Math and Computer Programming through Black Belt Eyes

In my misspent youth, I was the first American to win the world judo championships. This came about since I had a propensity to run my mouth off, which often led to fights. Those people who said I better be able to “walk the walk if I was going to talk the talk”. Well, I took them seriously. In retrospect, they probably wish they had instead advised me to just shut the hell up. Too late now.

In a presentation to our judo board of directors, a marketing specialist commented that a major problem was that materials were developed “with black belt eyes”. In other words, we had pictures of flashy throws by top athletes which made us, the black belts, think the person was extremely skilled and reminded us of when we were young athletes. The market analyst said to us,

The reaction of the average person seeing these is either, “ouch! That looks like it hurts!” or “An older person (or younger person or overweight person or out-of-shape person) like me could never do that.”

For computer science, I think we have the exact same problem. For example, being a decent programmer requires, as a minimum, some basic level of algebra and statistics. You need to understand scientific notation, subscripts, superscripts, a few symbols like ∑ . I’m not talking even Calculus here, but stuff like what the mean of X is and how computation is affected by the distribution of parentheses. This is stuff that a lot of us learned in seventh through tenth grade. What if you didn’t? What if you went to a school where you were taught by seven substitutes in nine months and you never got to it? What if your school didn’t have textbooks? I’m talking about American schools. Probably not the ones your kids go to, if you are reading this, but American schools nonetheless.

Sometimes you have a very good, knowledgeable hard-working teacher and you still didn’t learn it. My older brother is a math teacher and you couldn’t ask for a better one. He often mentions how unmotivated his students are. Let’s think about those black belt eyes for a moment. Most of Algebra is taught completely separate from anything remotely important to the child’s life. I have a daughter in seventh grade at a good school and her textbook has the “appropriate” distribution of different names that is supposed to make it relevant for kids,

Suppose Keisha is making $6 per hour more than Diego.  Diego was paid $18 for three hours of working after school at his family’s market. How much money does Keisha make per hour?

We tell kids that they will use algebra in their life and they are skeptical because they don’t really see their parents or clerks at the grocery store working problems out on pieces of paper. When we get to students in community college, they are already calling bullshit on us. That twenty-something student in your Developmental Mathematics class knows that he does not use Algebra in his job at 7-11 and he is pretty sure that his fascist boss doesn’t either.

Don’t even get me started on statistics. Oops, too late!

Sometimes I have to wonder if anyone who writes those statistics textbooks ever met an actual student. Yes, I find puzzling out pages of equations challenging and interesting. Many equations I can glance at and say to myself, “Sum of squares error” and move on. Most people are not me. It goes back to that issue of “black belt eyes” again. Much of what is in an average statistics book – Poisson distributions, the central limit theorem, matrix algebra approaches to multiple regression – students won’t need to know for years, if ever. Several bad things have happened over the years, and I don’t even know where to start.

We have tried to cram so much into textbooks, and into introductory courses, I guess to please whoever thinks we water down the curriculum, that it is virtually impossible to teach it all well in the time allowed.

It is possible, and even rewarded, for students to get by on memorizing formula, facts and sample problems without really understanding what is going on.

Students who come in without the prerequisites are just plain screwed unless the teacher or a TA has the time and kindness to spend hours getting the student up to speed. With cuts in budget and the epidemic of part-time faculty at the college level, let’s just abbreviate it to students who come in without the prerequisites are just plain screwed.

How about this for a completely different idea…. Let’s teach a year of Integrated Computer Science for ten credits each semester. Let’s include programming techniques, algebra and statistics. Let’s have real word problems like deciding how many representatives each state gets and, unlike this Census video, let’s NOT skip over the math. And then let’s write a program to do it. And see if we get the same answers as the U.S. census.

Quit assuming that the only things students are interested in programming are computer games. Quit assuming that students will spend two years struggling in Developmental Mathematics, College Algebra, Statistics and Computer Science 101 courses so that MAYBE in a year or two they will get to write a database program. Read Shelia Tobias’ book “They’re not dumb, they’re different: Stalking the second tier “.

And if you have the attitude that anyone who isn’t willing to learn several semesters’ worth of apparently (to them) useless material, didn’t come into college with all the prerequisites already learned or doesn’t immediately grasp new equations, proofs and concepts has no place in computer science – do us all a favor and don’t go into teaching.

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