Monday, November 6, 2017

GHC17 / Teaching Literature with Interactivity

Any time I go to a conference and see the word 'learning' in a session title, I get excited. Even better when games are involved. So I was already positioned to enjoy Elizabeth Hunter's talk on teaching literature with interactivity. Bonus that she herself is getting a PhD in theatre and knows how to present!

Elizabeth told us about her interesting game project called Something Wicked. The project aims to answer the question of whether playing a true-to-the-text video game adaptation of a famous work of literature help people better understand the work.

In the demo version of the game, the player participates in a battle with the king of Norway. In the book, the battle is described for 70 lines by a bloody military man, but you don't get to see it; it's not engaging for modern students. But you need to understand the nuances in the monologue or else you don't really understand the play.

Elizabeth previously found in her research that taking Shakespeare into unusual settings, using the full environment, helped people enjoy it more. They felt inside the story, and they cared more, which allowed them to think more deeply about the text.

While live theatre does not scale, video games do. It's worth noting that video games are not a replacement of live theatre. However, we can use games to capture some of the benefits we get from live theatre, like boosting affinity, critical thinking, and comprehension. Unfortunately, a lot of literature video games are nothing more than a jazzed-up book, a little too true to text rather than just inspired by a work of literature.

Something Wicked was built according to the rules governed by the world in the book. The game mechanics reward making decisions that Macbeth would have made, rather than "playing well." If you don't play violently enough you have to start again. You have to behave with bloodlust and sneakiness.

So far the game seems to be succeeding in its goals. One cool thing, for example, is that older players end up being excited to analyze Shakespeare's text to figure out why the game was designed the way it was (and even to argue about those decisions).

Learn more about Something Wicked and sign up to playtest on the project's website.

Friday, October 13, 2017

GHC17 / Changing of the Guard: Welcome to the New ABI President and CEO

At the opening keynote of this year's Grace Hopper Celebration, eighteen thousand technical women got to meet AnitaB.org's new President and CEO, Brenda Darden Wilkerson. She introduced herself as a warm, eloquent, and passionate lady. She and outgoing CEO Telle Whitney made a touching video in which Telle passes the proverbial torch to Brenda, heralding an exciting new era for the organization.

***

I have had the great pleasure of getting to know Telle over the last number of years. A talented computer scientist, she took on the commitment of heading up the then-called Institute for Women and Technology in 2002 when her dear friend Anita Borg fell ill. Though CEO might not have been a role she expected to have, Telle embraced the challenge and lead the institute through incredible growth and impact.

I first met Telle when I was assigned as a Hopper volunteer for an ABI advisory board meeting during Grace Hopper in 2010. I was then invited to be part of the board and got to know Telle more over the years. Some of my fondest memories of her are on the dance floor, where she was always ready to bust a move with me like we were the best of friends.

***

I had the chance to meet Brenda Tuesday night before GHC started. The ABI advisory board no longer exists, but I had the chance to attend the Systers leadership dinner with the Anita|Bees committee. Brenda addressed our relatively small group with such warmth that I couldn't help but immediately like her. That she has such an impressive background, and founded the original 'computer science for all' initiative, just makes it all the better.

I'm also tickled that we had a bonding moment over breastfeeding. I was nursing my six-month-old Henry when she was going to introduce herself. After noticing what I was doing, she told me about her own experiences with her babies. I love connecting with folks on a personal level like that, no matter how "high-up" they are.

***

I think everyone can agree that great things lie ahead for AnitaB.org. I hope that Telle enjoys her well-earned retirement, and I hope that I'll have a chance to dance with Brenda someday as well.

If you'd like to learn more about Brenda, check out her interview on the AnitaB.org website.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

How We Learn: A Book that Understands the Research and Brings it to the Masses

There's a lot of research out there on the theory of learning, so you'd think we'd all know the tricks by now. Unfortunately, due to the relative inaccessibility of academic research by the general public, this isn't the case. Academic writing, when you can find it without needing to shell out a lot of money, isn't exactly designed for consumption by the everyday person (and I say this having been an academic).

Luckily for us, Benedict Carey, a long-time science journalist, has done the work of distilling key learnings (pun intended) about learning science (etc) from the literature. He shares some very practical results in How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. Even better, he does it in a way we can all understand.


The book climbs the ladder of abstraction of the mind. It begins with some basic neuroscience theory, explaining how the brain works. It then goes through some of the best techniques to remember things, shares ideas behind effective problem solving, and finally discusses how learning happens away from the conscious mind.

There are a few themes that are threaded throughout the book. For example, some level of difficulty is desired, such as forcing yourself to struggle to remember things through self-testing. Another theme is the power and importance of forgetting:
“Compared to some kind of system in which out-of-date memories were to be overwritten or erased,” Bjork writes, “having such memories become inaccessible but remain in storage has important advantages. Because those memories are inaccessible, they don’t interfere with current information and procedures. But because they remain in memory they—at least under certain circumstances—be relearned.” 
Thus, forgetting is critical to the learning of new skills and to the preservation and reacquisition of old ones.
Other important ideas include the role of context in learning (it's best to switch it up!), why testing is much more important than just for assigning grades, and how to know when to stop working on something for a while to let it percolate.

