Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Top 10 Myths about Teaching CS

Mark Guzdial (whose blog has been a frequent inspiration) recently wrote an article title Top 10 Myths about Teaching Computer Science:

  1. The lack of women in Computer Science is just like all the other STEM fields.
  2. To get more women in CS, we need more female CS faculty.
  3. A good CS teacher is a good lecturer.
  4. Clickers and the like are an add-on for a good teacher
  5. Student evaluations are the best way to evaluate teaching.
  6. Good teachers personalize education for students' learning styles.
  7. High schools just can't teach CS well, so they shouldn't do it at all.
  8. The real problem is to get more CS curriculum out into the hands of teachers.
  9. 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.
  10. Some people are just born to program.

Guzdial backs up each of his points with citations from the research literature, but as he points out, even scientists pay more attention to authority than to evidence:

Several senior, well-established (much more famous than me) faculty strongly disagreed with the evidence-based argument I was making. The thread finally ended when one of the most senior, most respected faculty in the College wrote a note saying (paraphrased), "There are probably better teaching evaluation methods than the ones we now use. I'm sure that Mark knows teaching methods that would help the rest of us teach better." And that was it. Thread ended. The research-based evidence that I offered was worth fighting about. The word of authority was not.

I'll bet that faculty across disciplines similarly respond to authority more than evidence. We certainly see the role of authority in Physics Education Research (PER). Pioneering PER researchers were not given much respect and many were ostracized from their departments. Until Eric Mazur at Harvard had his students fail the Force Concept Inventory (FCI), and he changed how he taught because of it. Until Nobel laureate Carl Wieman decided to back PER (all the way to the Office of Science Technology and Policy in the White House). Today, the vast majority of physics teachers know research-based teaching methods (even if they don't always use them). FCI existed before Mazur started using it, but it really started getting used after Mazur's support. The evidence of FCI didn't change physics teaching. The voice of authority did.

While we might wish that CS faculty would respond more to evidence than authority...this insight suggests a path forward. If we want CS faculty to improve their teaching and adopt evidence-based practices, top-down encouragement can have large impact. Well-known faculty at top institutions publicly adopting these practices, and Deans and Chairs promoting these practices can help to convince faculty to change.

We have the same trouble convincing scientists that training in computing skills is worthwhile (or more precisely, that scientists don't already know this stuff and aren't "just" going to pick it up themselves). Rather than collecting data and trying to use science to persuade scientists, perhaps we should be trying instead to get more senior scientists to say, "Make it so."

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