Teaching python (programming) to children

Sheila King usenet at thinkspot.net
Sun Nov 11 09:47:46 CET 2001

On Sat, 10 Nov 2001 22:41:06 +0100, Laura Creighton <lac at strakt.com>
wrote in comp.lang.python in article
<mailman.1005428535.5926.python-list at python.org>:

:> Sheila King
:> Well, in my opinion, the problem is in the way the previous teachers
:> have assessed the students, allowing them to get by with such a shallow
:> understanding of the topic. Whether or not the graphing calculators is
:> used in the course is really not the issue. The issue is: What type of
:> test questions was the student required to answer. The best scenario,
:> would be having the student take tests, at least half of the time, with
:> no calculator permitted, and having them answer meaty questions on the
:> topic. In other words: I'm not sure that the problem here is either
:> curriculum or method, but assessment.
:This is crazy.  The problem is that the students didn't learn.
:Assessing the fact that they didn't learn may help educators, parents,
:and the students themselves realize that there is a huge problem, but
:the question remains:
:   Is this a decent way to teach mathematics?

I think you misunderstand my meaning. When I refer to "assessment", I
mean the daily and weekly ongoing assessment of one's students, as
practiced by the classroom practitioner. (Think: high school. High
school instructors give much more frequent assignments and tests than
their college counterparts.) For example, the teacher probably evaluates
homework assignments in some manner (daily or weekly). How about
questions and discussion in the classroom? Even during one's lecture or
presentation, one can ask the students questions and see if they are
following along or not. Put an example problem on the board, and tell
everyone to try it RIGHT NOW. Walk around the room as they work on it
and see if they are able to do the problem or not. This is immediate and
daily assessment. Weekly quizzes and tests? A teacher should be
continually assessing the students, determining if the desired material
has been learned, and when/if to go back and reteach. Finding out that
the students didn't learn yesterdays' lesson is not a crazy way to

I've been quite successful at teaching, because I've indicated to my
students, that I was serious about what they were to learn, and that my
tests would be designed to get at whether they had understood the
concepts, and not merely learned how to work a certain set of problem
types. Well, there were those students whom I could not motivate to
learn. But I'm not sure that someone else would have done better with
them. Maybe. But overall, the majority of the students wanted to do well
in the course, and would rise to the level required by the assessments
that I gave. So, I'm saying, that instructors should design types of
assessment that students cannot succeed at, unless they have understood
the concept at hand. I often found group activities and long projects to
be good for this, although I more frequently did this type of thing on

:> You admit, earlier, that the number of students you've encountered who
:> have this shallow understanding is small, and yet you say that you want
:> to dictate what "high school teachers" should do.
:Yes.  The students I have met who have been exposed to this method has
:also been small, foreign students mostly.  What I want to dictate to
:all teachers is that what they do actually promotes learning whatever
:subjects they are teaching.  Assesment is good for this, as a way to
:evaluate the teachers, and their courses. 

Assessment is a way to evaluate students, not teachers. IMHO. (Here I
assume you mean by "assessment", instruments given to the students to
see what they know.) Evaluating a teacher's teaching methods, curriculum
and assessment instruments is a way to evaluate a teacher.

: Let us say, for argument,
:that a teacher who is using method A needs to spend 4 times as much
:time individually coaching students and gettting involved with them
:personally than a person using method B.  Then only teachers who are
:also willing to make the commitment to spend the 4 times as much
:should be using method A.  And if that is only, say 10% of the
:population of teachers as a whole, then method A, whatever its virtues
:when taught well, must be discouraged, unless we have a way to
:restrict its use to the 10% who are capable and willing to use it
:effectively.  Its wholesale adoption means society as a whole suffers,
:and, in the aggregate, statistically speaking, students as a whole are
:being more poorly taught.
:This really stinks for the teachers in the 10%, and their students, 
:but the alternative really stinks for everybody else.  

I would agree with the above, merely because of efficiency's sake. I
can't imagine any teacher knowingly wanting to spend extra time and
energy of that magnitude for nearly equal results. But, I think it is
too far fetched to be seriously related to the discussion at hand.

