Beware Boring The Smart Kids

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

Beware Boring The Smart Kids

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There is an interesting conversation going on in the comments of Mark Guzdial’s blog that I wanted to engage in a small part of that conversation in more depth than what fits in a comment. It started with a comment by Erik Engbrecht that reads in part:

Boring a potentially great student is a greater crime than failing a mediocre one who could have made it through.

Mark Guzdial replied in part:

I feel *exactly* the opposite of that! It’s not hard to educate the great students — they’ll learn no matter what I do, and they tend to challenge themselves with their own projects and interests.

The comment “they’ll learn no matter what I do” concerns me. It may be true for college students (and is highly likely for the sort of students who go to Georgia Tech) but too often it’s not the case in high school and younger students. The information I heard at a workshop some years ago is that some 50% of drop outs are gifted students. Boredom is a huge problem for bright students before college. We lose a lot of students with great potential because they are bored and/or not challenged. This is a horrible loss for them and for society.

Younger students don’t often have the resources or the base knowledge to create their own projects for learning. Now some do and do it well. I’ve run into some students as young as middle school who have done some very creative projects all on their own. They are self motivated, one might say driven, and very creative. But they are also exceptional. Generally even the potentially great students need some help and focus. They need some help to get started and to help them get some resources. I like to call these the “point them in a direction and get out of the way” students.

I don’t think that losing the potentially great student is necessarily a greater crime than failing a mediocre student. I think they’re both bad. Good teachers find a way to help both kinds of students because we really can’t afford to leave anyone behind these days. Of course differentiated instruction is not a term that one hears that often in higher education. In middle and high school though it is something that has become engrained into the better performing schools and educational programs.

Of course in some high school computer science programs this gets taken to a bit of an extreme with several levels of computer science courses being taught in the same room by the same teacher at the same time. I’m constantly amazed at how well so many teachers handle this sort of thing.

We’re lucky in the area of computer science that there are more and more free tools and resources for students to advance on their own though. For example the Dreamspark program from Microsoft offers professional grade software to students who can use it for their own projects. For university students world wide the Imagine Cup competition provides an outlet for creative learning projects for university students. And of course there are many more resources and competitions available from other companies and organizations. I try to link to many of them from this blog when I can BTW.

A couple of other sites I recommend for the “point them in a direction and get out of the way” students are the Beginning Developer Learning Center and Coding 4 Fun. The first for learning resources and the second for projects to tickle the imagination and suggest interesting learning projects. If a student is too quick, too driven, too something for the pace of the course point them somewhere helpful and get out of the way. But hang around in case they need more pointers along the way. We don’t want them to get needlessly frustrated and turned off.

  • Both statements are dangerous in their own way.  A great student will learn in spite of the teaching situation, if they want to.  It is the “if” word that will cause a problem.  As for mediocre, can’t that be used to describe an “average” student?  In my school a “C” is a mediocre grade but in my standard math class I will have a good number of these students.  Both the excellent students and the mediocre students need to be pushed and challenged but at acceptable levels for their ability.  To ignore one for the other is just wrong.  If it does come down to one or the other due to class size or time available I do tend to shift over to the mediocre kids in an attempt to bring them up.  I can usually give the sharp kids a poke in the right direction and let them go.

  • Another good site is Project Euler (http://www.projecteuler.net).  It has about 250 programs with a wide range of difficulty.  Most problems have a mathematics theme, but some are string-related.

  • I interpreted Mark's blogs as using "failing" to mean "no longer studying CS" as opposed to actually failing the class.  I also assumed he was referring to students either officially majoring in CS or with strong intention to major in CS, as IIRC GT has three separate intro CS classes:  one for CS majors, one for engineering/science majors, and one for everyone else.

    Most college students, at least the ones I knew, would not choose to major in a subject (or even take additional electives in it)  after receiving a C or even a hard-earned B during their first course.

    So I believe the case Mark and I were debating was very narrow.  Mark was advocating adjusting the intro CS content for CS majors to make it less likely to scare people away from completing a CS major.  The problem is getting students past the intro courses does no good if it results in them being ill-prepared for the advanced courses.  If you repeat the pattern with advanced courses (which I believe many schools are doing) you are essentially declaring that quantity trumps quality (see Mark's comment about how GT is a state school and what the state wants is quantity) and ultimately degrades the program.

    What makes matters worse is that the state is concerned with producing skilled IT workers, and in reality CS isn't the best training for most IT careers.  Now, as Alan Kay pointed out, a big part of the reason for that is that the IT industry is highly dysfunctional, but I highly doubt the state wants more computer scientists in order to rectify the situation.  The state wants more skilled IT workers but knows to little about IT and Computer Science beyond that they both involve computers and thus conflates the two.  In general IT is really an operational discipline and the last time I checked CS programs don't teach anything about operations.

  • Well said, Erik!  I do agree that the advanced courses should go beyond "hooking" the students, as Ken Forbus (correctly) characterized our first courses.  Lecia Barker has written about the "defensive" attitude in first courses.  The first courses are the front lines of the battle to broaden participation in computing -- that's where we lose the most students.  Studies like Lily Irani's suggest that the battle to keep CS broad goes beyond the first course, it's nowhere near as fierce.  I do want to see the latter courses create quality, but I want those first courses to be about engagement and broadening the field, making sure that we have computational literacy in our society and those who will choose to major in computing get a good chance to see a fair representation of it.

  • I also think there is a huge difference between what the teachers do in the classroom and what a company or resource provider like Microsoft can do.  We need the communities of enrichment (like code4fun or dreamspark) in order to help challenge our smart kids - because often they CAN learn on their own and are even eager to do so.

  • I think that companies and teachers can really partner with each other. We need each other. It is the best interests of not just companies but students and society itself for them to help students learn beyond what they have time for in class. Especially at the high school and younger the help has to be concept focused with specific tools as way to learn the concepts and solve problems not just to learn how to use the tools. It can be a fine line but in the long run depth and width of knowledge are important to long term learning and career success.

  • Oh! I absolutely believe we should partner together, but I'm not sure about curriculum decisions of one being driven by the larger decisions of the other.  After all we are serving the population at much different scales and therefore what is not worthwhile for a teacher with 10 students to invest a lot of time in, may be very relevant for a company to provide enrichment for in the large.

  • The big problem I see in school/industry intereactions is not enough talking and sharing. Different mind sets and goals are part of the prolem but I fear that "politics" in a broad sense get in the way as well. People on both sides are less aware of their commonalities than their differences. That's why I try to do a lot of listening at conferences - well as much as my big mouth will let me. :-(

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