On Learning and Teaching

Posted on May 22, 2011.

I recently read a blog entry by Zack Kurmas called “The deep end of the pool”. In it he talks about why he thinks some students succeed in introductory Computer Science classes while others fail. If you’re a programmer and haven’t read it, stop right now and read it.

In a nutshell: I think he’s pretty much correct. I wanted to write this post because I think I have a solution to the problem that might work, at least for some people.

Background

I’m a computer programmer by trade. I went to RIT for five years to get my degree in Computer Science and before that I was working with toy programs during high school.

While I was at RIT I started going to Swing Dance Club. I learned to swing dance there about eight years ago. A few years later I started I began teaching Swing Dance Club with some of my friends, and about a year ago I started teaching Blues Dancing with Lady Luck Blues.

I have a couple of other semi-serious hobbies that I’ve taken classes in as well: photography and bass playing.

To summarize: I’ve had experience in a bunch of different areas, and I’ve been teaching one of them for a while.

Disclaimer: one thing I’ve never studied is teaching itself, so feel free to take everything I say about it with a large grain of salt. I haven’t done any hard research and I could be completely wrong.

Similarities in Dancing and Programming

In his article, Zack talks about programming syntax being a stumbling block for beginners. I think he’s very right and I think there’s a similar concept in dancing.

Programming Syntax

If you’re a programmer you can skip this section.

For the non-programmers: “syntax” is the combination of letters, numbers and symbols that you write to create computer programs. For example, look at the following two bits of text:

if x == 2:
print "Hello"
x = 10

if x == 2:
print 'Hello"
x = 10


Notice the difference? The first snippet says "Hello" while the second says 'Hello". Notice how the first uses two double quotes (") while the second uses one double and one single quote (').

The first bit of code will work, but the second one won’t. Little differences like these might not seem like a big deal, but to a computer they’re as different as abcdefg and o34%^8@@.com.

Dancing Footwork

If you’re a dancer you can skip this section.

For the non-dancers: “footwork” is the pattern of steps you make when you dance. For example, in Lindy Hop (a style of swing dancing) the basic footwork looks like this:

Beats:   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8
Steps:   x   x   x  xx   x   x   x  xx


For East Coast Swing, the basic footwork looks like this:

Beats:   1   2   3   4   5   6
Steps:   x   x   x  xx   x  xx


Notice the differences? Lindy Hop footwork is based on an eight beat pattern, while East Coast footwork is based on six beats. The patterns also have the “extra steps” in different places.

When you’re dancing with a partner you both need to be doing the same footwork, otherwise you can’t really dance together.

Footwork is Syntax and Syntax is Footwork

When you’re learning both programming and dancing there are lots of deep, high-level concepts you can tackle. For programming you have things like object orientation, recursion, and API design. In dancing you have things like musicality, listening to your follower, and negative space.

However: in my experience teaching dancing you need to learn and understand the footwork before you can learn the higher concepts. If you’re still thinking about where to put your feet when you’re dancing you won’t have the spare brainpower to think about those other concepts.

In Zack’s post he says the same thing about programming. If you’re still struggling with understanding the syntax of programs you can’t simultaneously pay attention to the higher concepts that are being taught. I’ve never taught programming but my personal observations of programmers make me think he’s right.

To be clear: there aren’t just two levels (low and high). There are many levels/layers, each of which builds on the last. Also: the layers are not linear – learning concept A might allow you to learn either B or C.

However: the same idea applies most of the time. You need to learn and internalize lower levels before moving on to the higher ones.

Plateaus in Learning

One thing I’ve noticed while learning dancing, programming, photography, and other skills is that my learning seems to progress quickly at times and slowly at others.

When I’m learning quickly everything is great. I feel good about myself and my abilities and I throw myself into learning as much as I can.

On the other hand when I’m learning slowly (hitting a “plateau”) I often get frustrated or discouraged. Nothing I try seems to speed up my ascent out of these plateaus. It seems like the only thing that works is time and practice of what I already know.

I think the reason for this is that once I learn a bunch of new concepts my brain needs some time to process them. I can learn the concepts and use them if I concentrate, but it’s not effortless. I think the reason I finally start learning quickly again after some time is that I’ve internalized the previous concepts and now I can move on to more difficult ones which build on the previous ones.

