Teaching python (programming) to children

Sheila King sheila at spamcop.net
Sat Nov 10 20:00:58 CET 2001

On Sat, 10 Nov 2001 17:33:25 +0100, Laura Creighton <lac at strakt.com>
wrote in comp.lang.python in article
<mailman.1005410053.31064.python-list at python.org>:

:Sheila King:
:> I don't see why this "circle" would bother any classroom practitioner at
:> all. Because teachers really do get to decide what they want to do, to a
:> large extent, when they go into their classroom with their students and
:> close the door.
:I have a problem. I can't pick the _students_ that come into my

Same here. Well, when I taught AP courses (Calculus and Computer
Science), I did have some say in what student could take the course. But
that was an exception. For the other courses I taught, I took all
comers. Largely, teachers don't have any option in which students end up
in their classroom.

:  And wherever I have come across a student that learned
:calculus from the graphing-calculator school, I have found somebody
:who does not understand, really understand, what 'this function is
:increasing' _means_.  They are incapable of doing their own visualization
:of that.  Fortunately for me, I don't run into these people that often.
:But they are crippled, so much that it shows.  It is evident in trying
:to have the simplest of conversations with them.  They have little or 
:no mathematical intuition at all.
:So either a) the method is bad, and cripples minds (period)  or
:b) the method, if not taught according to some vigorous standard and
:in conjunction with some other methods, cripples minds (or doesn't
:allow them to expand properly).

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.

:If the second is the case, then high school teachers must not be
:allowed to pick and chose what to do, because with the best intentions
:in the world they will produce a program that will produce people are
:mathematically naive.  Which is my experience.  We have people who
:never made the leap from arithmetic to mathematics.  They are human
:calculators, tied to machine calculators, but have no mathematical
:intuition whatsoever, and a great difficulty in thinking abstractly.
:It is frightening.  They do get correct answers, as long as their
:calculators have batteries, but they can't understand them.

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.

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.

:One must never design educational policy thinking only how the best 
:teachers will educate the most exceptional students (exceptionally
:good or exceptionally poor.)  The policy must instead focus on the 
:worst third of teachers.  This is hard on the gifted teacher, indeed, 
:but the alternative is hard on _everybody_.

Here is what I think:
First of all, you will not eliminate the problem of bad teaching by
doing this. There will always be some bad teachers. There will always be
teachers who have their students do little or nothing and give them
passing grades. Fortunately, there are very few of these, but you will
always have them. It doesn't matter that you outline the curriculum

Therefore, designing educational policy to "prevent" these teachers from
continuing with their bad teaching practices will not work. Furthermore,
you acknowledge that it will be hard on the good teachers, and K-12
teaching is already a shi**y job. Believe me. I just left last year
after nearly two decades. (Went from high school to college.) The
students are great. Being in the classroom is great. The
student-interaction part of the job is what it's all about. However, the
workload and the policies and all that other stuff make the job very
difficult to do. If you take yet one more thing away from the good
teachers, they will leave. Then all you will have left is the mediocre
and "bad" teachers. This will not help.

I believe that in Texas they had (and perhaps still do?) a very
lock-step math curriculum. It dictates exactly what topics will be
covered, in exactly what method, on what days, etc... 
The teachers hate it. And I know from at least one source, that it has
not solved Texas' math education problems. Also, there are reading
programs (Open Court and Success For All), for elementary school with
SCRIPTED curriculum. The teachers HATE it and it is questionable that it
is an improvement. Some of the teachers I converse with (electronically)
feel that it has really lowered the bar on what the students are able to
do. (For more input on this things, visit the newsgroups
k12.chat.teacher or k12.ed.math and post a question about Open Court
Reading or Success For All, or a question about the Texas' regimented
math curriculum. Or, go to http:///groups.google.com and search the
archives of those groups. I'm sure you will find enough material to show
that the programs are not well liked and that the good teachers believe
they are actually detrimental to the students.)

About the only thing I could envision that would help, is some sort of
external exam, not written by the teacher, that the students would have
to pass. This way, the student of the poor teacher may not do well on
that exam, but at least everyone who passed that exam would have
satisfied requirements for that course. And hopefully the poor teacher
would be exposed after a short time, and removed from teaching duties.

But I can hear all kinds of complaints against this idea, too. Can you
imagine the teacher of that course, complaining (similar to your own
complaints) that it was the teachers of the previous courses, who
crippled the minds of the students he had to deal with, and that he
could not get them through the curriculum he was supposed to teach, due
to their insufficient background?

In any case, here is what I really think:

You have a problem. A few students with insufficient understanding of
the prerequisite material for your course. Instead of trying to make it
someone else's problem (dictate what the high school teachers should
do), take ownership of the problem and deal with it yourself.
Ultimately, this is what each teacher at each level should do, and it's
the only way things are going to work. At the college level: Institute
placement exams for the students, to determine their placement as
incoming freshman in an appropriate math course. And converse with the
department you work in, to put in place reasonable curriculum and
policies within your own department, so that once a student has been
correctly placed within your system, you can feel confident about their
proceeding on to the next course with sufficient knowledge.

By having placement exams, you indicate to the high school what you
require students to know to come into your program. If large numbers of
a particular school's student population are unable to pass your
placement exam, notify their administration, their district, etc... so
that they can deal with it.

Otherwise it all rolls downhill. You complain about the job being done
in the high schools. They will complain about the middle school. They
will complain about the upper elementary grades. Those will complain
about the primary grades. Nothing is accomplished but a lot of finger
pointing. Instead: Make it clear the prerequisites for your program, and
stick to them. Those students who meet your prereqs but are deficient in
a few small areas, deal with it. Remember, too, that the student bears
responsibility in all of this as well, especially after they get to
about the age of 16 or so. If you have a student in your course who
doesn't sufficiently understand the concept of increasing (and I'm sure
this was only one small example...such a student must have many other
deficiencies as well), that student MUST be aware of his/her own
deficiencies. He must be wondering why you are saying things like, "and
so we can see that..." and he is sitting there going ??? 'How can she
see that???' This should be a CLUE to the student to either ask
questions in class or come to office hours. As instructor, you should
expect to have a small number of weak students who passed the prereqs,
but only just barely, and therefore have a very shaky understanding of
the material. Unless these students take ownership of their problem and
do something about it, there is nothing that you as instructor can do
for them. So, there will be some poor grades. Oh, well.

I agree with you completely about the current situation, with students
who have a very concrete understanding of math but are unable to make
the bridge to abstractness. This has always been one of my battles in
the classroom. Currently I'm teaching two sections of College Algebra,
and these students have NO abstract thinking ability nor any ability to
set up word problems. (OK, that's a sweeping generalization. Maybe I
have a few who do have these abilities.) But this course is supposed to
introduce some abstraction, and it is like pulling them kicking and
screaming. But, I try to take care to ask questions that get at the
abstract ideas, or to disallow calculators on some of the exams and
quizzes where they might be used as a crutch (i.e. design questions
where the calculator is no advantage, or band them from the test if they
are one). At least, they will not pass the course I am teaching without
some ability to think abstractly. This is the part that is under my
control, which I can do something about.

Sheila King

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