Overheard in a Computer Science classroom

Bored Student

We’ve got to do better than this

It happened again.” “What?” “I was in a meeting a few days ago and they were talking about Tony and his lack of energy, effort, attitude, effort, and performance in his other class. But, Doug, this kid is one of my top, most engaged students in the class; maybe even my best student. I’ve never had a behavior issue; in fact he is often helping other students in class, even coming in outside of class to work on class projects.

How can that be that in other classes, he is disengaged, uninterested, acting up, and performing badly?

So, let’s think about it.

A 13 year typical middle school boy, overflowing with energy, curiosity, and questions is told to sit down behind a desk, told to be quiet for 7 hours per day, and told to write down everything that the teacher says. He’ll have a chance to regurgitate that information back to the teacher, probably exactly as he wrote it down, on the homework and upcoming quiz. Every day, all day, all semester.

Hmmmm. I just can’t figure out why we have not reached him.


(sorry, OK I am back now)

Is that really our best educational model? Is that what we are doing in our classroom? Really?

If we made teachers sit through one day of professional delelopment in the manner that we structure our regular school day, every teacher in the country would abruptly quit.

I’d like to let you experience a different model. That same student comes into the Computer Science classroom and the moment he walks in the room, everything changes….

Students, you are going to need to be out of your seat during class. Someone may come over to you to ask for your help. Hey, class, did you see what Suzy got working after 2 days of struggling with it? Suzy can you show us that and tell us how to figured it out? Gosh, Ronny, that’s a great question! Larry and Ken have been doing something a little bit like that…why don’t you work with them to figure that out. Class we are having a speaker tomorrow via Skype, don’t forget to think about what question you are going to ask. Remember, if the speaker ever comments, “Wow, that’s a great question”, you get a badge point. So, think of some good questions. Eliot, you are going to need some really good characters for that part in your game, maybe you want to run down the art classroom, and see if there are kids down there who might be able to draw those for you? Fran, don’t forget our business manager said he could meet with you tomorrow to review your game design business plan. Presentations are next week…are you ready? Class, can I get your attention, we are going to watch a short Youtube video, so find a place where you can stop in your project, so we can watch it together. William and Ed will be leading the class discussion as well as the online discussion.

Engaged Words

How many of these do your students experience every day?

You are really gonna love the topic they picked for this week’s discussion topic—perhaps you read about on Reddit- Can Blackberry really come back? Andy, I know you spent a couple days photo editing that image, but that picture is just not quite the quality it should be for your simulation. Why don’t you get your iPhone and go outside to snap some better photos for your project. Oh yeah, class I heard back from the guy I was telling you about. He said he would love to have us all come on Thursday to their company’s office for a demonstration. That will be fun letting you guys experience what it’s like to be professional software testers. Jack, I feel like that line of code might be in the wrong place, do you think it might better sense to move that before this section? What effect will that have on the output? Hey guys, don’t walk behind Richard when he’s testing his Kinect game, the sensor will pick up your skeleton instead of his. Mary, that Xbox controller might have a bad trigger button, go grab another one…..your code looks like it should work; maybe that’s the problem? If not, maybe put this project on hold for a couple days, and work with Cindy and Lizzy on your group project—speaking of which–have you Skyped with the teacher in Michigan to run your ideas by her? Don’t forget to upload your game code so the kids at our partner school in Uganda can test the game you’ve created so far.

Students don’t mind workin hard if they are engaged…

I’ll be anxious to see what feedback you get. Students, remember for homework you’ve got to explain the Ender’s Game story you read to your parents and ask them a few questions to get their thoughts. Margaret, did you ever get that accelerometer app finished for the Nexus tablet? I remember you were struggling yesterday with the list iteration code block. Attention all students: I am sending all games for review to Microsoft next Wednesday; please submit your final version by then. We’ll Skype in a few weeks with their Kinect team for their comments. Group leaders, make sure you’ve practiced logging into the CHAT room, you will be leading the CHAT discussions tonight with your groups about the iRobot story we read. Sam and Ben, I feel like you’ve practiced enough and have a good understanding of where all the hardware parts go and what they do; I think you are ready to go after the record for building a computer blindfolded—the record so far is 1 minute 30 seconds. Can someone grab the box of robots? Today we are going to try to write code to access the temperature sensor and also simulate battery charging. Any ideas on how we might do that? Wow, Lucy, that 3D model you made is awesome! Hey class, if you want to see an awesome effort, check out her project—you might get some ideas for your own. How did you get such incredible detail, especially if we zoom in? Can I have everyone’s attention for a moment? I wanted to remind you that presentations start at 5:30 pm tonight. Please have your table displays ready one hour before. Parents will be arriving at 5:15. Make sure you have your demonstrations rehearsed and don’t forget to video record each other and submit that. Mr. Baylis, can I go out in the hall to test to see if my robot is sensing light correctly—oh yeah where are the batteries? BLOG responses are all due Sunday night. You’ll need to address those questions I sent you, plus start to plan your schedule for the next few weeks. Since this is a dual credit college course, I’ve invited the Department Chair of the Computer Science of the College of Charleston to come in as “guest professor” so you can have a real college class experience. He’ll be leading you for 2 days about O.O.P. polymorphism and inheritance; so please complete that practice exercise on the test site; you can run it as many times as you like until you get it– the error messages should help you troubleshoot. But if you still can’t get it, it’s certainly ok to call a classmate. Mrs. Clair could use some help at the 3rd grade Lego Robotics competition this weekend, if any of you want to volunteer. Our own competition is coming up in a couple weeks; have you been able to solve the challenges yet? If you’d like to join us on our summer Silicon Valley I.T. trip, the deadline for signup in in March; we’ve only got 2 spaces left. We’ve arranged private tours at NVidia, E.A., Microsoft, Google, and Intel. Hey Anthony, I love the topics, poverty and hunger, you chose for your game design project–how do you think you will blend the educational value and the fun factor into that design? Mr. Bergman, you mentioned that in addition to the Kinect camera sensor and Xbox controllers, there is a foot controlled “dance mat” that can be programmed. Can we order one so I use that as the input device for my game? Mr. Zaubi, I think my program is ready to be tested on an actual iPad instead of the emulator, can I use it?

Problem Solving…Collaboration…Hands-On

Those conversations happen in our Computer Science classes every day. Notice how grades were not the focus of class. The words “multiple choice test” were never spoken. The questions at the end of chapter were never assigned. Students were active participants in their own learning. You noticed the role of the teacher more along the lines of a guide and group leader than as a deliverer of content. You noticed we were focused on what students can DO, instead of what students KNOW.

My class happens to be a Computer Science classroom, but I’ll argue that any Math, Science, History, or Foreign Language class could be structured the same way.

Many teachers have heard me get on my bandwagon about classes like this. They hear this and give me 20 reasons why they cannot have this style of class in their department. There is a big difference between CAN NOT and DO NOT. It’s a completely different approach to education. It involves schools accepting that the world we are preparing our students to be leaders in is NOT the world we grew up in.

Is there a place for this type of class in education?

I propose that there is a different way forward. If something you heard in this article makes sense to you, I’d love to connect. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, at a conference, or the web.

About Doug Bergman

Head of Computer Science at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC
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