27 January 2009

Moving Students from Rule Based to Creative Problem Solving Skills

Lubben et al. wrote an article on the change of students' perception of "preciseness" under different contexts. In laboratory / pharmacy settings, measurements are expected to be more precise than in a kitchen setting. Deviations are not acceptable in the laboratory / pharmacy settings, but ok in a kitchen setting. The interesting thing is that students based their judgement on the perceived effects of the result mostly rather than on the instructions given or the process to be used. That is, whether deviations are ok or not, (or what precision really means), depends largely on whether there will be any effects on the results. In the kitchen setting, deviations are ok because the measurements are perceived not to have significant impact on the results, whereas such is not the case in laboratory and pharmacy settings. From this, the authors conclude that context makes a difference in the students' choice of a point-paradigm (drawing conclusions from individual data points) in the laboratory / pharmacy settings as opposed to the set-paradigm (drawing conclusions from the ensemble of all data) used in the kitchen. One of the goal of teaching is to move students from a point-paradigm to a set-paradigm.

In computing, context does not play such a significant role in student's perception of preciseness. Whether the students are writing a program for data analysis in a laboratory or for a game program, preciseness and accuracy are needed. But a similar transformation of students' perception of what is essential in programming needs to take place for computer science students. Novice programmers stick to a "formulaic" strategy in solving problems. To them, there is one solution they need to come up with in solving a problem. Whereas seasoned programmers are free to explore different ways of thinking about the problems, modeling, and solving them. Students eventually learn that the result is what really matters and they realize they can be free to be creative, and innovate and construct their programs.

I started programming with BASIC, and was it fun to create programs with GOTO's! I could create the most convoluted programs and few people would have understood them, but it was fun. Those programs would probably fail under many conditions and any half decent test plan, but it was fun. I wonder whether our computer science education may be prescribing too many rules in programming and rob the students from experiencing the fun and creativity in computer science.


Lubben, F., Campbell, B., Buffler, A., Allie, S. (2004). The Influence of Context on Judgements of the Quality of Experimental Measurements. Proceedings of the 12th Annual Conference of the Southern African Association for Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education. Pages 569 - 577.

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