SIGCSE 2012 – Keynote #1 (Fred Brooks)

Today is day one of SIGCSE – opening with a keynote from Fred Brooks. I have to admit to being fairly excited about this one; SIGCSE is always a good conference and has great keynotes.

Fred Brooks talked about why we still lecture. His premise, as stated by many others over recent (and not so recent years) is that we learn mostly by induction, but that we teach by deduction. I have seen much research to support this over the years – that our students tend to learn more from concrete examples, whereas lecturers tend to teach using abstractions. But the research that I have seen is actually stronger than this simple statement – which tends to imply that we are teaching this way simply because it is what we have always done. Some of the related research identifies that most lecturers fit into the smaller category of people that also learn by abstraction – it is self selection: those that learn most easily and feel most comfortable in the learning style of higher education tend to be those that then become part of higher education. And from this, we have the view that abstraction is both the basis of learning and teaching – but only for some of us.

I find it interesting how much this is changing – are we changing the makeup of higher education, so that we have now more people who learn more by concrete examples in higher education? Is this something that is more natural in Computer Science? Is it the popularisation of how higher education, and the integration of more tools and technologies that tend to support more of the concrete nature?

Fred Brooks makes an interesting point that in CS the pace of information development is so fast that we have to focus on skill development rather than information retrieval. The languages and systems that we learn as students are no longer immediately relevant when we leave as graduates – but the skills we learn, i.e. the problem solving and critiquing skills, are what is relevant. I’m not sure that it is intended to be taken in such a cut and dried fashion – and I certain don’t believe in it in that way – the information and knowledge that we learn, as well as the skills, are still useful in our future. Although we don’t often use the programming languages that we learn as students, the concepts from those languages are still useful to us. The problem solving and critiquing skills that we learn are what enables us to learn in the future – but the knowledge and information that we gather over the years helps us make sense of new problems and new information; it helps us reason more efficiently about new situations.

A good overview of alternative teaching techniques to lectures – flipped classrooms, student centred learning, project based learning, collaborative learning – focussing on what we want the students to do and learn, rather than on what we are teaching.

Things to look up: The Reflective Practitioner,and Educating the Reflective practitioner – Donald Schon (http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-schon.htm); Peopleware (DeMarco and Lister).

I always think it is interesting to see how keynotes are targeted – they tend to be very much an overview of the past, or asking the questions of the future. This one focussed very much on the current – a very pragmatic view at current practice and current problems. But where do we go from here? Although there will undoubtably be new pressures, new technologies, new mediums, etc it is likely that Dewey and Bligh (and those that focus on educational psychology and how we learn) will still be guiding us. As a basis, how we learn will always drive how we (should)  teach.

One thing that does interest me greatly is how learning behaviours change based on exposure to new strategies or approaches – our brains physically adapt (apologies for the overly simplistic description). Educational psychologists have devoted many decades (centuries) to trying to understand how people learn, and are now looking at how we change the way that we learn through exposure to different practices. Will we learn differently in the future? Is this going to be the driving force behind significant changes in the way that we teach in the future?

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