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Teaching passion

| passion, teaching

Ideally, teachers would focus on one single thing: getting their students really, deeply excited about the subject of the course. Everything else, the students can do on their own.

Peter Turney, Apperceptual: Genius, Sustained Effort, and Passion (blog post)
Link from Michael Nielsen

Here’s another of my favorite quotes:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery


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Teaching the attitude

| teaching

J- was getting frustrated by the game of chess she was playing with her dad. She couldn’t see any good moves. Her pieces were all tangled up, and she didn’t know what to do.

It’s interesting watching another human being learn how to think strategically. She’s not quite there yet, as she has a hard time thinking of what her dad’s response would be. I remember being like that, and I remember the chess drills I did in order to learn how to see ahead.

So instead of writing the blog post that I meant to write today, I took some time to teach her. No, I didn’t coach her during the game. Instead, we wiped the board clean and I set out some pieces for one of the simplest drills, King and Rook vs King. I’d shown her this before. She’d successfully completed it with some coaching. It would be good for reinforcing the idea of thinking ahead.

She was moving the pieces somewhat randomly (although legally, of course). So I started counting to 50 moves, the limit on end-game
dilly-dallying in tournament play. When I was getting close to 50, she We reached a draw during the first drill. Then I showed her how she needed to decide which side of the board she would force my king to stay on, and how that rook could keep my king there, then drive it backwards once it had the support of her king.

We did another drill, with plenty of sound effects. “I’m going to get you!” I exclaimed as my solitary king pursued her rook, step by step.
She squealed and moved her rook to the other side. “Uh oh,” I said when my king had nowhere to go but in front of hers. “Noooo!”, I cried
as her rook forced mine against the board. She checkmated my king with a little prompting.

We went back and forth a few times before she caught on that she needed to sometimes “waste” a move. When she could checkmate my king with no prompting, I reinforced the idea (“Pick which side of the board you’re going to squish my king against, and focus on forcing my king back”) and replaced her rook with a queen. I showed her how a queen can checkmate faster than a rook. She checkmated me handily, and finished the session thrilled with what she could do.

Why am I telling this story? I think it hints at why and how I teach. A lot of what I’m doing right now can be considered teaching, even
though it looks different: my social media consulting with IBM, the book that I’m writing on Emacs… But I’m not teaching facts or
procedures. I care about shaping attitude and so that I can unlock potential. I talk to people about blogging and bookmarking because I
want to influence their attitude towards collaboration, and because I want to see what they’ll do (so that I can learn from them too!). I
talk about Emacs, but what’s important to me is the “if I can tweak this, what else can I do with it?” kind of feeling that will unlock
the rest of Emacs for other people.

So part of what I do is think of exercises or examples that will help people feel that intrinsic joy. For J and chess today, it was the feeling of purposeful movement and of knowing what she was doing. That’s what I hoped to teach her. How can I do this better?

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Can’t help but teach

Posted: - Modified: | teaching

Learning about learning was how I found out that attitude can make
such a difference. In particular, the research on women and
math/science education showed me how much influence attitude and
self-esteem had on girls’ decisions whether they would take university
courses involving math and science. Attitude and self-esteem, on the
other hand, could be greatly influenced by teaching practices and

I saw this clearly when I was teaching computer science to first-year
university students. Some students faced each challenge with
excitement. Others were frustrated. The more frustrated they were, the
further they fell behind. I could hear some of them slipping away.
Yes, I tried my best to reach them. I’d walk around and come up with
in-between exercises to help students gain confidence by mastering
small parts of lessons. I looked for creative ways to make concepts
concrete. My very first lesson wasn’t about writing code – it was
about cooking spaghetti! (We got a lot out of that!) I kept looking
for opportunities for positive reinforcement and I helped people keep
moving forward by focusing on what they can learn in order to do

It didn’t always work, and when it didn’t work, the self-doubt in
their voices and on their faces almost physically hurt. It wasn’t
because I was disappointed that not all of them fell in love with
computers. Even if some of them were probably better-suited to another
field, I wanted to leave them with a good feeling about their
problem-solving skills—and halfway-decent problem-solving skills as
well, of course.

But yes, attitude. That feeling of “Yes, I can do this.” Or even just,
“Yes, I’ll be able to figure it out.” Or at the very least, “This
might not be my thing, but I’m okay.”

I guess that’s why, when I hear frustration possibly turning into
self-doubt, I feel an irresistable urge to teach, to try different
approaches. A little frustration isn’t a bad thing. I’ve learned a lot
by wrestling with problems. But when it threatens to go from “I’m
having a hard time solving this,” to “I can’t get the hang of this,”
to “I suck,” I find myself up and out of my chair before I know it.

