Friday, February 4, 2011

Let the Students make Up Thier Own Mind? Are They nuts?

Over on Topix Evolution Forum, and a few other places, I have been seeing what appears to be an upswing in folks wanting to let students make up their own mind about a given topic. Now I see this as simply an variant of the 'Teach the Controversy' tactic, and one that really doesn't work in reality. Think about it, do you really want to teach all possible alternatives and then leave it to students to make up their minds? Isn't that pretty much impractical?

Let me explain it a bit more. For a change, let's avoid discussing evolution, at least for the moment. Let's talk computer programming, the subject I know a little about. I've been teaching it part-time for over a decade and been working as a programmer for most of the last 35 years. Am I the greatest programmer that ever lived? Of course not, I frequently run into folks that are much better than I am, usually because they have more experience in a particular type of programming. But I do have a pretty diverse background and a great deal of experience.

One thing I have learned that in every computer programming language, there are usually many ways to write a particular piece of code. There is rarely an absolutly perfect way to code something, but experience teaches you what works well and what things do not. An example is something we refer to as an uncontrolled jump. In many languages you can take yourself to another section of code with absolutely no automated way to get back. In other words you have to code going there and if you want to come back, you have to code the return. Seems simple enough, however programming neophytes might not see the real danger. It's something we call spaghetti code. That is code that seems to jump around in nearly random pattern. The results might be code that runs, but it is incredibly hard code to troubleshoot when you have a problem and very hard during long-term maintenance. And since something like 80% of the total cost of a software system is in maintenance, this is a significant problem. Code should be written that works, but it should also be written to be maintained.

If all we, as programmer instructors did, is present all of the different commands to move around a running program, we are doing a disservice to our students. We have been refining this concept for decades now. For example the BASIC computer programming language has a command called GOTO which easily permits you to jump around. In the Java programming language they also have a command GOTO; however, it does nothing. Sounds pretty strange, doesn't it?

Not if you understand the history. The GOTO command in BASIC, and similar commands in other languages, caused significant problems over the lifecycle of an software program. As a result the newer language, Java in this instance, took the command GOTO and reserved it so no one can make a command that replicates the old BASIC GOTO. This might seem like an extreme case, but if you look at the modern version of BASIC, called Visual BASIC, you will see that the GOTO command is no longer a useful command. The language itself has changed to remove even the temptation to use such a mechanism. You can still build uncontrolled jump structures, but you should not. It's much better if teachers taught more than just the commands, but the structure and the reasoning why.

The reason we know this is because of decades of experience and not just mine, but the collective experience of an entire industry. Now what folks like Catherine Crocker are advocating (Podcast from July 2010) are that the job of an instructor, professor, or teacher is not to present any conclusions, but only present all possible sides as equally as possible and let the students make up their minds. So how would that work in Computer Programming? It would mean that with every generation of new programmers, we would find ourselves forgetting the lessons of the past and having to re-learn them over and over again. in my humble opinion, that's bull!

Think about that in Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, and yes, you knew we would get back to it, even Biology. We have decades, even centuries of knowledge of a subject area. In a typical classroom, be it college or high school, you can only go so deep into a subject area. So how can you expect students to make up their own minds? It's not possible, not in any practical sense to hand them 40 years of experience in a single semester, so you present the conclusions and you also present how they formed them!. When you learn a subject, you should be learning many of the facets of it -- and those facets should include the prevailing conclusions a particular discipline is using today. History is good, but you HAVE to show the conclusions or you relegate the students to repeating the work that has already been done over and over again. Crocker is wrong!

Now why would someone like Catherine Crocker think such a thing is workable? That's pretty simple. If you listened to her pod cast you might have noticed her association with the Discovery Institute (DI). Since they [the DI] have failed to gain acceptance for Intelligent Design in the public school science classroom, they simply changed tactics to try and sneak in by another method. One of those methods is the one advocated by Crocker here, to teach all sides -- even the non-scientific sides -- and leave it to the student to make up their own mind.

In my opinion the last thing Crocker and her friends over at the DI really want is people making up their own minds. What they want is to gain a foothold in the science classroom as the first wedge into driving real science out. I mean look at the small successes they have had with school boards in Texas and Louisiana. Imagine those same school boards looking at curriculum in the future and someone making a comment like "Why are we teaching two theories of life? Why not save some money and only teach one. It's not a challenging leap to make. The 'Let them make up their own minds' is nothing but a gutter-level tactic, and Catherine Crocker is one of the missionaries for the DI. You can read a little more about her on Wikipedia. Her own experience with Evolution is not one she probably looks back on with fond memories. Thankfully she's no longer a biology teacher!

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