Saturday, August 23, 2008

Four Things I Would Like My Students to Get

It's the start of a new school year. Every year it's very exciting to look forward to the new classes and plan where we'll be going between now and next summer. Not only am I planning out the classes I teach, but I'm working with my daughters on putting the final touches on their plans, and my oldest is preparing to apply to universities for next fall.

This year I'm teaching computer classes at the high school and middle school levels, as well as a cartooning class. The computer classes are elective classes with no specific requirements, which is nice since it means I can do a lot of things with these classes without being bound by the restrictions of an established curriculum. This also means more planning and work for me than if we were just going front to back through a text, but I'd much rather have it this way.

The cartooning class seems like a frivolous class, but I use the fun aspect of it as a hook for the students to make it into more of a class in communication. Alongside lessons on drawing characters I teach the plot skeleton, storytelling techniques, and so on.

No matter what the subject, there are four things I would like my students to get from my class:
  • Confidence
  • Ability
  • Results
  • Patience
Let's look at these from the perspective of my computer classes.

I want them to develop the confidence to use the computer as a personal tool for self-expression and communication. I want that confidence to lead them to try new things, and feel that they can teach themselves new things. I want them to perceive the computer as a medium for their use, not as an antagonist.

I want them to have some basic ability to use the computer, some actual knowledge upon which to base their confidence. The specific abilities will vary by the student's age, and by the individual. But they should actually be able to use the facilities of the computer to produce something they've thought of, and to extend their abilities beyond what we're able to cover in class.

They should have some tangible results from their effort. Some finished pieces of work, in whatever form, to demonstrate to themselves and others the abilities they've developed. The products of their work should be impressive within a limited scope of effort, rather than incomplete overambitious efforts. They should be the result of a complete "life cycle" of producing a work, from concept to completion, including the incorporation of some incremental improvement.

Possibly one of the toughest things to give a student is the patience to stick with something. My experience is that having some prior results is one of the best ways to get there. Once they've got something to show that they have an ability, they can come back and apply that ability again on something more ambitious. With the knowledge they've developed of the process of producing something, it's easier for them to commit themselves more fully to their work.

Without something tangible to give them a sense that their time is well spent, they won't have the patience to deal with niggling syntax rules, strange vocabulary, and unfamiliar concepts. So there needs to be an early payoff. This can then be followed by further demands on their time and attention.

Thus, patience is developed. At some point the cross-over is made to the student seeking more knowledge and involvement on their own. When they're working for themselves on a project of personal interest patience becomes practically limitless. They enter the joyful iterative cycle of improvement, both for themselves and their programs, so well known to so many programmers.