This section includes material that doesn’t naturally fit anywhere else.
This material has been taught as a multi-week online class, as a two-day in-person class, and as a two-day class in which the learners are in co-located groups and the instructor participates remotely.
When we talk about workshops, we will try to be clear about whether we’re discussing ones whose subject is programming, which are aimed at general learners, and those whose subject is how to teach, which are using this material.
In our experience, this is the most effective way to deliver an instructor training workshop.
Participants are physically together for one or two days. When they need to work in small groups (e.g., for practice teaching), some or all of them go to nearby breakout spaces. Participants bring their own tablets or laptops to view and edit online material during the class, and use pen and paper and/or whiteboards for some exercises.
Participants use Etherpad or Google Doc for in-person training, both for shared note-taking and for posting exercise solutions and feedback on recorded lessons. Questions and discussion are done aloud.
Several times during the training, participants are put in groups of three to teach for 2-3 minutes. The mechanics are described later, and while participants are initially intimidated at first, they routinely rank it as the most useful part of the class.
In this format, learners are in groups of 4-12, but those groups are geographically distributed.
Each class uses an Etherpad or Google Doc for shared note-taking, and more importantly for asking and answering questions: having several dozen people try to talk on a call works poorly, so in most sessions, the instructor does the talking and learners respond through the note-taking tool’s chat.
Each group of learners is together in a room using one camera and microphone, rather than each being on the call separately. We have found that having good audio matters more than having good video, and that the better the audio, the more learners can communicate with the instructor and other rooms by voice rather than by using the Etherpad chat.
We do the video lecture exercise as in the two-day in-person training.
This was the first format we used, and we no longer recommend it.
We met every week or every second week for an hour via web conferencing. Each meeting was held twice (or even three times) to accommodate learners’ time zones and because video conferencing systems can’t handle 60+ people at once.
We used web conferencing and shared note-taking as described above for online group classes.
Learners posted homework online between classes, and commented on each other’s work. (In practice, comments were relatively rare: people seemed to prefer to discuss material in the web chats.)
We used a WordPress blog for the first ten rounds of training, then a GitHub-backed blog, and finally Piazza. WordPress worked best: setting up accounts was tedious, but everything after that ran smoothly. Using a GitHub blog worked so poorly that we didn’t try it again: a third of the participants found it extremely frustrating, and post-publication commentary was awkward. Piazza was better than GitHub, but still not as easy for participants to pick up as WordPress. In particular, it was hard to find things once there were more than a dozen homework categories.
Educational psychology is the study of how people learn. It touches on everything from the neuropsychology of perception and the mechanisms of memory to the sociology of school systems and the philosophical question of what we actually mean by “learning” (which turns out to be pretty complicated once you start looking beyond the standardized Western classroom). Within the broad scope of educational psychology, two specific perspectives have primarily influenced our teaching practices (and by extension, this instructor training).
The first perspective is cognitivism, which treats learning as a problem in neuropsychology. Cognitivists focus their attention on things like pattern recognition, memory formation, and recall. It is good at answering low-level questions, but generally ignores larger issues like, “What do we mean by ‘learning’?” and, “Who gets to decide?”
The second perspective is situated learning, which focuses on how legitimate peripheral participation leads to people becoming members of a community of practice. Unpacking those terms, the situated learning perspective focuses on the transition from being a newcomer to being accepted as a peer by those who already do the activity in question. Situated learning is directly relevant to our learners, many of whom ease into scientific computing by doing small tasks that experienced practitioners would regard as straightforward, but who learn how to take on bigger and more novel challenges both from what they do and from the feedback (and welcome) it elicits. It is equally relevant to our instructors (i.e., you), who are approaching evidence-based teaching in the same way.
For example, Software Carpentry aims to serve researchers who are exploring data management and programming on their own (legitimate peripheral practice) and make them aware of other people doing that work (simply by attending the workshop) and the best practices and ideas of that community of practice, thereby giving them a way to become members of that community. Situated learning thus describes why we teach, and recognizes that teaching and learning is necessarily rooted in a social context. We then depend on the cognitivist perspective to drive how we teach the specific content associated with the community of practice.
There are many other perspectives outside cognitivist theory—see the Learning Theories site [Learning2017] for summaries. Besides cognitivism, those encountered most frequently include behaviorism (which treats education as stimulus/response conditioning), constructivism (which considers learning an active process during which learners construct knowledge for themselves), and connectivism (which emphasizes the social aspects of learning, particularly those made possible by the Internet). And yes, it would help if their names were less similar…
Educational psychology does not tell us how to teach on its own because it under-constrains the problem: in real life, several different teaching methods might be consistent with what we currently know about how learning works. We therefore have to try those methods in the class, with actual learners, in order to find out how well they balance the different forces in play.
Doing this is called instructional design. If educational psychology is the science, instructional design is the engineering. For example, there are good reasons to believe that children will learn how to read best by starting with the sounds of letters and working up to words. However, there are equally good reasons to believe that children will learn best if they are taught to recognize entire simple words like “open” and “stop”, so that they can start using their knowledge sooner.
The first approach is called “phonics”, and the second, “whole language”. The whole language approach may seem upside down, but more than a billion people have learned to read and write Chinese and similar ideogrammatic languages in exactly this way. The only way to tell which approach works best for most children, most of the time, is to try them both out. These studies have to be done carefully, because so many other variables can have an impact on rules. For example, the teacher’s enthusiasm for the teaching method may matter more than the method itself, since children will model their teacher’s excitement for a subject.
