Monthly Archives: November 2005

Head First Learning Theory #

I stumbled upon Kathy Sierra’s blog, Creating Passionate Users, a couple of months ago, and I was hooked. She discusses management, marketing, and technology, but her biggest contribution is learning theory. She is the driving force behind O’Rielly’s “Head First” series of computer books, taking on the dry and often boring task of teaching computer programming.

Seeing learning theory for the first time.

I picked up Head First Design Patterns last month, more to see the application of her learning theory than for the content of the book. Had I not been intrigued by her blog, I likely would have never even looked twice at it—although somewhat relevant to my work, it’s not an area that I felt I had time to study.

I love the book. Not only is it providing a good breadth of software design knowledge, but I’ve learned more about learning theory than I had hoped. I believe Kathy’s method of instructing has helped me plant the material more firmly in my mind. I can recall it better than I otherwise might, and I could explain most of it to someone else (although not as deftly as the author).

Calling it “learning theory” connotes a narrow field; it’s much broader than one might first expect. The principles apply to business presentations, marketing, and, well, every type of communication where we expect some sort of knowledge transfer. (As an aside, see a related article at Presentational Zen for a comparison of presentations by Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs.)

At the beginning of the Design Patterns is a brief section on some of the teaching tools the book employs. One of biggest differences with the “Head First” books (that is, the most visually obvious difference) is the prolific use of pictures incorporated with text. Not just pictures with a caption, but words in the block of space we visually associate with the picture. It’s something you almost have to see to understand. (Pun only mildly intended.)

More than computer books, what I really want to see out of Kathy is a “Head First” book devoted entirely to learning theory.

Thanks, Kathy, not only for your breath of fresh air on computer texts, but for sharing your insights on teaching and learning. I know I am better for it.

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Web Standards Are For Corporations Too #

I like web standards. But I think there are many standards proponents whose advocacy misses the mark when it comes to business.

Being able to easily replicate presentational effects across multiple browsers, from IE or Firefox, to a PDA or cell phone is a web developer’s Utopia. The ability to use semantic markup to not only accommodate users with disabilities and effect clean design, but also to reduce the weight of code and improve response times is a wonderful thing.

Molly Holzschlag has posted a scathing open letter to Disney Store UK, taking them to task for their new design, which is, from an HTML standpoint, a step backward, making some rookie mistakes like bad alt text for images. (I don’t know how it compares visually—I didn’t see the original site.) Like standards advocates frequently do, she cites total cost of ownership, server performance, and search engine rankings.

She’s right on some points: table-based layout and in-page scripts will result in slower downloads and slower renders. Even sub-second delays, while not consciously identifiable, contribute to a reduced level of trust. But Molly, and most of the comments, miss the point from the company’s point of view: does the new site make more money? It’s not until well over 100 comments that Adam brings this up. (Gee, it’d be nice to have that many people react to my blog.) Revenue, not web standards, is the primary driver for corporations.

As for the accessibility issues she brings up, she’s spot on. I think if she had made accessibility the main thrust of her letter rather than just another item in a over-long list of talking points it would have had more impact. But the fault isn’t really with Disney, but with the designer. As I’ve mentioned before, few managers have the skill set to evaluate the work of web programmers on anything other than a visual level. Who is training the managers?

The blogosphere has been accused of being an echo chamber, or as David Weinberger puts it, “Those Internet spaces where like-minded people listen only to those people who already agree with them.” The Web Standards community is no exception. The sole voice who suggested that an open letter criticizing the new Disney site may not have been the most effective course of action was attacked by multiple readers. There is merit in his position, and I was frustrated so many dismissed him out of hand.

Web standards are good. Designers who employ web standards are good. Evangelism does not need to include condescension or criticism. Until corporations with a major internet presence discover for themselves the benefits of web standards on the bottom line, they will not willingly change. Trying to push it on them won’t speed the process. Molly gets it right in her follow-up post (before burying the thought with more indignation): “Professionalism means taking responsibility for educating ourselves and each other.” And education happens best when the learner is excited about learning.

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Keeping Teachers #

There is, I believe, consensus among the education community that the most important influence on student performance is teacher quality. It would be difficult to find a parent who wouldn’t want the best and brightest teachers in their children’s classrooms. We have some amazing educators in Utah, but we don’t have enough of them. The State Office of Education expects an unmet need of 1,200 teachers per year over the next 10 years.

It’s not as simple as increasing our supply of teachers, although we need to do that as well. We have a significant number of teachers leaving the system. A draft report on educator quality from the Educator Development Advisory Committee (EDAC) states:

Teacher attrition rates exceed 11%, and Utah loses 1/3 of its new teachers within their first three years of their experience, matching national trends… Utah loses approximately half of the teachers entering the profession within the first five years.

The report cites feelings of isolation and lack of administrative support for new teachers. Mentor programs need to be developed to improve retention. Salary has to come into play; it’s almost the elephant in the living room. But rather than simply suggest across the board raises, the committee recommends signing bonuses for hard to place programs or schools, incentives for additional training, and bonuses for demonstrable gains in student achievement. All are valuable suggestions. If every suggestion in the report were implemented properly, there would not be unmet demand for capable teachers.

All of these programs cost money, but the return for each dollar spent would, I believe, be more significant than simply giving teachers raises they dearly need. If we can properly support our newest teachers to keep them excited about the profession, and provide more valuable training for administrators, we can realize measurable gains in student achievement.

At a conference of the National Association of State Boards of Education, William Sanders presented a statistical analysis of the effect of teachers in the classroom. He concluded:

Teacher effectiveness dominates student performance—even more so in high school than in elementary. Also, the difference in teacher effect is greater than the effects you get with changing class size. In addition, teacher effects are cumulative and additive—having three excellent teachers in a row can more than double the chance that students will achieve proficiency.

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