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2013 May 24

Learning from theater

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:31
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I’ve been thinking about Mark Guzdial’s post from about a month ago, Learning about learning in a musical: The power of deliberate practice in a whole setting.

I could go on and on. A prop is missing, a costume breaks, someone flubs their line or doesn’t get on stage quick enough. Things happen, and people have to think on their feet. Let’s compare this to introductory computer science class, where students famously have difficulty figuring out one way to do something in 10–15 weeks of practice. Or when they do something the one way that they can figure out, it just barely works and the code is frequently awful — ugly and hard to read.

How did everyone involved in the musical learn so much, so well, in such a short amount of time? And why doesn’t that happen so often in formal education?

I have noticed the same thing in theater classes that my son is involved in (though he doesn’t do musicals)—that there is often a high level of performance and flexible response to problems after very short preparation time.  I’ve seen plays in which one of the lead actors breaks an arm between the Saturday and Sunday shows, and one of the tech crew takes over the role, despite never having studied the script—and does well with it.

Most of the productions my son has been in have very tight schedules: usually 20–30 hours of rehearsal  total before the production.  In some classes, the kids didn’t even get the full script until 2 days before the production.  Yet they coped with the challenges and performed at a high level.  When a line was flubbed or a cue missed, the other actors covered and recovered—sometimes with only a few in the audience realizing that there had been a miscue.  (The teen ensemble is very good at this—especially since many of them are in an improv troupe together—but even 9- and 10-year-olds can do it.)

Of course, it isn’t always that way.  There was one performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream that is memorable for the sheer awfulness.  The students had supposedly been working on it for an entire semester, but only two of them were off book (my son, as Puck, was one of them) and most did not know their blocking and mumbled their lines.  One of the best moments of the play turned out to be an improvisation—they’d never bothered to make (or even think about) a prop or costume for Bottom’s transformation, so as the actor entered he grabbed a pair of Uggs that had been left beside the  stage and used them for Bottom’s donkey ears.  The whole performance was comparable to Mark’s comment about typical student code: “Or when they do something the one way that they can figure out, it just barely works and the code is frequently awful—ugly and hard to read.”

What was the difference between that awful production and the 30 or more good ones my son has been in?  Does an answer to that question address Mark’s questions: “How did everyone involved in the musical learn so much, so well, in such a short amount of time? And why doesn’t that happen so often in formal education?”

One difference was that the awful production was a private school class, and the good productions were after-school or summer classes that parents had to pay money to register their students in.  Many of the students in the school class were just there to satisfy an arts requirement with the minimum of effort, while almost all the kids in the other productions had begged their parents to let them do the class.  Kids doing something because they love it perform at much higher levels than kids looking for minimal-effort passes.  Having a part with a lot of lines is desirable for the actors by choice, so they make an extra effort at learning lines, in order to get meatier parts in future productions.  Having lots of lines to learn is not desirable for those trying to get a minimal pass, and they make no effort.

Parental support for the kids’ learning is also much higher with the opt-in courses: the parents had chosen to invest specifically in the theater class for their kids, and so were very willing to take the time to make sure that the kids ran their lines every night.  Parents who sent their kids off to private school often felt that they had done their job by paying the (high) tuition, and everything else was up to the school to handle.

Another important point is that many of the kids in the school play had never acted before and did not realize how much work a good production takes.  They thought that they could fake their way through it with minimum effort, the way they did in many of their academic classes.  In the after-school and summer theater classes, the majority of the students had done one or more productions previously with the same director and could set a good example for the newer students.  The culture of “good enough” is common in schools, but not so common among aspiring actors.

The adult supervision of the courses was also quite different: the director for the awful Midsummer Night’s Dream was changed in middle due to illness, and there wasn’t a clean transition. (Note: the drama club at the same school, with the same director, the same year, put on an excellent production, and so I think that the biggest differences were in the students, not the adults.)

So what does this all say about CS education?

Mark Guzdial quotes Anders Ericsson:

 I am suggesting that Ericsson’s conditions for developing expertise are present here: “The most cited condition concerns the subjects’ motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.”

Motivation was the big difference I saw between the successful and the unsuccessful plays (even first-time-on-stage kids often do quite well), but it is certainly the case that the students get a lot of feedback as well, generally very shortly after each run-through of a scene.  The kids do repeatedly run each scene, though nowhere near the number of repetitions that Ericsson believes is necessary.

Mark also says

The actors and stagehands in a musical know where we’re going.  We have a complete picture of the role of each piece.  We know what a good show looks like.  We focus on this number here, and this set change there, but there’s no question that everything is supposed to fit together.  It’s not like “We’re learning recursion, and I’m not sure why I’d ever want to do this.”  Students in formal education often don’t understand the relevance of what they’re learning, of how it all fits together.

I’m not so sure that the actors know where they’re going the whole time.  They know generically what a good show looks like, but they don’t know how any particular play is going to come together—at least not in the 2-week classes my son has mostly taken.  The directors and the actors are usually still tinkering with the blocking and lighting an hour before the show opens.  I’ve seen substantial changes between a Friday show and the Saturday show.

I don’t think a highly structured knowledge of the endpoint is what makes the group work of theater so productive—quite the opposite.  I think that willingness to experiment and to keep trying to improve even after it is “good enough” is more important.

I also think that group work of theater, where everyone has to do their part for the whole thing to succeed, is very different from the group work of school, which is almost always make-work that takes a job best done by one person and makes it harder by requiring multiple people to work on it at once. In theater, the production nearly always requires many actors and a tech crew—people have to work together to get anything done.

Everyone in the theater is focused on the same goal—making a great production—and they are all willing to work hard on achieving that goal, even if no one notices what they have done individually.  It is very, very rare that any school project gets that level of commitment (I’ve seen it occasionally in engineering project courses, when the students really want their project to excel and the goal itself is exciting to them).

I’ve yet to see a first programming course in which assignments really gripped all the students, and I’ve never seen one in which multiple people on a team worked any better or faster than the best person on the team working alone.  The problems that can be given in a first programming class are simply too small for team work.

Another difference between CS classes and theater classes is that the CS classes often try to provide uniform outcomes: everyone in the class will be able to use certain language constructs or data structures, or understand certain key concepts.  Theater classes tend to take in students with a wide range of prior training and skills (from first time on stage to 12 years of experience in some of the classes my son has been in) and provide some growth for each student. It may be that no two students in the class come out learning the same skills. One may be working on better voice projection, another on learning longer lines, another on stage combat, another physical comedy, another how to walk in high heels, … .  The teacher’s goal is to use everyone’s strengths and build on them to produce both a pleasing shared product and useful learning for each student.

I don’t have a prescription for taking pedagogy that is successful in theater and converting it into pedagogy that is successful in CS.  The goals of the courses and the modes of working are different enough that I’m not sure that there is much overlap in what pedagogy works.  One thing that is true of both theater and CS  is that passion for the subject and diligent practice go a long way towards improving performance.

2012 October 29

More on group work

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:23
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I have often spoken out about the mis-use of group work in today’s schools, grouping kids together to do projects that could more efficiently be done individually. (See, for example, Group work)  I’m not opposed to group work that is genuine (for example, in theater, sports, or engineering senior design projects).  Nor am I opposed to pairing students in labs to share equipment.

My objection is to the idea that forcing kids to work together on projects that they could more easily do separately somehow prepares them for the workforce, or is “good for them” in some other way.

Another person who sees group work in a similar light is Katherine Beals. Her latest post, Out In Left Field: Real-world group work, talks about how groups in the “real world” of work are organized, and how greatly this differs from the usual school “group work”.  The basic idea is that most “group work” in the real world consists of occasional group meetings separated by intense individual work, and that groups are often highly hierarchical.  Who the boss is and how effective they are makes an enormous difference in how well a group works.

2012 October 3

SBG and partner work in circuits class

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:42
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I got the course approval forms for the Applied Circuits for Bioengineers course and lab signed by my chair today, and the department manager has already sent them up the pipeline to the next stage of the process.  Basically, the forms disappear into a black hole at this point, and decisions or questions come back in a few weeks, either from the associate dean or from the Committee on Educational Policy.  Unless politics interferes, the courses should be approved in time to advertise them before Winter quarter.  Right now, I put the probability of the courses being offered this winter at over 90% (way up from a couple of weeks ago, when my estimate of the probability had dropped to 20%).

Of course, I have to finish the course design in time, and I just realized that my weekends the quarter are going to be consumed by grading for my bioinformatics grad class, which has 25 students and no TA.  I think that this is going to mean late nights working on the course design.  I’m wondering whether I’m going to be able to keep up on the physics homework that I’m assigning my son and me for the home-school physics class.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is (perhaps) trying standards-based grading (SBG) in the circuits class.  I think that is doable in the lab course, where we will be putting together a list of lab skills that students need to demonstrate anyway, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to do it for the lecture course.  I’m going to have a hard enough time coming up with enough “assessments” (test/quiz questions) for conventional grading, and standards-based grading seems to rely on having a much larger stock of assessments.  We may end up with a hybrid scheme of checklists of skills for the lab and conventional grading for the book learning.

Another idea I had was about doing group work.  The only lab available with enough equipment (and its availability is far from guaranteed) is set up as 12 stations with 24 seats (2 students per station). Since we are expecting far more than 12 students, we will have to pair students for the lab.  But I have an aversion to forced group work on tasks that are more easily done by one person.  I want to be sure that the pairs are not just one student working and one watching.

Given that most of the students will be in an electronics lab for the first time, pairing students at stations is not a bad idea. A lot of the labs involve manipulating something (voltage, frequency, …) and recording measurements.  Having two people working together (one manipulating, the other recording) is likely to result in better records, though one person could do it alone.

