speech to teachers of Advanced Placement courses, Dr. VanTassel-Baska argues that AP courses are critical for gifted students, as a means of differentiating instruction for them. She said things like

In the late 1970’s gifted students reported AP to be the most beneficial program taken during their high school years. This perception has not changed appreciably over the intervening decades (Kolitch & Brody, 1992).

Of course, since she gave the talk in 2000, there has been a big push to get more students into AP courses, so that many of the courses are no longer all that suited for gifted kids.  Even at that time, she pointed out

One issue that Advanced Placement teachers need to be aware of is the different levels of aptitude for a particular AP course. The range of ability in AP classes is typically very great. Even if all students were identified as gifted, the range would be as broad as in heterogeneous classes. Such differences in aptitude level require more attention to addressing individual needs. Because AP course work probes depth of understanding, it tends to reveal greater disparity in student learning. Level of aptitude may predict how much material students can handle well, how capable they are to work independently, and how strong they are conceptually with the material. Use of various forms of flexible grouping for in-class work may be an antidote to this problem. Organizing sections of AP by ability levels may also be useful in subjects where enrollments are sufficiently high.

The trend to lower the barrier to entry for AP courses over the last decade has made this problem worse. The teaching strategies that are most effective for the bottom half of a current AP course may be quite unsuitable for the kids in the top quarter, who don’t need many routine practice problems, but rather a smaller number of more challenging questions that stretch their minds.

While AP courses may still be the best option available to most gifted high school students, many need to look elsewhere for teaching at their level. Community college courses sometimes provide this, though that varies enormously, as many community college courses are intended to remediate inadequate high school preparation for college, and may be taught in an even less suitable way for gifted students than AP courses.

Sometimes sufficient challenge can be found by skipping prereqs—the review built into the beginning of most courses can serve as a fast-paced introduction to the material for a gifted student.  This is essentially what we did by teaching my son a course that covers AP Physics C: Mechanics, with no previous physics courses.  He had picked up almost everything from a conceptual physics course by reading various popular books about physics, and his math was strong enough that he did not need the crutch of algebra-based physics, but could jump right into calculus-based physics.  (Actually, I think that calculus-based physics is somewhat easier, if you have the math, since there are fewer formulas to memorize—a lot can be trivially rederived from the definitions of force as the derivative of momentum with respect to time and of potential energy with respect to displacement, for example.)

I think that one problem with AP classes as a primary means of teaching gifted high school students is an extension of a common problem in gifted education in lower grades: what the students need is work that is more complex and sophisticated, not more work.  Too many AP courses pile on drudgery, in the mistaken belief that this makes them more like college courses. (See my analysis in How many AP courses are too many?)  This overload of marginally useful work prevents them from taking on more independent, non-curricular projects (like science fair, debate, theater, or internships) from which they would actually learn more.

I’m not saying that I think that AP courses are a bad idea, nor that gifted students should avoid them.  There are times when an AP course is precisely what a gifted student needs and other times when it is the best available choice. Taking AP courses is one of many ways for gifted students to learn, just not always the best way.

## 2012 March 11

### CS Summer Camp

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:54
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On the mailing lists for parents of gifted kids, people often ask about the best computer summer camps.  Even more often, they ask for people’s experiences with nationally advertised programs.  So far, the general consensus has been that none of the computer camps work particularly well for gifted kids:  the pace is too slow, the teachers don’t know enough, and most of the kids in the camp aren’t passionate enough about computers to be good peers.

That was my son’s experience a few years ago when he tried an idTech camp, and it seems to be a common experience for gifted kids in almost all the summer computer camps, no matter who is providing them.

There are several summer math camps that don’t have this problem, so it is not just a matter of gifted kids being hard to please. Rather, I think it is a deliberate attempt to reach the “average” kid that makes the usual computing summer camp useless for gifted kids.

Mark Guzdial, in his blog post The Best CS Summer Camp Paper: Sustainable, Effective, and Replicable, talks about a paper by his wife, Barbara Ericson, Sustainable and Effective Computing Summer Camps.  The paper talks about programs at Georgia Tech that are self-supporting and not very expensive (after a whole lot of initial expenses covered by grants). Since this was a paper for SIGCSE (special interest group in computer science education), the paper talks about the measurable outcomes as well as how the camp was funded and organized.

There is good evidence that their summer camp programs are doing what they set out to do:

improve access to computing, increase students’ confidence in their ability to succeed in computing, increase students’ knowledge of computing concepts, and change students’ attitudes about computing.

The programs themselves sound a lot like all the other summer camps: fun for average or above average kids, but offering nothing for the passionate gifted kids who want something more than playing with Scratch or App Inventor.

Where are the computer equivalents of Awesome Math Camp  (which I blogged about a couple of year ago) or RSI (Research Science Institute)?  I’ve not found them.

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