Free Speech

I have just realized that Georgian culture does not respect, or even really recognize, freedom of speech.

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One might ask why it took me four years to notice this. It’s because freedom of speech is so deeply ingrained in my culture that I actually have trouble processing a line of reasoning that does not assume freedom of speech is the default.

Americans recognize limits on freedom of speech. The canonical example is that you do not have the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre: this may incite a panic and result in injury. Other examples of the limits of free speech include perjury (lying under oath), slander (lying in a way that damages a person’s reputation), divulging classified information, and conspiring or inciting someone to commit a crime.

We recognize these limitations as exceptions which prove the rule: each exception implies that other forms of speech are assumed to be acceptable. This collection of exceptions implies that freedom to say what you want is the default, and anyone who wants to limit this freedom must produce arguments and evidence showing that the speech in question is both wrong, and likely to cause harm or damage to individuals.

We are so keen to protect freedom of speech that we accuse private entities of censorship any time they act to limit speech in their own media. If I delete certain comments on this blog I am accused of censorship. If a company penalizes someone for saying something (like when A&E suspended the Duck Dynasty guy for ranting about the gays) they are accused of censorship. In other words, we are so attached to freedom of speech that many people favor expanding the concept from the public into the private sphere.

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This morning I read a quotation from the Georgian foreign minister regarding comments from the Swedish foreign minister criticizing the new government for using the courts to get revenge on Saakashvili and his party. Here’s one translation of the quotation:

On the one hand, there is a presumption of innocence. Everyone calls on us for this and we fully agree that it should always be protected, but, on the other hand, certain processes cannot be given any classification. Mr. Bildt has given classification to the trial that is not over yet and nobody knows what the final point will be. He called the trial politically motivated. In my opinion, this is wrong because this is some sort of pressure on the court and on the whole trial.

So, in other words, on the one hand, there is a presumption of innocence and the trial may be politically motivated – but on the other hand, it is wrong to point these things out because it may influence the outcome of the trial. It might be wrong to put Misha on trial, but it is equally wrong to criticize putting Misha on trial, and since you are as wrong as I am, I get to ignore whatever you say.

I don’t want to get into the weeds of the political element of the trial – I am of two minds about the whole thing – but this is notable because it is a style of argumentation that I have only encountered in Georgia. Instead of engaging with the substance of a criticism, many Georgians prefer to find some reason why making the criticism was inappropriate and then act as if that reason relieves them of the burden of having to refute the central argument of the critique.

It’s like:
Swedish FM: “Hey, you shouldn’t be doing this thing.”
Georgian FM: “Oh? Maybe you’re right. However, you spoke out of turn, so therefore I am going to ignore what you said and do this thing anyway without even considering your argument.”

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The crux of the matter is that the ability to countenance, let alone make, this kind of argument must rest on a foundation in which the right to speak is contoured very differently than it is in America. It is mediated by the speaker’s social, political, and moral standing as well as the context of the situation in which the speech occurs.

Consider my favorite open letter, addressed in a previous post. As I said, the substance of the argument is that free speech is not allowed in certain places and times or by certain people or in support of certain ideas. At the time I wrote that post, I thought that this argument was so patently ridiculous that no thinking person could take it seriously. Now, I’m not so sure.

The signatories work almost entirely in the social sphere – artists, politicians, homemakers, civil servants – and not a scientist or mathematician or engineer among them. These are people who eat, sleep, and breathe the social context. To them, an argument like “you shouldn’t hold a rally that puts gay people near a school” holds water. I’ll add to that “you shouldn’t hold a rally that puts gay people near a school, or near a church, or near a place where Georgian heroes died, or on a date around when Georgian heroes died…” The list goes on and on, because the freedom to demonstrate in public – part and parcel with freedom of speech more generally – is only available to those who demonstrate in favor of the prevailing social opinion. In Georgia, you have the freedom to choose between conforming or staying home.

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Of course, I recognize a difference between criticizing someone for saying something, and actually censoring them. In the case of the Swedish FM, he was criticized and his freedom of speech was never actually impinged – instead, his inappropriate exercise of free speech was used as an excuse to dismiss his point. In the case of the May 17th demonstrators, their freedom of speech actually was taken away by way of a campaign of threatened and actual physical violence.

I have heard a lot of Georgians say that they believe that gays have the right to *be* gay, and even have the right to engage in gay behavior – in private. However, many Georgians very sincerely believe that no one has the right to speak in favor of gay people, gay behavior, or gay rights.

