A Few Articles on Education

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

Over the past year, I've come to realize that Software Carpentry will only work if knowledge flows in several directions. Scientists need to learn about software development, but software developers need to learn about science, too. In particular, they need to learn that it's possible to study software and programming scientifically, which is what motivated yesterday's post about my favorite papers from ICSE 2015.

And both groups need to learn about evidence-based teaching practices and the politics that education is embedded in (because without an understanding of the latter, no change is possible). While I don't have a snapshot like ICSE to offer, here are a few recent articles I've found illuminating:

  • Audrey Watters: Lego Mindstorms: A History of Educational Robots. Near the end, Watters quotes Seymour Papert: "Little by little, the subversive features of the computer were eroded away. Instead of cutting across and challenging the very idea of subject boundaries, the computer now defined a new subject; instead of changing the emphasis from impersonal curriculum to excited live exploration by students, the computer was now used to reinforce School's ways. What had started as a subversive instrument of change was neutralized by the system and converted into an instrument of consolidation."

  • Audrey Watters: The Invented History of 'The Factory Model of Education'. This piece shows as well as anything that discussion of education is always political: everyone who wants change (or wants things to stay the same) is always arguing to reach a desired goal, and that has to be taken into account when reading what they write.

  • Bror Saxberg: Why We Need Learning Engineers. "Almost no one who is involved in creating learning materials or large-scale educational experiences relies on the evidence from learning science... We are missing a job category: Where are our talented, creative, user-centric 'learning engineers' – professionals who understand the research about learning, test it, and apply it to help more students learn more effectively?" I agree with the sentiment, but as with the advocates of "teaching machines" that Watters discusses, it's important to keep the author's goals in mind (he works for a large test prep company).

  • Mark Guzdial: Important paper at SIGCSE 2015: Transferring Skills at Solving Word Problems from Computing to Algebra Through Bootstrap. I'm a big fan of Guzdial's research, and as he says, it's surprising this paper hasn't received more attention, since it seems to show that teaching kids programming helps with their mathematical abilities. That may seem obvious to some readers, but "obvious" and "correct" aren't always connected, and even when they are, the strength of the connection always needs to be investigated.

  • Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth: Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Reports on a meta-analysis of 225 studies comparing undergraduate learning outcomes in science and related disciplines to see if active learning outperformed traditional lectures. Short version: yes.

  • And if you want to see research and rebuttal in progress, check out Scott Alexander's Growth Mindset 3: A Pox On Growth Your Houses and David Paunesku's detailed rebuttal (with counter-rebuttal by Alexander). If the experimental method is the heart of science, then this kind of back and forth is its lungs.

  • Anya Kamenetz: Student Course Evaluations Get An 'F'. This popular science piece reports on work by Stark and Freishtat showing (again) that end-of-course surveys dont't actually tell us anything useful. (If you're behind the Great Paywall of Academia, you can read another study by Braga, Paccagnella, and Pellizzari that reaches the same conclusion.) Despite knowing this—the results aren't exactly new—universities continue to use such surveys because... well, that gets us back into a discussion of politics and learning, which is probably best saved for my personal blog, because I'm not supposed to use profanity here.

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