Carey walks through all of these ideas by telling the stories of the researchers who discovered the various principles, and how their ideas can be put into practical use by us today. If you're looking for just the quick and dirty list of what to do to improve your learning, this probably isn't the book for you. Such a list is there at the end, but you might find reading the whole book inefficient. On the other hand, if you like to have ideas reinforced several times and enjoy hearing about the history behind them in an engaging way, I highly recommend this book!



Monday, May 29, 2017

When Feedback Makes You Cry a Little

Feedback really is a gift. But feedback can also be hard, both to give and to get. I moved into a leadership role a little over a year ago, and got my first hard-hitting feedback at the end of 2016.

Got Feedback?

The fall was a stressful time for our entire team. We were launching something completely new with fewer people than we needed and inherently inflexible deadlines. I was pulled in multiple directions as I tried to build what our team would do more broadly, champion this one huge project, and do a fair bit of individual-contributor work that really did have to be done by me in the circumstances. Everyone else was faced with wearing too many hats, too. We managed to maintain a very high quality through the fall but we were all worried about what was looming in the new year.

Late fall, my lead initiated a feedback process for me that included everyone on our team and a bunch of folks that worked with us. I also did a self evaluation. It's a standardized process used with all folks in leadership roles. I got a report back with a summary of scores on the various questions and the written responses, but of course none of the names to go with them.

When I first got the report, my heart just sank. How poorly I had calibrated my self-evaluation is what struck me first - most scores given to me seemed really low. Then I started to read the written stuff and my heart sank even lower.

Nothing written was mean, and in fact, none of it was unfair. It took a day or two of reflection, but the feedback was absolutely right.

I wonder if there are known stages of absorbing feedback, like the stages of grieving. At first I felt shock, then I felt a little upset, and then I felt horrible about how I had made the team's lives harder in some ways. It was difficult to realize how much less self-aware I was in some areas than I imagined.

After reading the report I had a session with one of our internal coaches. I definitely cried a little in that session. We worked through the feedback, me talking through what likely caused it and how I missed realizing what I was doing. It was extremely valuable and I highly recommend doing something similar if you can.

The coach gave me some suggestions for how to address the feedback with my team. At our next standup I brought it up using her advice and cried a little again. The team was so wonderful. It became really clear that the feedback came from a place of us all caring about each other very much. It was a difficult but very important experience.

I was able to put some of the plan for addressing the feedback into action before leaving to have a baby a couple of months later. My biggest takeaway, besides the specifics of the feedback, is that I need to give and ask for feedback more often. It's not always easy, and it might make you cry a little, but it is so so worth it.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Review / Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom

While visiting a branch of our city's library system we don't often find ourselves at, I browsed the tiny section on education. I found Invent to Learn by chance, and though the title's font left me a bit skeptical, I decided to give it a try. I'm glad I did.


The premise of the book is that adopting principles of making into formal and informal education is both feasible and worthwhile. The focus is on maker projects oriented around fabrication, physical computing, and computer programming. The book starts with solid learning theory and goes all the way to how to actually teach with open-ended maker projects.

I'm admittedly an education nerd, so I was delighted to see the book start with some relevant education history, learning theory, and discussion on "thinking about thinking." Seymour Papert, creator of Logo among many other things, is a central figure threaded throughout.

Papert coined the term constructionism, which builds on a previously established theory of learning, constructivism. As defined in the book, constructivism is:
...a well-established theory of learning indicating that people actively construct new knowledge by combining their experiences with what they already know. Constructivism suggests that knowledge is not delivered to the learner, but constructed inside the learner's head.
On constructionism:
Papert's constructionism takes constructivist theory a step further towards action. Although the learning happens inside the learner's head, this happens most reliably when the learner is engaged in a personally meaningful activity outside of their head that makes the learning real and shareable. This shareable construction may take the form of a robot, musical composition, paper mâché volcano, poem, conversation, or new hypothesis.
The authors claim that constructionism is the learning theory that resonates most with the maker movement, and build the rest of the book on this idea.

The rest of the text covers what makes a good project, what 'making' means today, the three game-changers in making (the aforementioned fabrication, physical computing, and programming), the practical stuff of actually teaching through maker projects, and how to convince others that the maker approach is a good idea.

Many concrete resources and materials are described throughout the book. It was published in 2013, though, so a lot of the specifics are likely to be out of date. Nonetheless, the suggestions should serve as a good starting point. (As a side note, the book's website, inventtolearn.com, appears to have been hacked, so best not to visit it at the moment.)

Overall, if you are curious about having your students learn by making things (real or virtual), and want to get a taste of the theory behind why it might work as well as the practical suggestions on how to do it, it's worth checking this book out.