Tag Archives: social reform

Energized by Bret Victor

Just watched Bret Victor’s powerful video:

Inventing on Principle | CUSEC

Simply put, watching it was a lifechanging moment, for me.

In some ways, Victor’s talk was deeply philosophical, though it’s easy to assess it as a demonstration about software engineering. It was delivered (here in Montreal) at a software engineering conference and Victor masterfully adapted his talk to a software engineering audience.

But, more than Hofstadter “philosophy book, disguised as a book of entertainment, disguised as a book of instruction” (that I consider to be a computer science book disguised as semi-academic nonfiction), Victor’s talk is a call to action disguised as a talk on software engineering. It makes a profound philosophical statement using software engineering as a launching point. In other words, it may have had more of an impact on me (as an ethnographer and a teacher, but also as a human being) than it may have had on software engineers who were present.

Quite a feat for something which seems to have had a significant impact on some software engineers.

This impact relates to how I got to Bret Victor’s presentation…

I follow John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog. On Monday, he had a short link post about Bret Victor:

Astoundingly insightful and inspiring essay by Bret Victor. One of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long time.

That insightful essay is on Learnable Programming.

Its starting point is a response to Khan Academy’s use of his work. In that sense, it’s a levelheaded but rather negative review of what the Khan folks did. As such, I associate it with critiques from science teachers. For instance:

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos | Action-Reaction

Started reading that post but context was missing, for me. Wasn’t able to really hang on to it. I then decided to look at that post in which Victor was cited.

John Resig – Redefining the Introduction to Computer Science

Victor’s impact on software engineering is clear in that post, as Resig describes a shift in his thinking after watching Victor’s thought. But the shift was based on a few elements of Victor’s talk, not on the main ideas behind it. At least, that’s what I get after watching Victor’s presentation.

Of course, I may be wrong. In fact, my reaction to Victor’s talk may be based on all sorts of other things. Maybe I’m putting into it all sorts of things which weren’t there originally. If so, that’s a sign of something powerful.

And, again, watching it was a powerful moment.

I know… that sounds big. But it’s one of those triggering moments, I feel, when things are connecting in interesting ways. In fact, I’m comparing it to another lifechanging moment I had four years ago and which became the basis of my “Happiness Anniversary”.

What happened that time is a larger set of things, but one specific point connects that date with Victor’s presentation. Four years ago, I participated in a CTLS workshop by Janette Barrington called “Writing a Personally Meaningful Teaching Philosophy Statement”. That workshop was based in part on the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI), which is where the connection with Bret Victor starts.

Here are the five perspectives identified by Daniel D. Pratt and John B. Collins (summary):

  • Transmission: Effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter.
  • Apprenticeship: Effective teaching is a process of socializing students into new behavioral norms and ways of working.
  • Developmental: Effective teaching must be planned and conducted “from the learner’s point of view”.
  • Nurturing: Effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart, as well as the head.
  • Social Reform: Effective teaching seeks to change society in substantive ways.

(Unsurprisingly, my highest scores were for developmental and nurturing, followed by social reform. Transmission and apprenticeship were quite low, for me.)

During the workshop, participants were teamed up according to these results. I don’t remember the exact details, but the mix of perspectives in our four-person team was optimal. We were so compatible with each other that we went to the “performing” stage of Tuckman’s classical model in no time. Haven’t heard from any of the three women with whom I was working, but it was a powerful moment for me.

Something I’ve noticed within our team is the importance of “social reform”. Though I teach social sciences, I’m no activist, but I find myself to be quite compatible with activists. In a way, my nurturing/developmental perspective is in complementarity with activism. I do wish to enable people, regardless of their goals. And these goals are often guided by deep principles that I tend to associate with activism.

Something else I’ve noticed had to do with engineers. If I remember correctly, there was a team made up of engineering teachers. They also appeared to be quite effective in their approach. But they were also quite distinct from our team. This has nothing to do with stereotypes and I fully realize that these same individuals may be quite different from one another in other contexts. But, at least in this context, they had a common perspective which, I would say, was furthest away from social reform and much closer to transmission.

Victor’s talk is doing the reverse, with software engineering. Through his presentation, Bret Victor encouraged engineers to think about the worldchanging potential of their work instead of emphasizing mere transmission of information (e.g., how to do a binary search). Given the talk’s influence on some software engineers, I’d say that it was quite effective. Not on everyone, and I’m sure there are engineers who dismiss Bret Victor in whichever way. But I find something there.