Is this a good thing? I don’t know. This compulsion of mine regularly
drove me to doubt my own skills when I was teaching. After class, I
could often be found huddled under my desk munching on an emergency
stash of chocolate. But I’m glad I cared, and I’m glad that I still
do. I’m glad that this caring forces me to be creative, to get out
there and learn how to do things well, to think on my feet.

And here, now, even if I’m “teaching” a class of one, even if I don’t
really have to teach… I can’t help it. I’m addicted to that aha!.
All teachers know what I’m talking about—that moment that makes
everything worth it, that reason why you keep pushing yourself
forward. =)

Random Emacs symbol: bbdb-pop-up-display-layout – Variable: *The default display layout pop-up BBDB buffers, i.e. mail, news.

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EXITE and the quest for hot chocolate

| teaching

Yesterday I re-learned that I can teach even when everything’s going

I’d been running on far too little sleep for the past few days – some
five hours a day, I think. Nonetheless I managed to drag myself out of
bed by 6:30, catching a few blinks on the commute and making it into
IBM by 8:00. I just wanted to go back to sleep, but I was stressing
out about the activity – and the fact that by 9:30, I needed to be
vibrantly alive and enthusiastic.

Sometimes it’s just not one of those days.

A spot of hot chocolate would’ve done me well, I think. However, there
was not a single sachet of hot chocolate mix anywhere in the coffee
area for my lab, not even in my apparently-no-longer-secret stash
behind the tea boxes in the cabinet. No Hershey’s Kisses in Stephen
Perelgut’s cubicle, either. In my distraction I’d forgotten about the
Tim Horton’s cafe at the end of the building. Instead, I went back to
my computer and went through a few blogs in order to learn new things
and thus stimulate my mind.

The class went okay, although it was unexceptional. The words felt
thick and unwieldy in my mouth, unclearly explained. However, the kids
did what they needed to, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how
much they recalled from the activity two days ago.

As for me – I learned, yet again, that I need to take better care of
myself in order to be at top form. =) I hate being blah. I hate fuzzy
days. I’d rather wake up with a smile on my face and plenty of

Note to self: don’t volunteer for anything in the morning!

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Random Japanese sentence: テーブルに猫の足跡が付いている。 There are footprints of a cat on the table.

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Excited about EXITE

| teaching

Every year, IBM holds a week-long camp for 7th and 8th grade girls,
encouraging them to go into science and technology. Yesterday, I was
the instructor for the module “Women in Science”. That was tough!

I was terrified. I didn’t feel prepared at all, having forgotten to
put together colored slips of paper for the kids to write on. Well,
I’d remembered the need for it, but not the actual colors. Not only
was I worrying about how to do that, but the other volunteer briefed
me on how challenging this group was and how little their tolerance
for boredom could be.

In those frantic few minutes before the kids came through the door, I
pulled myself together and came up with Plan B. Jennifer Schachter was
awesome. She kept me focused by reminding me of the things we’d
thought of doing, and that helped everything click into place. By the
time the kids came in, I felt confident enough to fake the rest.

One of the things you learn as a teacher, after all, is to pretend
that Plan B was the real plan all along. ;)

After a brief introduction, I gave the kids two minutes to read and
write all they could about Hedy Lamarr. Then we went around the
groups, each group naming a single fact about Hedy Lamarr. If they
were the only group to write down that fact, they got five points. If
they shared it with another group, each group earned three points. If
more than two groups had that fact, each group earned one point. I
also got them to look for information on Birute Galdikas and Ada

After the event, the other facilitators said they were surprised to
find the kids so quiet and so engaged in a task. Whew!

I think one of the reasons why it worked was that the activity was
structured so that everyone could be a hero, but no one could lose.
That is, what the kids learned and wrote down could directly
contribute to the team getting a point, but if the team got no points,
it wasn’t the fault of anyone in particular.

Anyway, that was tons of fun. Scary, but fun. =)

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Random Japanese sentence: ネコでも王様を見られる。 Even a cat may look at a king.[Prov]

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Programming for kids

| teaching

On the Kagay-anon Linux Users Group mailing list:

we will just help kids learn the basics of programming,
logic formulation, flowcharting and the most important is their typing
speed till they will reach 105 wpm.

Here’s what I think about typing:

I find that as long as they can type without thinking about typing,
they’re fine. Get them to touch-type and they’ll be okay even if they
type slowly. The difference is that if you can’t touch-type, you’ll be
looking at the keyboard, and thus not looking at the structure of your
code. If you can touch-type, then even if you type slowly, you’re
still thinking about your code…

and about kids and programming:

What you really need to do is teach the kids to have _fun._
Show them that, and they’ll learn whatever else they need to.

One of my favorite quotes is:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to
collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach
them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Go back and think about what you found fun. What made you fall in love
with computers? What was your passion?

