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I think that the desired traits for this profession are being over-looked in favor of outdated scholastic traditions.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.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Your point about tests and getting things right the first time vs. "real-world" computer science is well-taken. But, as I recall, a lot of exams in school are testing either

a) repeating a solution to a slightly different instance of a problem you've already solved (assuming you've been paying attention in class, doing homework, etc.)

b) extrapolating a solution based on principles that should be well-known. In this case, it is really more a test of critical thinking based on familiar principles, instead of coming up with exactly the right solution. These sorts of problems tend to be graded leniently, as long as you demonstrate that you understand the principles being tested and made an attempt to extrapolate upon them.

Of course, mileage varies greatly between profs. But, I think the intent of good teachers is *not* to test you on getting one exact answer correct, but instead to see if you picked up the big ideas and can make decisions and/or conclusions based on those ideas.

I also agree that the "you got it wrong, move along" attitude is really bad. One of my biggest irritations as a student was having a test problem marked wrong with no explanation as to why it was wrong. At that point, the focus has shifted completely to simply handing out points and away from actually educating. But at the same time, one must appreciate (as I'm sure you do) the ridiculous tedium of grading a huge stack of papers. A single teacher in a large class can only do so much.