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Inside an Effective Computer Science Classroom

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Judy Robertson

I hope our colleagues in the US had a happy national computer science education week last week. I celebrated it by running a 2.5 day teacher training workshop so I had a good supply of (startled) computing teachers to hug. (To be honest, the workshop was planned well before I realised it was a special week, but why waste an opportunity?)

While we're thinking about education, I thought it might be interesting to share some general approaches to teaching which I have recently read about and consider how they might apply to computer science classrooms, particularly at a university level where I teach.

I attended a very interesting talk by Guy Claxton about his book “What the point of school?”  which has some extremely controversial things to say about the UK primary and secondary school system. His criticisms might well apply in other countries, and they certainly do in higher education in the UK.

Here are some features of “powerful school environments” which Guy Claxton identifies, posed as questions. When you learned computer science (or in the classroom where you teach), what were the answers to these questions?


  • Did teachers ask genuine, meaty questions (which they don’t know the answer to) and give pupils time to think about the answers? Or, as in many classroooms, do 80% of the questions asked by teachers require simple recall of facts or procedures which the learners know the teachers must know the answer to? Does the lecturer say “Any questions?” at the end of a 50 minute presentation, pause for a nano-second and then say “OK, see you next week”?

  • What do the displays of work tell you about what is valued in learning?Do wall displays celebrate the product of learning (i.e. the learners' best work) or the process of learning? The author mentions a primary school he visited where the art teacher had helped the children create a display of “mistake” sunflowers – the ones which weren't perfect but which they learned the most from making. One of my best students once made a “bloopers reel” of the weird things that went wrong when he was learning to program 3D graphics in OpenGL. The idea is to value the journey of learning itself, rather than the final result.

  • Are mistakes valued? Sometimes the best learning happens through making mistakes, getting feedback and realising for yourself where you went wrong. I have a school teacher colleague who has a plenary session with her class every day where they discuss “interesting mistakes I made today”. She joins in. The intention is to create a less stressful environment with more robust learners who are not frightened of failure, and so who are willing to take more risks.

  • Do learners do activities or sit and listen?Yes, we all know the mantra of “active learning”. So why are lectures still so common in higher education and what alternative can exist even in huge first year classes? As a related concept, the author points out that “busyness” is not the same as learning by which he is taking a swipe at repetitive worksheets which give the learners something to do but do not introduce or consolidate learning concepts.

  • Do learners know why they are doing an exercise? Or are they asked to simply accept that it will be good for them because the instructor says so?

  • Are the teachers ever in role of learner? This is important because of the attitude towards learning which it reveals to the learners. If they see that their teacher doesn't know everything but is willing to learn and is able to share strategies for finding things out, then they realise that learning is not just about the recall of factual knowledge. They realise that learning is a life long enterprise and that “experts” are in that position partly because they know how to learn effectively. I often run into problems with this one because I have some Masters students who are deeply troubled by the idea that their lecturers are not omniscient. They want to pay money and in exchange have their brains filled up with knowledge. The idea that they might have to process the knowledge in some way, or that some concepts may be under dispute or currently unknowable is alarming for students for some cultural backgrounds. But after all, technology changes rapidly and scientific theory does advance so we all have to keep learning to stay on top of the field.

You may not agree with the theory or attitudes underlying these questions, but they are provocative, certainly in the UK. For all I know, it is commonly accepted practice in other countries. Questioning assumptions behind our ever day practice as educators keeps us on our toes.




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