It’s also not just about gays, of course. Consider the law proposed to Parliament that would prohibit speech that was offensive to “the faithful.” I’ve been told a number of times, by a number of Georgians, that I “can’t” or “don’t have the right to” say the things that I say about various aspects of Georgian society, most of the time when they related in some way to modern Georgian religion or traditional Georgian sexism.

Georgians have been telling me for years that they do not value the freedom of speech – I was just too incredulous to believe they were serious.

In closing, I’d like to encourage any readers who are interested in the merits of free speech to read what John Stuart Mill said on the matter. It is a good read, a deservedly classic and revered work on the subject, and is as concise, compelling, and influential an argument for freedom of speech as any you’ll find. Plus it’s in the public domain, so you can read it for free:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” – John Stuart Mill

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Georgian Hospitality

One of the traditions Georgians are most proud of is their tradition of hospitality. I have been the beneficiary of this hospitality on countless occasions over the last four years, many of which I have not had the opportunity to write about. One stands out particularly in my mind for being the time when I had one of my epiphanies about Georgian Hospitality, and it is very sad to find it in my collection of unpublished drafts – I could have sworn I had told this story on my blog, and it turns out I had not. It illustrates one of the two important differences I have noticed between Georgian and American hospitality.

So, here is the text of a draft I wrote almost exactly three years ago – specifically, June 26th, 2011:

I have now been living in Georgia for just about ten months. During the course of these months, things here have begun to seem ordinary or everyday to me. The really good things about Georgia become expectations that I take for granted; the really bad things become frustrations that I assume that I will have to deal with indefinitely. Nothing is new anymore.

That is, of course, until a day like today.

So I’ve been thinking about Georgian hospitality. Because I have become very used to Georgian hospitality, it is very easy for the stand-out aspects of Georgian hospitality to sort of fade into the background. Recently I found myself thinking, “is Georgian hospitality meaningfully different from other cultures’ hospitality?”

And in some respects, it’s not. When I was growing up, there was a whole separate set of rules to be followed around “company.” The guests got the place of honor at the table, they got to use whatever things we had at our disposal, they got priority in every decision, and they got the “good china” – in other words, when I grew up in America, many families had a set of dishes and utensils for daily use, and another, separate set that only came out when you had “company.”

So I’m well aware of the idea of guests being treated like visiting dignitaries and the hosts receiving no compensation. Georgia operates just like my childhood guest treatment lessons predict – the guests get to sit in the best seat, eat the choicest cuts of meat, decide what to watch on TV, etc.

But Georgian hospitality does stand out – in one very significant respect – from American hospitality. Georgian hospitality is extended, pretty much invariably, to strangers.

Tonight I was on my way home from Buckswood School. I got to the bus stop in Tskneti and there was no bus there. I heard some Georgian men talking in a small cabin near the bus stop.

Now, if I were in the mountains in America somewhere, various concerns would cross my mind very seriously. I might worry that some Deliverance-style events might occur. I might be concerned that the people in the cabin wanted privacy and would be inclined to shoot trespassers. I might just be worried that the people would be untrusting and unfriendly. I might be worried that I had stumbled upon a hideout for criminals.

But I’m not in the mountains in America, so I didn’t worry about crime or hostility. Instead, I thought, “if I ask these guys when the next bus to Tbilisi is, I bet I’ll get not only information about the bus, but also something to drink while I’m at it.”

Because the truth is, one of the main differences between Georgia and America – one of the differences that I have not fixated on as of yet in this blog – is that in America, people are sometimes incredibly friendly and generous, and sometimes very rude and standoffish; but in Georgia, people are almost always incredibly friendly and generous.

And that’s it. I didn’t write the end of the story, didn’t publish it in any version, apparently.

So the rest of the story goes like this: I went up to the little cabin to ask about bus departure times. They did indeed tell me when the bus would come – about 20 minutes – and they did indeed sit me down for some chacha. They also had some leftover khinkali from the day (turns out the cabin was the kitchen of a restaurant which turned out to be the best restaurant I have ever eaten at in Georgia) which they fried up and fed me. We talked about my job and my country and basic things that I could speak of in my limited Georgian. Then the bus came, I thanked them, and I went on my way, promising to return to eat at their restaurant when it was actually open during the day. I did, and, as I said, the food was sublimely good. I took friends there who agreed – one friend said it was the best pork he’d ever had anywhere.

A sad epilogue is that I went back to that same restaurant a few weeks ago, and found out that their chef had died. Indeed, the food was not as good anymore: a true culinary talent had passed from this world, and I just feel lucky to have had a chance to partake of his fare several times during my first summer in Georgia.

What I took from this story has stayed with me: you can count on Georgians to welcome strangers in a way that you can’t count on Americans.