Unsurprisingly, effective teaching depends on what the teacher knows, which can be divided into:
content knowledge, such as the “what” of programming;
general pedagogical knowledge, i.e., an understanding of the psychology of learning; and
the pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) that connects the two. PCK is things like what examples to use when teaching how parameters are passed to a function, or what misconceptions about wildcard expansion are most common. For example, an instructor could write variable names and values on paper plates and then stack and unstack them to show how the call stack works.
One well-known scheme characterizes learners as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic according to whether they like to see things, hear things, or do things. This scheme is easy to understand, but as de Bruyckere and colleagues point out in Urban Myths About Learning and Education [DeBruyckere2015], it is almost certainly false. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped a large number of companies from marketing products based on it to parents and school boards.
This is not the only myth to plague education. The learning pyramid that shows we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, and so on? Myth. The idea that “brain games” can improve our intelligence, or at least slow its decline in old age? Also a myth, as are the claims that the Internet is making us dumber or that young people read less than they used to.
Computing education has its own myths. Mark Guzdial’s “Top 10 Myths About Teaching Computer Science” [Guzdial2015a] are:
The lack of women in Computer Science is just like all the other STEM fields.
To get more women in CS, we need more female CS faculty.
A good CS teacher is a good lecturer.
Clickers and the like are an add-on for a good teacher.
Student evaluations are the best way to evaluate teaching.
Good teachers personalize education for students’ learning styles.
High schools just can’t teach CS well, so they shouldn’t do it at all.
The real problem is to get more CS curriculum into the hands of teachers.
All I need to do to be a good CS teacher is model good software development practice, because my job is to produce excellent software engineers.
Some people are just born to program.
The last of these is the most pervasive and most damaging. As discussed in Motivation, Elizabeth Patitsas and others have shown that grades in computing classes are not bimodal [Patitsas2016], i.e., there isn’t one group that gets it and another that doesn’t. Many of the participants in our workshops have advanced degrees in intellectually demanding subjects, but have convinced themselves that they just don’t have what it takes to be programmers. If all we do is dispel that belief, we will have done them a service.
The two lists below summarize key feedback on the two videos used in the discussion of live coding.
Instructor ignores a red sticky clearly visible on a learner’s laptop.
Instructor is sitting, mostly looking at the laptop screen.
Instructor is typing commands without saying them out loud.
Instructor uses fancy shell prompt in the console window.
Instructor uses small font in not full-screen console window with black background.
The console window bottom is partially blocked by the learner’s heads for those sitting in the back.
Instructor receives a a pop-up notification in the middle of the session.
Instructor makes a mistake (a typo) but simply fixes it without pointing it out, and redoes the command.
Instructor checks if the learner with the red sticky on her laptop still needs attention.
Instructor is standing while instructing, making eye-contact with participants.
Instructor is saying the commands out loud while typing them.
Instructor moves to the screen to point out details of commands or results.
Instructor simply uses
$ as shell prompt in the console window.
Instructor uses big font in wide-screen console window with white background.
The console window bottom is above the learner’s heads for those sitting in the back.
Instructor makes mistake (a typo) and uses the occasion to illustrate how to interpret error-messages.
This guide is aimed primarily at people working in grassroots organizations, but in order to reach and help as many people as possible, we must find ways to work with the schools we have. [Henderson2011] discusses ways to get educational institutions to change what and how they teach; in our experience, the most important things are:
Ask, don’t tell. Teachers know their students and their needs much better than you do, so start by asking what they think the most pressing needs are.
Find allies. Many colleges and universities have teaching and learning centers whose staff are keen to improve teaching practices, and who also know how to navigate the local bureaucracy. Similarly, there are often tech meetup groups or other local organizations whose members are likely helpers.
Start small. [Lang2016] describes evidence-based teaching practices that can be put in place with minimal effort and at low cost. These may not have the most impact, but scoring a few early wins helps build support for larger and riskier efforts.
[Brown2007] is an excellent guide to building organizations in and for communities. You may not need to answer all of the questions it asks right away, but they are all worth thinking about.
A key part of effecting change is to convince people that what you’re doing is having a positive impact. That turns out to be surprisingly hard for free-range programming workshops:
Ask learners if the workshop was useful. Study after study has shown that there is no correlation between how highly learners rate a course and how much they actually learn [Uttl2016], and most people working in education are now aware of that.
Give them an exam at the end of the workshop. Doing that dramatically changes the feel of the workshop, and how much they know at the end of the day is a poor predictor of how much they will remember two or three months later.
Give them an exam two or three months later. That’s hard enough to do in a traditional battery-farmed learning environment; doing it with free-range learners is even harder. In addition:
The people who didn’t get anything out of the workshop are probably less likely to take part in follow-up, so feedback gathered this way will be subject to self-selection bias.
The fact that learners remember something doesn’t necessarily mean it was useful (although they are more likely to remember things that are useful than things that aren’t).
See if they keep using what they learned. This is a good way to evaluate employment-oriented skills, but equally useful for things people have learned for fun. The problem is how to do it: you probably shouldn’t put spyware on their computers, and follow-up surveys suffer from the same low return rate and self-selection bias as exams.
See if they recommend the workshop to friends. This method often strikes the best balance between informative and doable: if people are recommending your workshop to other people, that’s a pretty good sign.
There are many other options; the most important thing is to figure out early on how you’re going to know whether you’re teaching the right things the right way, and how you’re going to convince potential backers that you’re doing so.