And much of it has to do with complementarity. Victor insists in his talk that it’s not about forcing people to “follow his lead”. It’s about allowing these people to understand that their lives and work can have a strong basis in deep principles. Having spent a bit of time with RMS, a few years ago, I can feel the effects of such lives and work.

So, how did Bret Victor change my life? In some ways, it’s too early to tell. I’ve watched this video and started reaching out about it, including in a long email to people I think might be interested. That email served as a basis for this post.

But there are some things I’m noticing already, which is why I call the experience lifechanging:

  • I’m finding ways to connect different parts of my life. I teach social science to people with diverse orientations to learning, often with an emphasis on problem-solving. Victor gives me a way to link problem-solving and social reform, making it easier for me to accomplish my goals of enabling people’s own goals.
  • While I’m no activist, my goals probably do relate to a core principle, which I haven’t really articulated, yet. Enabling others to action, or tummeling, gets very close to it.
  • For quite a while, now, I’ve been thinking about the role of public intellectuals. It’s something of a common theme on this blog, and I’ve been thinking about it in new ways, lately. Victor’s presentation is an exquisite (!) example of what I think a public intellectual can do.
  • More personally, this talk made me realize that I’m not so blasé after all. Lately, I’ve had times during which I couldn’t get stimulation. In fact, watching Apple’s iPad mini keynote left me with a definitive meh feeling, as if the “reality distortion field” had been turned off. Bret Victor’s CUSEC talk had more of an effect on me than did any Apple keynote, including celebrated ones by Steve Jobs.

I now feel a sense of purpose.

What else can I ask from 54″ of my time?

Student Engagement: The Gym Analogy (Updated: Credited)

Heard about this recently and probably heard it before. It’s striking me more now than before, for some reason.

[Update: I heard about this analogy through Peace Studies scholar Laurie Lamoureux Scholes (part-time faculty and doctoral candidate in Religion at Concordia University). Lamoureux Scholes's colleague John Bilodeau is the intermediate source for this analogy and may have seen it on the RateYourStudents blog. There's nothing like giving credit where credit is due and I'm enough of a folklorist to care about transmission. Besides, the original RYS gym-themed blog entry can be quite useful.]

Those of us who teach at universities and colleges (especially in North America and especially among English-speakers, I would guess) have encountered this “sense of entitlement” which has such deep implications in the ways some students perceive learning. Some students feel and say that, since they (or their parents) pay large sums for their post-secondary education, they are entitled to a “special treatment” which often involves the idea of getting high grades with little effort.

In my experience, this sense of entitlement correlates positively with the prestige of the institution. Part of this has to do with tuition fees required by those universities and colleges. But there’s also the notion that, since they were admitted to a program at such a selective school, they must be the “cream of the crop” and therefore should be treated with deference. Similarly, “traditional students” (18-25) are in my experience more likely to display a sense of entitlement than “non-traditional students” (older than 25) who have very specific reasons to attend a college or university.

The main statements used by students in relation to their sense of entitlement usually have some connection to tuition fees perceived to transform teaching into a hired service, regardless of other factors. “My parents pay a lot of money for your salary so I’m allowed to get what I want.” (Of course, those students may not realize that a tiny fraction of tuition fees actually goes in the pocket of the instructor, but that’s another story.) In some cases, the parents can easily afford that amount paid in tuitions but the statements are the same. In other cases, the statements come from the notion that parents have “worked very hard to put me in school.” The results, in terms of entitlement, are quite similar.

Simply put, those students who feel a strong sense of entitlement tend to “be there for the degree” while most other students are “there to learn.”

Personally, I tend to assume students want to learn and I value student engagement in learning processes very highly. As a result, I often have a harder time working with students with a sense of entitlement. I can adapt myself to work with them if I assess their positions early on (preferably, before the beginning of a semester) but it requires a good deal of effort for me to teach in a context in which the sense of entitlement is “endemic.” In other words, “I can handle a few entitled students” if I know in advance what to expect but I find it demotivating to teach a group of students who “are only there for the degree.”

A large part of my own position has to do with the types of courses I have been teaching (anthropology, folkloristics, and sociology) and my teaching philosophy also “gets in the way.” My main goal is a constructivist one: create an appropriate environment, with students, in which learning can happen efficiently. I’m rarely (if ever) trying to “cram ideas into students’ heads,” though I do understand the value of that type of teaching in some circumstances. I occasionally try to train students for a task but my courses have rarely been meant to be vocational in that sense (I could certainly do vocational training, in which case I would adapt my methods).