:> In my experience, it doesn't matter what group you are dealing with,
:> whether it is teachers, doctors or plumbers, there will always be a
:> small part of that group that is "bad". And it really isn't reasonable
:> to form the policies for an entire groups based on a few "bad" ones.
:Yes.  My suggestion was for the bottom third, not the handful of worsts.
:If somebody made me _God_ I think that I would ban the bottom half of
:teachers from the profession, on the grounds of our children deserving
:better.  I'd do that every 10 years or so, and give teachers a huge
:increase in salary so that it would attract the best minds, and
:the best people in general in the profession, instead of what we have
:now.  Until this happens, we have to design educational platforms so
:that the poorest third of our educators can educate with them.  There
:is nothing pleasant about this at all.  But I don't see being made
:God any day soon, so this is the harsh reality we are stuck with.

I think that you have a very low opinion of teachers in general (below
the college level). I would recommend, instead of getting rid of the
bottom 1/3, to support and train these teachers so that they could learn
to be more effective (and how you would replace them, even with increase
in salaries, I can't imagine). I can agree with increasing in salaries
to attract the best. I'm not sure what country you are in (although I
imagine somewhere in Europe...UK, perhaps?), but at least here in the
US, there is a lot of stuff that could be done to make the profession of
elementary and secondary teachers more appealing, and it doesn't stop
with increasing the salaries.

:> In any case, here is what I really think:
:[much snipped.  I don't live in the United States.  I have no idea
:if any of the mentioned programs are effective.  If they are, I like
:them even if all the teachers hate them.  If they aren't I hate them.

Where you live isn't important. I'm sure that were I to mention these
same programs to US teachers, the overwhelming majority would have as
much knowledge of them as you do. That is why I included references
about the programs.

:What I hate worse is why you can't get rid of them already.  This makes it
:political, which I understand gets in the way of stopping doing bad
:things because they are bad.  Testing and assessing is only of use if
:we can make some hard conclusions here and stop doing foolish things.]


:What if its too late?  How old are these students?  If they are in
:college then it is way too late for them. You have to start developing
:a mathematical intuition in childhood, and really grow one through
:adolescence.  You can't graft one on later, no matter how much you
:would like to.  It is precisely the same sort of thing as a dietary
:deficiency.  You correct that when you find it, but you can't undo the
:stunted growth that was supposed to happen and didn't.

My current students are (mostly) first year college students. They are
only about a year older than the students I used to teach PreCalculus
to, and learning the same level of abstraction. It shouldn't be an
impossible thing, like they are "soooo old". It would be easier if they
had learned a bit of mathematical intuition and ability to grasp
abstract concepts earlier in their life, but I respectfully disagree
that it is "too late". It's like learning foreign language, really.
Easier when one is younger, but not impossible if one is older. Some of
the students in my class are just taking the course for General
Education requirements. But there are some who think they are going to
be engineers. Will they make it? I don't know. Personally, I'm amazed
that people coming into an engineering major in college aren't starting
out at a minimum of calculus. But, these people seem to want to try. And
I think they should be given the chance. I didn't start working on my
math degree until I was in my 30's. Granted, I was pretty good at
problem solving and stuff when I was younger. But my brain grew several
sizes in the abstraction department as a result of persuing this degree.

:Why isn't this considered child abuse?  Why can't we find the bad
:policies at every level that cause this and stop them?  Whoever in
:the United States thinks that college level is the place to learn
:abstraction is either a fool or a very evil person and in any
:case I want him or her out of the education business. Now.
:angry as anything, though not at you,
:Laura Creighton

I don't think that anyone in the US thinks that college is the place to
start learning abstraction. I think, that we have students who want to
try, who (for whatever reason) didn't learn the stuff earlier, and
someone is willing to let them try. Students have to be allowed to try,
and allowed to fail. It should be noted, that the College Algebra course
I'm teaching is considered by university standards in the US to be a
high school level (i.e. remedial) course.

As for angry: I did angry for many years a long time ago. You can only
stay angry for so long. I don't do angry any more. (Well, I try to avoid
it.) I just try to do what I can do each day with the group of students
I'm working with. Celebrate the successes and realize that all students
have a right to try and a right to fail. A large dose of realizing that
the student is ultimately responsible for his own learning doesn't hurt,

Sheila King

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