Reading Response: How People Learn, Chapters 1-3

(1)  In class, several of you mentioned various challenges you had as teachers/TAs.  If you have taught, what idea in these chapters provides you with the most insight into an issue with which you struggled as a teacher?  How does this change your perceptions of the experience you had?

When I worked on Pine Ridge Reservation with middle-school age students, I found that I had a lot of trouble relating to the student’s prior knowledge and world views. The curriculum on the Rez is surprisingly different from that in the rest of the US – the students are very behind in math and science, specifically. Also, they have culture and Lakota language classes, which take up a large portion of time and emphasize spirituality, connectedness and personal integrity of the American Indian. I think that if I teach the class again, I should try to find ways to put programming concepts in a context that they can more readily relate to, although I’m not sure what that would be. I do know that a lot of the students are preparing for and participating in the Sun Dance ceremony during the summer school sessions, and that takes up a lot of their time and mental energy. Maybe if we used Alice (the programming environment) to create animations about the ceremony, about the cultural traditions, or the legends that are associated with the ceremony, then they would be more engaged.

I also noticed the expert/novice distinction in use of abstract schemas to represent knowledge. One girl, our most advanced programmer, understood that each animation is an “object” which is composed of smaller “objects,” each of which has their own properties and methods. She was able to create an intricate animation of a butterfly flapping it’s wings and talking simultaneously as a consequence, with almost no guidance from instructors. She only required me showing her once how to access the properties of an object, and then generalized the concept to realize that any properties of any object are reached the same way. Other students, however, who did not understand the concept of “objects” needed to be shown how to find the “walk” method for a human figure, the “hop” method for a bunny, etc, although all methods/properties are found the same way for any generic type of object.

(2) From your memory of being a student struggling in a class, what class was it?  What idea in these chapters provides insight into why you struggled and how do you see it differently than you did before?

When I first started the class Design and Theory of Algorithms (CSE 830), I approached each problem we were assigned with a set of facts which were not integrated and I did not have a web of understanding to tie them together. I had only before seen formulaic programming questions, which were answered in a similarly formulaic fashion, using only material from a single, given chapter of course material. In Charles Ofria’s class, however, none of the questions were formulaic. We were required to remember principles from the beginning of the semester, and employ them to solve programming questions throughout the entire semester. He specifically challenged our problem-solving skills with estimation questions like the following:

(a) How many $20 bills would fit inside an armored car if you filled it entirely?

(b) How many legos would it require to build a life-size replicae of the statue of liberty?

(c) Estimate the number of blades of grass on MSU campus.

These questions forced me to think about everything that I know about the world around me, to estimate sizes, to take a step back from the specific material of the course and think about the bigger picture. At first, I was really overwhelmed by the need to think about *everything* I had ever learned and apply it to solving a single problem. I watched my peers succeeding in the class, and I felt like they knew so many facts and that I could not possibly ever store that much in my mind. After spending extensive time in study groups, however, I learned that the successful students were not afraid of taking risks with associating different types of problems. They weren’t afraid of being wrong. And when they were wrong, they were gently corrected by a TA or professor or even a fellow student. It was from watching them that I realized that I needed to start integrating my knowledge from different classes actively, because the professors will not do that work for me, and that I needed to stop being scared of being wrong. I think that over the course of class, I came across a couple of the principles outlined in these HPL chapters on my own – specifically that experts have highly integrated knowledge and that an open/safe/welcoming learning environment facilitated the process where I connected the information I was learning into schemas.

(3) Chapter 3 discusses transfer, which is critical for learning.  Think of a class in which you were a student in which you were assessed (tested) on your ability to transfer your learning.  What was the nature of the learning and transfer on which you were assessed?  What was the nature of the assessment?  Was it a good test of transfer?  Was it fair?  Why?

Again, I find Charles’s CSE 830 class to be a relevant example. In particular, I believe he tested us directly on knowledge transfer when we were using reduction to prove problems to be NP-Complete. This section of the course was immensely difficult for me and my peers because we had to see underlying, abstract similarities in difficult real-world problems. We knew that the proof would always take the same form, but would require us to associate the given problem and solve it in terms of a problem we were already familiar with. That process required me to step back and look at the defining parts of each problem and how to abstract them and apply them in new areas. Yes, I found Charles’s tests to be fair – although they were very difficult and required what I would have previously considered absurd amounts of studying. At the end, however, I found myself to be a markedly better programmer and problem-solver, because I learned to view problem scenarios in terms of how they related to other problems I was already familiar with.

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