Responding to Alan November

This week at Lenovo’s ThinkTank 2010, I had an opportunity to hear from Alan November.  I have long admired Alan’s forward-thinking examinations of learning in an environment where technology is increasingly available and essential.  I’ve spent a couple of days thinking about some of the things that Alan said in our session and want to share these thoughts.

One thing that Alan suggested is that one should listen to Eric Mazur and I’m doing that now. The reason that this came up is the idea that no amount of good teaching can overcome the preexisting misconceptions that students have before.  To overcome these preexisting misconceptions you must first be aware of them.  Then, you must address them directly so that the students can “unlearn” that wrong information.  Last, you can now teach new ideas.

I’m lucky in that, as I return to teaching only AP Computer Science, my students don’t have a lot of misconceptions about the material because very few of them have ever programmed before.  The only misconception that they are likely to come with is either that the class will be very hard or that it will be fun and easy.   (The truth of course is that the class is fun and hard).

So, I’m watching “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer: Eric Mazur.”  Eric discovered that his carefully prepared lectures were not actually resulting in his students learning the material he was teaching.  He came to the conclusion that he needed to shift from “teaching” to “helping” his students and to letting them help each other.

Back to Alan November’s talk.  In this talk, Alan said that homework was a stupid idea.  You give a student some problems to do.  The student does the problems.  Let’s say that the student gets 10 problems wrong.  He adopts this concept of how to do these problems and then turns in the problems.  A couple of days may pass before he knows that they are wrong and at this point, he has completely absorbed the incorrect idea of how to do the problem.  Alan proposed that the homework needs to be the classwork and the classwork becomes the homework.  What might this look like?  The students read or watch the lecture for homework.  They interact with each other online or respond in a way that allows the teacher to identify their misconceptions.  The teacher can then use class time to call attention to the misconceptions and by identifying them, begin to “unteach” them.  Class now becomes a time for the students to interact with each other, solve problems, and collaborate.  Using automatic response tools throughout the class, the teacher can identify how the class is doing progressing toward understanding the concept.  The teacher can direct students who solve a problem correctly to assist students who are having difficulty.  The time with the teacher becomes about action and interaction.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how this might apply to my AP Computer Science class in the upcoming year.  The class has eight students, which seems small from an outside perspective, but in my particular school this is a huge AP Comp class.  How can I make the classwork into homework and the homework into classwork?

First, I learned awhile back that the more I have students read from the textbook, either before or after the lecture, the more confused the students become.  In the last two years, I have stopped assigning required reading; all reading is supplemental and optional.  So, I don’t want to assign readings from the text to make the classwork into homework.  I’m going to start out by looking at MIT’s Open Course Ware to see what video can be assigned as part of our required summer work.  I had success creating youtube videos for my Honors Chemistry class last year, so if I don’t find material I like, I can create my own.

Second, according to Alan’s experience, when students feel that their classmates are depending on them, they will do more than if they are doing the work only for themselves.  I have had classes work collaboratively to work on wikis to create study guides, but I want to take this further and I have to think about how to do this.

Lastly, my classes have always done a lot of group programming, but I’m always the scribe.  It’s time to put the kids in control of the screen and let them solve the problems collaboratively for themselves.

So, I’m hoping to use the summer assignment for my AP Comp class to test this idea of switching the homework and the classwork.  Then, when I have my students in the classroom, I’m going to try to sit down and shut up a little more often.


2 thoughts on “Responding to Alan November

  1. Teaching is educating students about basic principles. Teachers must understand how students think and start from there using the principles. Have students go to the board to work so that wrong approaches can be clarified. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

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