Saturday, December 5, 2015

Guidance, binary, and responsibility.

When I was in Std. 6 (Grade 8) I had the worst "learning" experience of my life.
It was in what was called "guidance", ostensibly a class meant to furnish us with the skills we needed for life outside of school.

On that particular day we were discussing careers. This was around 1993 and computers/IT/whatever was still seen as being a particularly smart career move (although this was still before the feeding frenzy of the dotcom boom, so I don't think it was as hot a choice as it was later taken to be).
A fair number of us loved computer games, and some of us -- myself included -- thought it would be cool to grow up and make our own. That is, to be programmers.
At some stage someone (it could have even been me) mentioned becoming a programmer as a possibility.

The teacher then asked "who of you know what binary code is?", some of us put up our hands.

Then he asked "do any of you know how it works?" and I kept my hand up.

He then offered me a piece of chalk and asked if I wouldn't come to the board and write up something simple in binary, maybe something like the number 5, I can't remember exactly which problem he posed. I do remember, though, that I worked it out when I got home.

I went up to the board, and froze.

Now, there are a couple of ways a teacher could respond to this. I've taught classes before, and have been lucky enough to have seen brilliant teachers in action (my philosophy supervisor in his second year class on Epistemology was, perhaps, the greatest example of how to teach I've ever seen -- managing to turn even questions that seem entirely hopeless into opportunities for learning).

The correct response to a frozen student is to engage them, draw out what they actually know. Ask leading questions, encourage them to come to the right conclusions.

What my teacher did was use it as an opportunity to humiliate me and the rest of my class.

After a few moments of standing before the board frozen he sent me back to my desk and said something along the lines of "not everyone is cut out for being a programmer, those of you in this class interested in computers can certainly find work in computers, fixing them, replacing hard-drives and such, but not necessarily as programmers".

You see, my class was made up of guys who had been kept back the previous year, who weren't doing particularly well academically, or who had (like me) transferred from other schools. Leftovers, basically. And the attitude towards us was, more or less, get them out of the school as quickly as possible (many of my class did, in fact, leave our high school before graduating, opting for a skills based college education).

He had an opportunity to encourage us, and he used it as an opportunity to make us feel like shit about ourselves and our prospects.

I was 13. Think about that. What kind of grown man goes out of their way try to crush the dreams of a 13 year old?

If he had decided that, rather than using this as an opportunity to belittle me and had, rather, asked me what problem I was having with the binary conversion, the class may have turned out quite differently.

I had, in fact, by that time taught myself to program by reading the Q-Basic help manuals that came with MS-DOS 5. Reading the source of gorillas.bas and nibbles.bas.

As for binary (and remember, we had no internet in these days) I'd actually worked it out from reading about it in Wyndham's novel, Chocky. I'd never actually seen a lot of binary written out and couldn't remember if it was supposed to be written left to right or right to left. *edit: to be clear, the passage explaining binary in the novel is very clear, but I went out of my way to understand it -- I must have been around 8 at the time -- explaining it to anyone who would listen. It was a revelation to me*

Now, I don't think that teaching myself to program or learning binary from an SF novel (both before I was 11) is something that is particularly exceptional - I think that these are quite common experiences shared by many people, people who often become programmers.

 My experience in high school coloured my relationship to formal learning for a long time, and this kind of experience was repeated a number of times during my high school career.

I wish I could ask this teacher what he was thinking. Was he just having a bad day and so felt like lashing out at the "stupid class"? Did he realize that this episode may have actually discouraged learning in kids that could have, with even a little effort, a little guidance, flourished?

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