I’m considering requiring that each lab be done with a different partner.  This means that most students would get the opportunity to be both the stronger partner and the weaker one and would practice being helpful in both situations.  No one would be stuck with a freeloader for the whole term nor with a partner who whizzes through everything without involving them.  It also means that students will learn who makes a good work partner and who doesn’t, so that if they need to form a team for a senior project, they know some people to try to include on the team (and some to avoid).  I think that this scheme would have to be done by assigning partners, as allowing free selection could result in some people never getting chosen as partners.  Setting up the partner scheme, adapting it to students dropping the course, and making sure that all students know who their partner is for the next lab so that they can do the prelab work together all add a little extra logistics to this scheme.

One question we need to think about is whether lab reports should be written by the pair, with both names on one report, or whether there should be separate lab reports.  Currently, I’m leaning towards one report per pair, since they will be collecting the data together, doing the design work together, and demonstrating the working design together.  The weaker writers in the class would probably not get enough practice and feedback, since their partners will end up doing most of the writing, but requiring separate reports would probably not fix this problem, since they need to share a lot of content.

2012 February 21

Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work : The New Yorker

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:35
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In The New Yorker recently was an excellent article by : Groupthink—The brainstorming myth.  He gives some of the history of the popular group technique known as brainstorming (popularized by Osborn’s 1948 book Your Creative Power), then summarizes the literature on the subject:

Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.

It turns out that groups are much more creative (both in quantity and quality of ideas) if they are encouraged both to put forth ideas and to criticize them.  Debating ideas—defending them and modifying them to address critiques—is more productive than uncritical brainstorming.  This does not surprise me, as some of the most productive collaborations I’ve had involved back-and-forth debates about the best ways to do things, which each of us working hard to show that our idea was better (but backing off when the other really did have a better idea—a pissing match is even less productive than brainstorming).

I’ve been trying to train the teen robotics club I’m coaching to put forth lots of ideas, but to look for advantages and disadvantages in each idea, so that can come up with lots of alternatives, but they don’t waste a lot of time pursuing ideas that have obvious problems.  The next time I teach (or co-teach) a senior design class, I’ll try to remember to give them this article as a counterweight to the Ideo video that extolls uncritical brainstorming.

Lehrer also reports on research done on scientific collaborations:

The best research was consistently produced when scientists were working within ten metres of each other; the least cited papers tended to emerge from collaborators who were a kilometre or more apart.

This does not bode well for our department, as our 10 faculty are spread out over 4 buildings (soon to be 5 buildings).  I’ve already noticed that within-department collaborations are becoming limited to those who who see each other in the hall most days, except for a couple of formal collaborations that have weekly or biweekly meetings to try to get some face-to-face time.  I’m more likely to collaborate with microbiologists (one floor up) than with machine-learning or genomics experts (220m away), because I’m much more likely to see them casually, even though their work is somewhat further from mine conceptually.


2012 January 15

Individual work in collaborations

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:09
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I have protested in this blog before about the excessive use of inappropriate group work in schools, though recognizing that there are projects that are big enough or varied enough that groups are the appropriate way to tackle them.

A much more eloquent article on the subject by Susan Cain was just published in the NY Times: The Rise of the New Groupthink.

There are nice sound bites like

But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases.

She does suggest that on-line brainstorming may work better than in-person brainstorming, quoting Proust’s description of reading as a “miracle of communication in the midst of solitude”.  Her prescription for effective teamwork seems reasonable to me:

To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.

I certainly have found that my best collaborative work has come out of fairly incidental contacts (meeting someone from another department in a hallway, chatting after a research seminar, talking with a student in someone else’s research group), followed by days or weeks of intensive work on the problem.

My sabbatical this year has been going through fertile and dead periods.  The dead periods have been times when I was not getting any contact with students and colleagues, and was not getting anything done.  The fertile periods were intense bursts of activity by myself after a chance contact with someone sparked an interest in a particular problem.

Most recently, I’ve been working on putting together a bioinformatics protocol that will let us reconstruct the cagY genes from hundreds of strains of Helicobacter pylori using PacBio sequencing.  Most of the sequencing technologies are not suitable for this gene, as it has long blocks of many repeats that vary from strain to strain.  Because the tandem replication is very recent (divergence between the strains may be only a few generations earlier) and there is selective pressure to maintain the open reading frame, the different repeats are often identical for long stretches, making short-read data nearly impossible to assemble. Even Sanger sequencing to confirm the gene assembly is difficult, as it is hard to find unique primer locations.

I started this project as a result of a short discussion with a couple of H. pylori researchers, but I spent weeks writing programs and Makefiles, testing them, twiddling parameters to see if they were robust, and so on.  I could not have done the work without the collaboration (I needed someone who had a difficult, interesting problem and the data to work on), but I could not have done the work if someone had kept interrupting me or making suggestions either.  The project would probably have died halfway through if I had had to do it with my usual teaching load, as I was spending 12–16 hours a day on it for weeks.

I need to alternate between working alone and contact with others. Sometimes talking through a problem with someone who understands and can ask good questions helps me clarify my thinking, after which I need hours or days to work out the details, after which I want to share again.

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