Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Killing Curiosity

I have real mixed feelings about the Advanced Placement exams in general and the AP Computer Science exam in particular. Very mixed. There are some criticisms in this opinion piece in the Atlantic (AP Classes Are a Scam) that I agree with and some I don’t and some where I think it really depends on the student, the teacher or in many cases both. The comments are interesting in that they either support or contradict many of the claims in the post based, for the most part, on anecdotal evidence. That’s not the same as real data. I can support both sides of this argument with stories of my own students. Some who saved a year and a half of courses and tuition because of AP courses and others who still struggled though entry level courses after passing the AP exam in that subject. But that is not data either. There was one criticism I hadn’t heard before though and it concerns me.
The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.
Is it really? I sure hope that wasn’t the case in the APCS courses I taught. In fact I think that in most APCS courses curiosity (and creativity for that matter) are encouraged. Sure there are things that have to be covered. In fact there are far more things that an APCS student has to learn than can possibly be taught in a one year course with high school students. Fortunately for me, and even more fortunately for my students, where I taught there was at least one and often two semesters of computer science before students took APCS. That gave me some extra time and flexibility to make sure that curiosity and creativity could be encouraged.
That is not a feature that is built-in to the APCS curriculum though. I’m not sure how it could be as it is not something that one can really test for. Curiosity is critically important for computer scientists. Actually I’m not sure what field it is not important for people to have a healthy curiosity. Do we risk killing it when a course is too structured with too many things to cover in too short a time? Perhaps.
One of the things I always liked about Visual Studio is the Intellisense which constantly shows potential options for command/methods/properties/etc. as students enter their code. My believe is that it encouraged curiosity by showing things that students would naturally wonder about. And hopefully that wonder would lead to trying things out to see what they do. I always encouraged students to explore. If they learned something new or even came up with new questions that was always a positive in my mind.
As I alluded to earlier I believe that curiosity and creativity go hand in hand. Schools are constantly criticized for teaching the creativity out of students. We see that too often when students want step by step instructions that result in everyone getting exactly the same result that looks exactly the same. Yuck!
Programming is inherently creative. There are many ways to solve just about any problem. One wants projects that look different and that get to the right answer in different ways. Curiosity and the learning that curiosity promotes helps provide new ways to express creativity.  We  not only want our students to be curious and creative we NEED them to be curious and creative.
Advanced Placement classes generally enroll the smarted and hardest working students in a school. We owe it to them and to society to make sure we don’t stifle their curiosity and creativity as they seek AP credit for other reasons.


hardware and networking training course said...

The Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP certification) is one of the most beneficial certification programs of Microsoft. MCITP certification path is enormously in demand, as it displays inclusive skills of the IT experts.

DanKasun said...

Very, very well said, Alfred.

I'm assisting with an APCS class here in VA as part of TEALs this year, and as I was prepping over the summer I came to one big realization:

If I wasn't already really, really interested and inspired by computer science and programming, APCS would actually dissuade me from ever pursuing a education/career in Computer Science.

And that's a really bad thing - as most of the students who come into the class have AMAZING potential and would be a huge asset to the industry (and nation)... but, except for a very few, we're actually impacting them negatively with the curriculum as it is.

Of course - the educators I'm working with and whom I've met all have found ways to inspire the students, despite the dryness of the content - but I have no doubt that there are ways to provide programmatic support to make them more effective and to reach even more students. I'd rather have these teachers enabled by the curriculum and content rather than hamstrung by it (and the looming APCS test).

We're doing some interesting things here in Loudoun to approach this, would love to run them by you.