So, the gym analogy. At this point, I find it’s quite fitting as an answer to the “my parents paid for this course so I should get a high grade.”

Tuition fees are similar to gym membership: regardless of the amount you pay, you can only expect results if you make the effort.

Simple and effective.

Of course, no analogy is perfect. I think the “effort” emphasis is more fitting in physical training than in intellectual and conceptual training. But, thankfully, the analogy does not imply that students should “get grades for effort” more than athletes assume effort is sufficient to improve their physical skills.

One thing I like about this analogy is that it can easily resonate with a large category of students who are, in fact, the “gym type.” Sounds irrelevant but the analogy is precisely the type of thing which might stick in the head of those students who care about physical training (even if they react negatively at first) and many “entitled students” have a near Greek/German attitude toward their bodies. In fact, some of the students with the strongest sense of entitlement are high-profile athletes: some of them sound like they expect to have minions to take exams for them!

An important advantage of the gym analogy, in a North American context, is that it focuses on individual responsibility. While not always selfish, the sense of entitlement is self-centred by definition. Given the North American tendency toward independence training and a strong focus on individual achievement in North American academic institutions, the “individualist” character of the sense of entitlement shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, those “entitled students” are unlikely to respond very positively to notions of solidarity, group learning, or even “team effort.”

Beyond individual responsibility, the gym analogy can help emphasise individual goals, especially in comparison to team sports. In North America, team sports play a very significant role in popular culture and the distinction between a gym and a sports team can resonate in a large conceptual field. The gym is the locale for individual achievement while the sports team (which could be the basis of another analogy) is focused on group achievement.

My simplest definition of a team is as “a task-oriented group.” Some models of group development (especially Tuckman’s catchy “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing“) are best suited in relation to teams. Task-based groups connect directly with the Calvinistic ideology of progress (in a Weberian perspective), but they also embed a “community-building” notion which is often absent from the “social Darwinism” of some capital-driven discourse. In other words, a team sports analogy could have some of the same advantages as the gym analogy (such as a sense of active engagement) with the added benefit of bringing into focus the social aspects of learning.

Teamwork skills are highly valued in the North American workplace. In learning contexts, “teamwork” often takes a buzzword quality. The implicit notion seems to be that the natural tendency for individuals to work against everybody else but that teams, as unnatural as they may seem, are necessary for the survival of broad institutions (such as the typical workplace). In other words, “learning how to work well in teams” sounds like a struggle against “human nature.” This implicit perspective relates to the emphasis on “individual achievement” and “independence training” represented effectively in the gym analogy.

So, to come back to that gym analogy…

In a gym, everyone is expected to set her or his own goals, often with the advice of a trainer. The notion is that this selection of goals is completely free of outside influence save for “natural” goals related to general health. In this context, losing weight is an obvious goal (the correlation between body mass and health being taken as a given) but it is still chosen by the individual. “You can only succeed if you set yourself to succeed” seems to be a common way to put it. Since this conception is “inscribed in the mind” of some students, it may be a convenient tool to emphasise learning strategies: “you can only learn if you set yourself to learn.” Sounds overly simple, but it may well work. Especially if we move beyond the idea some students have that they’re so “smart” that they “don’t need to learn.”

What it can imply in terms of teaching is quite interesting. An instructor takes on the role of a personal trainer. Like a sports team’s coach, a trainer is “listened to” and “obeyed.” There might be a notion of hierarchy involved (at least in terms of skills: the trainer needs to impress), but the main notion is that of division of labour. Personally, I could readily see myself taking on the “personal trainer” role in a learning context, despite the disadvantages of customer-based approaches to learning. One benefit of the trainer role is that what students (or their parents) pay for is a service, not “learning as a commodity.”

Much of this reminds me of Alex Golub’s blogpost on “Factory, Lab, Guild, Studio” notions to be used in describing academic departments. Using Golub’s blogpost as inspiration, I blogged about departments, Samba schools, and the Medici Effect. In the meantime, my understanding of learning has deepened but still follows similar lines. And I still love the “Samba school” concept. I can now add the gym and the sports teams to my analogical apparatus to use in describing my teaching to students or anybody else.

Hopefully, any of these analogies can be used to help students engage themselves in the learning process.

That’s all I can wish for.