We are not here to entertain, but to teach.

Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

We are not here to entertain, but to teach.

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Lately there has been a lot of discussion in the world of computer science education about mays to make computer science more interesting, relevant and yes even more fun for students. A lot of discussion on the AP CS mailing list around the article I talked about in "The Prime Number Syndrome" post seems to be resistant of the idea of using things other than math.

One teacher came right out and said "we are not here to entertain, but to teach." That is a statement I have heard from teachers, in one form or another, more often than I can count. Often times it feels like people say it to justify boring students out of their minds. Not always of course. And just as often those same teachers do use entertaining techniques, projects and tools in their class. It is just that they resist new methods or techniques that are different or that appear to be somehow too entertaining. One almost wonders if some teachers feel "it was hard (or boring) for me to learn it should be hard (or boring) for my students."

I've always found that I learn the most from teachers who love what they teach. I would also have to say that most of the teachers who love their subject and love teaching it are almost by definition entertaining. They communicate their enthusiasm in a way that is, as a side product, entertaining. These are the teachers who have the best (most interesting, most amusing, most relevant) stories to use as examples. These are the teachers who bounce around the room getting kids excited. And most of all these are the teachers who get creative and find ways to make the subject interesting to their students.

A lot of those resisting things like robotics and digital media are also math teachers. These teachers obviously have a strong, and other justified, belief in the importance of math and math education. Some may view computer science as little more than a new way to teach math. Maybe not - but it sometimes seems that way. Math and computer science do work well together. Maria and Gary Litvin have a book in the works that combines the two called Mathematics for the Digital Age and Programming in Python that looks interesting.  If anyone can pull off a book like that without turning kids off and without watering done the math Maria and Gary are those people. But I wonder if that is the best introduction to programming for everyone. A first programming course that was too mathematical would have lost me for sure. Once I was hooked on computer science my interest in math increased. While for some it may work the other way I suspect I am representative of a lot of students.

Not everyone learns the same way. For some CS will lead to more math. For others math will lead to CS. For a few lucky people (lucky because a lot of teachers seem to think everyone should be this way) math and CS move together from the start. Those are the kids who are having a blast getting the computer to calculate Prime Numbers while their peers don't discover the motivation to learn trigonometry until they need if for their game program.

Is making the material interesting the same as entertainment? If not I am not sure what the difference is. Of course the priority is teaching. Even if not every student finds the material or the teacher interesting the student still has to learn. At the same time,  the more interested students are the more they learn. Is a teaching technique that presents the material in a stale and boring fashion somehow better, more pure that a technique that entertains as it teaches the same material? Please tell me no. Isn't the picking between entertaining and teaching a false dichotomy to some extent? Shouldn't a teacher who loves teaching their subject at least be animated and interesting? And dare I say it - entertaining?

My opinion is that a teacher should be judged on their results. Do their students enjoy learning more? Do more students continue on to advanced classes? Do more sign up for a class and stick with it? Do the students learn as much or more with the more "entertaining" class/course format? If the answer is "yes" then where is the bad in students being a bit "entertained?"

[Note: Adapted and expanded from a post I wrote at the On10.net Education blog.]

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