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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Problems in integrating programming into math

A month ago, I posted an entry that included the following bullet item:
We’ve made a valiant effort in our project of integrating computer programming into the regular math curriculum, but we still have far to go. In particular, programming is not integrated into enough units; it’s too scattered, and as a result a student may go a whole year without doing any. Last June, three of us delivered a paper at the TeachScheme Tenth Anniversary Workshop, in which we made the point that programming should be a regularly available tool at a student’s fingertips. But no one will develop enough facility to make this possible unless programming is a regular, not sporadic, part of the curriculum.
That’s the problem; recently I’ve been pondering the solution.

The incremental solution is to hold another summer workshop, in which we follow up last summer’s workshop with a sequel that involves more teachers for more days. If it’s funded, that would allow us to create additional modules. More important, it would give us time to identify and steal appropriate modules already written by teachers in other schools. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel if suitable modules have already been written and posted for public use.

So that’s what I call the incremental solution: we gradually add more and more modules, and eventually we reach a critical mass. But it probably isn’t the right solution, and it almost certainly isn’t the most effective one. For it implies that the mere existence of a sufficient number of materials will result in the desired curriculum reform. And that won’t happen, since too many teachers are too busy and their curricula are too full: “If I’m going to add this, what am I going to cut out, and when am I going to learn the material thoroughly enough so I’ll be comfortable using it?”

So how will we change teachers’ mindsets? How will they become willing to drop or condense some topics? Or see the programming material as another approach to learning the existing topics (not as something extra)? And have the time to become comfortable with materials? We need something more than the incremental solution.

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