I loved being able to explore. I loved being able to get the computer
to do what I wanted it to, even if it was such a simple thing. And
later on, when I discovered open source development, I loved being
able to make a difference in other people’s lives – even if it was
just a very little difference… =)

Give kids inspiration by showing them what they can do. Give them time
to play, to explore. Give them hints, not instructions. Help them
discover. Let them own their work, let them feel that it is theirs.
Don’t make it a typing exercise. Make it fun. Make it interesting.
Make it play.

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E-Mail from edgardo bangga

Random Japanese sentence: 猫がソファの上に寝ている。 A cat is lying on the sofa.

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Microsoft Word in schools

| communication, free and open source, learning, teaching

Didith Rodrigo, the chair of my alma mater’s computer science department, seems to be getting a bit frustrated with people who’ve asked her to consider teaching students something other than Microsoft Word for word processing. She reasons: “I think that teaching tools is need-based. If there is some reason that the tool is more appropriate for the need, then fine. If not, then don’t fix what isn’t broken.”

I’m going to go on a bit of a rant because I feel that it’s important
to expose students to choices that they might not otherwise encounter
on their own. I agree with Didith’s main point at the end – that it’s
not about the tools – but my particular bone here is that university’s
also where students should learn to abstract general principles.

This is how I understand the educational system’s _supposed_ to work:
people who want to learn about specific things go to vocational
schools and workshops, and people who want to learn about abstractions
and things they’d never encounter on their own go to university.

We shouldn’t teach Microsoft Word. We should teach writing (note: not
even word processing). We shouldn’t teach Microsoft Powerpoint. We
should teach presentation. We shouldn’t teach Microsoft Excel. We
should teach data analysis.

The problems these students face go _way_ beyond the tools. You can
inflict death by bullet point in Impress just as
easily as you can in Microsoft Powerpoint. So why not spend valuable
class time talking about the principles of the thing instead of the
tools? (Oh, if I had a dime for every word someone’s read off the

Here’s a quote that captures what I think:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Fill them with the longing to write wonderful articles and make
effective presentations! Inspire them through your examples! Help them
reach out through their words! As long as students write only for
their teachers and their classmates, you’ll see bad prose and hear
people read off slides. Show them examples, point out common mistakes
and show them how they can improve, and put them in front of audiences
that care about what they’re interested in… If you can set them on
fire, they’ll _learn_ about all the nifty tricks hidden in whatever
software they use – and it will be about the result, not the tool!

Note to self: I need to learn how to write really, really well. I also
need to learn how to present really, really well. Then I need to
figure out how to teach this while inspiring by example. I _so_ want
to run a class on “Communication for Geeks”, or something like that. ;)

But wait! Wasn’t this supposed to be a rant about open source in education
and how students should be exposed to open source alternatives?

I’ve written a fair bit about this in the past, but let’s look at the
Atenean case more closely. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that
there _aren’t_ financial reasons to choose open source. The stereotype
of the Atenean student is a middle-class or rich student who can well
afford to buy legitimate versions of Microsoft Office. Truth is, quite
a few people are on scholarships. Besides, most people quite happily
pirate software or use whatever their computer dealer “bundled” with
their computer because they just don’t care about software rights or
they don’t think Microsoft deserves even _more_ money.

So let’s ditch the financial and ethical incentives, and talk about
the pedagogical one instead.

I taught for a short while, and even that short a while was enough to
make me feel the pressure to cover everything in the curriculum. If a
teacher’s already having a hard enough time covering all the little
features of one thing or another, how on earth is that teacher going
to find time to explore and discuss alternatives? Won’t that confuse
the students and make them lose confidence?

I feel quite strongly that we should drag people out of their comfort
zones every so often, particularly in university when they can mess up
without losing money. I suspect that one of the best ways to check
whether students can abstract the notion of, say, emphasizing text is
to throw them at an unfamiliar but usable word processor like and see if they can figure out what to do. (Open
source geeks can substitute “Microsoft Word” or “Emacs” as

I _want_ to make students feel a little bit uncomfortable. That
discomfort is what drives learning in the future, where it’s most
important. I don’t want students to stick only to what they know how
to do. They should keep learning!

This belief is probably not going to make me very popular with
students, most of whom would like to get through school with as little
effort as possible – but we need to help them develop critical
thinking and abstraction, and we need to help them figure out how to
figure things out.

I think that to know one thing is to know that one thing, but to know
two things is to know two things, their similarities and differences –
_and_ to know that I can learn more.

It doesn’t even have to be open vs closed source. It could be two
closed source ways of doing things, two open ways of doing things,
whatever. But it has to be sufficiently different to force the
students to think about their abstractions and to expose bugs in their
understandings… =)

Hey, would _you_ test a program with only one test case? ;)

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Random Japanese sentence: 「いいえ、ぼくです!、ぼくです!、ぼくです!」
こも自分が一番美しいとおもっていたのです。 No, I am! I am! I am! Cried
hundreds and thousands and millions and billions and trillions of
voices, for each cat thought itself the prettiest. [M]

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