12 January 2009


Having heard of the latest book by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, and read some of the raving reviews about the book, I was naturally drawn to it while my family roamed the malls during the Christmas holidays. Little did I anticipate that as soon as I started the first page of the book, it was not until three chapters later when I finally left the store with a copy in hand. The condensed message behind the book is simple: outliers are not born, they are made. They are shaped by culture, tradition, communities, and they do have breaks that they seize and take advantage of .. but most of all, they work hard. This reminds me of one of my professors in my undergraduate years who told me that if one wants to pursue a PhD, all one needs is patience, persistence, and money! According to Malcolm, there is this magic number of 10,000 hours of practice and hard work which outliers usually spend to get to where they are at. In a culture where many believe that success comes only to the selected few with special genetic makeup, or by pure luck, the book contains a number of evidences to dispel these perceptions. Also, Malcolm suggests that our culture and tradition may either make or break us. He traces the cause of a number of plane crashes to the cultural influence on the pilots, and the difference in aptitude towards mathematics between Asian and Western children also to their different cultural upbringing.

What does this have to do with computer science education? I have heard so many students who claim that they “are just not made to program”, or they “just don’t have the aptitude” for computer programming. What Malcolm has shown, even though mostly via anecdotal accounts, that success depends largely on repetitive practice and hard work. In computing, it has also been demonstrated that highly intensive training programs have been successful in converting students with no programming background to proficient software developers. The problem that face every computer science educator is how to make this repetitive practice and seemingly hard work that require long hours of engagement to be perceived as challenging, rewarding, and, at the same time, providing the students with a sense of autonomy in their learning – the three essential ingredients, according to Malcolm, that make any work satisfying.

No comments: