Pedagogy as Struggle

[See also: On Giv­ing Ad­vice and Rec­og­niz­ing vs Gen­er­at­ing]

So this quar­ter, I’ve been tu­tor­ing for an un­der­grad­u­ate com­puter sci­ence course, and one in­ter­est­ing thing that I’ve re­vised is how I think about teach­ing/​learn­ing.

Let me try to illus­trate. Here’s a con­ver­sa­tion that hap­pened be­tween some staff and the pro­fes­sor one day; it’s about what ad­vice to give stu­dents when test­ing their code.

Tu­tor A: “I think that we should re­mind stu­dents to be very thor­ough about how they ap­proach test­ing their code. Like, so far, I’ve been tel­ling them that ev­ery line of code they write should have a test.”
Tu­tor B: “Hmmm, that might back­fire. After all, lots of those lines of code are in func­tions, and we re­ally just want them to make sure that their func­tions are work­ing as in­tended. It’s not re­ally fea­si­ble to test lines of code in­side a func­tion.”
Pro­fes­sor: “Ac­tu­ally…that seems like a fine out­come. We want stu­dents to be think­ing about test­ing, and I’d ac­tu­ally be very ex­cited if some­one came up to me and asked how to test for what goes on in­side a func­tion…”

This was sur­pris­ing to me be­cause most dis­cus­sions I’ve pre­vi­ously had about stu­dent learn­ing had fo­cused on how to re­duce con­fu­sion for the stu­dents. But in this sce­nario, the pro­fes­sor was fine with it hap­pen­ing; if any­thing, they seemed pleased that the con­cepts, when taken to their ex­tremes, in­cited more ques­tions.

And this gen­eral con­cept, of giv­ing stu­dents some­thing that’s Not The An­swer, in an effort to move them closer to The An­swer seems to show up in sev­eral other ar­eas.

For ex­am­ple, from my shal­low un­der­stand­ing of how kōans work in Zen Bud­dhism, there’s a similar me­chanic go­ing on. The point of a kōan isn’t to de­velop a fully satis­fac­tory an­swer to the ques­tion it asks, but to wres­tle with the strangeness /​ para­dox­i­cal na­ture of the kōan. The aux­iliary things that hap­pen along the way, en route to the an­swer is re­ally what the kōan is about.

To be clear, the thing I’m try­ing to point at isn’t just giv­ing peo­ple prac­tice prob­lems, the way that we already do for math or physics.

Rather, I’m imag­in­ing things like peo­ple pur­pose­fully writ­ing in­cor­rect /​ con­fus­ing ma­te­rial, such that it prompts stu­dents to ask more ques­tions. I guess there’s already a good amount of peo­ple in the ra­tio­nal­ity space who write ab­strusely, but I won­der how many are do­ing so for ped­a­gog­i­cal rea­sons? See­ing as notic­ing con­fu­sion is an oft-cited use­ful skill, I think that there’s more to do here, es­pe­cially if you’re up­front about how some of the ma­te­rial is go­ing to be in­com­plete, and maybe some­times even wrong.

It seems like there’s a slew of re­lated use­ful skills here. Sev­eral times, in math class, for ex­am­ple, I’ve had my in­struc­tor make an er­ror while do­ing some proof. And now I’m con­fused about how we got from step N to step N+1. Some­times I figure that they’re just wrong, and I write what I think is cor­rect. And some­times I get scared that I’m the one who doesn’t un­der­stand.

But this whole pro­cess raises good ques­tions. What if I hadn’t no­ticed that some­thing was wrong? What does that say about my un­der­stand­ing? When I do no­tice that some­thing is wrong, how do I know if it’s me or the other per­son?

This all seems ap­pli­ca­ble out­side of a ped­a­gog­i­cal con­text.