Sunday, November 14, 2010

Is Perfection Overrated?

Whatever happened to "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again?" That is, after all why God invented ctrl-z, right?

I'm taken aback by the amount of pressure there is to get everything correct the first time. My midterms and finals are heavily weighted and based on the premise that we can quickly answer a complex problem without flaw. In the end, the pressure to do so usually makes me panic. Inevitably, I end up belaboring the little things until there's not even time enough left to finish what I had thought I was confident in.

For Pete's sake, I'm not a doctor or bomb-defuser, I'm a computer scientist. Our profession is built on a foundation of trial and error. We hypothesize, test, analyze, repeat. We make sure something is done right before we make it public, but the idea of correctly completing a program in one session and releasing it before it's been picked apart and fine tuned by many other sets of eyes is ridiculous.

I think that the desired traits for this profession are being over-looked in favor of outdated scholastic traditions. I'm proposing that we overturn this antiquated testing format and put a little more weight on creativity. What if students answer questions then trade with classmates who then point out flaws? It would give them a chance to see the problem differently and try again. I think the learning opportunity would be much greater than spending all night "cramming" for an unknown wealth of possibilities that could show up the next day. The former results in a lesson that's far more likely to stick in one's mind than the information accumulated by the latter.

Up to this point, I have been discussing this on a (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) collegiate level. I do, however, feel like this issue is even more important for young children. The fear of failure kicks in for young students (especially girls) and keeps them from even attempting things that they could possibly get wrong. How often do you hear shy girls answer "I don't know." even when you're certain that they do? What if the classroom adopted a model that revolved a bit more around computational thinking and the scientific method? What if students weren't labeled as "wrong" when they answered something incorrectly? What if they were then presented with another opportunity to succeed? Imagine a system where students were allowed to continue revising their homework assignments until they had tuned them to the desired specifications. Assignments could be graded on a combination of correct answers and time taken to achieve the final draft of the assignment.

This all has come about mainly because I don't like the "You got it wrong, your grade-points are gone, now move along." attitude in academia today. Students have been trained to memorize things for tests, then forget them as soon as the term is over. In practice, there are very few professions where you're forced to have instant recall (without the Internet, books or colleagues) for facts that you rarely use. Information is so readily available that trivia is no longer a commodity. Instead, it's the ability to take the facts and use them to develop helpful solutions that has become rare. Let's start working on that.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Waking Up is Hard to Do

I'm so tired. I haven't been to bed while the clock read "pm" for a very long time. My life is an amazing whirlwind of beauty and aspiration right now. I can honestly say that I'm living up to my recently acquired nickname as a "Technological Force of Nature." Between being a single-mom, completing the final year of my Master's degree and working as the chair for Women in Computer Science at the University of Oregon, I have also been passionately shaking the publicity tree for my latest project, Picture Me in Computing Day.

Born of an idea by Julia Fallon (the Crazy Idea Factory) picmecomp has become a movement greater than two intelligent women had a right to believe it would. With the website, promotion, blogging and research, I'm spending more time on picmecomp than homework and school work combined! I've been staying up until three in the morning, getting up at seven and working hard not to neglect my children or friends. You'll find that my next sentence is missing, due to the fact that it has been sacrificed as an offering to the gods of the Internet in an effort to get all y'all to participate on 11-10-10 in recognition of all my hard work! -- - -- - - -

One thing I've learned by trying to juggle a seemingly endless stream of flaming swords is that it's much better to refuse to take one on than to drop one on your foot! Some of us find it very difficult to decline opportunities to help, even when our hands are already full. For this reason, I'm providing the following helpful list of ways to say "No!"

  1. When you hear someone say the words "I've been meaning to ask you..." turn and run!

  2. Associate an email filter with the words "help", "request" or "your time." Then, have it autosend a reply saying that you will get back to them as soon as you return from entertaining the troops on the international space station.

  3. Acknowledge all requests by including the phrase "your inquiry is currently 4,237th in the queue. Please continue to hold and I'll be with you as soon as all previous requests have been handled."

  4. When asked to help at an event, resist your urge to join-in by faking a heart attack. Not only will you have an effective excuse, but you just may wake up to find someone feeding you Jell-o!

  5. and if none of those work for you, try:
  6. "That sounds like a great opportunity. I happen to be a little overextended at the moment, but please think of me next time!"

I hope you've found this list to be helpful. Since I, myself, don't expect to be slowing down any time soon, I'm counting on you to take particularly good care of yourself so that you'll be around to check me out of the loony bin at the end of the school year!