The first plateau of programming is the syntax and the first plateau of dancing is footwork. The bad part about this is that dancing when you only know footwork or programming when you only know syntax isn’t much fun. You can’t do all of the most interesting things that make these skills so rewarding.

Getting Through Plateaus

In my own experience the hardest part about teaching is getting students through the plateaus. Because it just takes time and practice to process what they’ve already learned there’s not much I can do to help them. Students take more advanced classes but don’t really grab them until they’re fluent in the things they’ve previously learned.

As a teacher, this is incredibly frustrating. I want to teach my students what I know, but I know they won’t absorb it until they’ve absorbed the previous lessons.

The Lie and the Solution

Here’s the kicker, and what I think might provide the solution to this problem: I lied when I said that the only things that help me through plateaus are time and practice.

There’s one more thing that helps me get through plateaus: connecting the concepts I’m trying to internalize with concepts from other skills that I already know.

An example of this that I’ve written about before is negative space. When I was learning blues dancing I realized that “stopping your movement” was simply a different expression of the concept of “negative space” in photography.

I had already struggled through internalizing the concept of negative space in photography, so when I connected this with dancing it helped make things “click” together and made the plateau shorter.

The Problem with the Solution

In my own life this solution is great.

I have a bunch of hobbies and all of them mesh together in different ways. Sometimes I can connect what I know in one to what I know in another and get through these plateaus more quickly. When I can’t do that I can focus on one of my other hobbies while practicing another, which reduces the frustration of not progressing faster.

When teaching students, however, this isn’t a trick I can use effectively.

I can’t really tell a student: “you need to find something else to focus on for a while while you internalize what I’ve taught you.” If they want to learn dancing, they’ll feel like taking more dance classes is the way to go. They’re paying me to teach them so I obviously have to try to teach them.

I sometimes try to teach the “analogies” between skills that have helped me. Sometimes this works well — the “Negative Space in Dancing” class that my partner and I have taught seems to go over well with most of the students.

The problem is that everyone has different skills. Trying to connect a concept in programming to a concept in photography is futile if the student doesn’t understand the photographic concept.

The Solution to the Problem with the Solution

Disclaimer: once again, I’ve never studied teaching itself, so this might not be a new idea and/or I could be completely wrong about this.

I’ve thought a long time about a way to fix this. For students that are simply taking a class here and there with me, I haven’t found a good solution.

However, for students enrolled in a longer series of classes, like college students studying a major, I think there might be a way to use this idea (linking concepts from disparate skills) to help them learn.

When I went to RIT I didn’t just take Computer Science classes. I had to take a few science classes, a few math classes, a few history classes, and so on. I believe other colleges work on the same system: you take many classes in your major and one or two classes in everything else. The idea is that you become a “well-rounded” person.

The bad part about this process is that one or two classes is not enough to get to one of these “plateaus”, struggle through it, and continue on. Therefore you don’t have time to internalize the skills you learn, which means that you can’t connect them to concepts in your major.

I’m also not sure how effective these random classes are at making students “well-rounded”. If you don’t get far enough to internalize the skills you learn in a class are they really useful to you once you’re done with those classes?

I think the way around this is to ditch the “one major and a tiny bit of everything else” process and move to a “one major and two or three minors” process.

This will help students past the plateaus that discourage them, because they’ll have learned enough in their “minors” to be able to connect concepts to those in their major. Teachers might not be able to teach specific analogies because the students will all have different minors, but each student will be able to connect the concepts in their majors on their own to whatever they happen to know from their minors.

This process also has another benefit: students will leave college retaining more skills that they would have otherwise. A programming student could leave college with a real, effective amount of knowledge in music; a writing major could leave with a real, effective amount of knowledge in biology, and so on.

Conclusion

I’m not naive enough to think that any college is going to change their entire curriculum based on some random guy’s blog post.

My intended audience for this post is not colleges, but people that want to learn skills faster and more effectively. I know that there are a lot of people out there hungry for knowledge and I hope that some of them can benefit from the ideas I’ve given, learn faster, and make the world a better place.