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In the three years since, another difference between Georgian and American hospitality has made itself known to me. My parents – especially my father – taught me that my job as host was not only to give the guest the best of what we had, but to make the guest feel “at home”. There is an ongoing relationship between guest and host, and as that relationship matures, the guest should be made to feel increasingly comfortable in the home of the host. This can be seen as a shift from formality to informality, but that’s an abstract way of looking at it.

A more concrete way might be to consider getting a beverage from the refrigerator. If I were a first-time guest in someone’s house, I would probably not just go to their fridge, look inside, and help myself to whatever drink caught my eye. I would consider that presumptuous and rude. However, at some point later in the guest-host relationship, I would do just that. I have many friends and family members who I am familiar enough with to feel comfortable raiding their fridge when I am a guest, and the only limiting point of protocol would be that I would ask before taking the last of something.

One problem with the model of the host offering a beverage and the guest accepting is that the guest will find it harder to get a beverage when they want one – instead, they will often end up with an unwanted beverage accepted out of politeness, and they will sometimes want a beverage in a case where the host has neglected to offer one. This is not just about beverages – it’s about the entire ritualized procedure of a guest-host relationship, up to and including meals and activities and the supra.

In some ways, you can view the guest-host relationship in my corner of American culture as a shared journey in which the beginning consists of the host offering the guest a beverage, getting it from the fridge, pouring it, and serving the guest – and the end consists of the guest going into the fridge and getting what they want (and knowing that this is okay as well as where the cups are). As the relationship becomes more familiar, it becomes more comfortable and the strictures of formality give way to the efficiency of just getting your own beverage.

From what I have seen of Georgian hospitality, that process is either slower or nonexistent. With the exception of my two Westernized Georgian friends, there has been no movement among my friends or family members along the path of the guest-host relationship that suggests that one day I might feel comfortable raiding their fridge. Georgian hospitality, to me, seems stuck in that formal modality, where the host is forever serving a beverage to the guest and the guest is never really made to feel “at home”.

I have to note, I’m not criticizing this – I don’t mind being served at others’ homes, or stepping into the role of servant in my own – I’m just pointing out that it’s an important but subtle difference that explains some of the experiences I’ve had as a guest in Georgian homes.

And of course I’d be remiss if I did not point out that in a host family, the situation is somewhat different because there’s a different journey – the journey from stranger to family member – and so the guest-host relationship eventually gives way to the family relationship, and the volunteer is treated much like another son or daughter.

Still, I often feel less comfortable – more honored, but still less comfortable – as the subject of Georgian hospitality than I do when I am enjoying Western hospitality. At first I chalked this up to unfamiliarity or language barrier, but after several years and many conversations with other foreigners about this feeling, I feel comfortable making the generalization that Georgian hospitality seems to have a tendency to be somewhat more formal and formalized – and also somewhat more ritualized and restricted – than Western hospitality, and to persist in this formality, often indefinitely.

I get the sense that Georgians themselves feel much more comfortable with following the procedures and norms of the formalized guest-host relationship, and possibly don’t notice that it can make us feel less comfortable, or can seem less friendly, especially when the situation persists after repeated meetings.

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Of course, hospitality is a system, and perhaps the two stray observations I have made here can be related. It makes sense, in a society in which hospitality is often extended to strangers, to have the relationship governed by a relatively strict set of procedures and norms. It makes sense for interactions that are often for strangers to have formal and ritualized components.

For Americans, for whom hospitality is almost exclusively directed towards friends and family, it makes sense that the formality is just a formality – something to be dispensed with as soon as the proper motions can be gone through to establish a shared basis of interaction, a basic set of ground rules.

(It’s worth noting that this is similar to David Graeber’s insight that when you want something from a friend or relative, you tend to use an informal and non-numerical system of favors, and when you want something from a stranger, you tend to use a formal, impersonal, numerical system of money.)

I wouldn’t bet on the explanatory or causal power of this guess, but certainly it seems that the two differences I’ve noted in this post are complementary, in a sense.

I am tempted to relate these insights to a sociopolitical notion of hospitality and to how Americans, Europeans, and Georgians respond to foreigners – but this post has already run long, so perhaps I will leave that as an exercise for the reader (or commenter).

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Why I Teach Programming

I teach programming for two reasons: to increase the diversity of the tech industry, and because I believe that the skills used for programming are both relevant to our lives and transferable to non-programming fields.

I’ve read arguments that everyone should learn to code, and I’ve read arguments that not everyone should learn to code. I’ve even read arguments that not everyone *can* learn to code. I don’t feel that I need to pick one side or the other in these arguments – for me it is enough to say that, at the very least, more people should learn programming than do now.

Diversity in the Tech Industry

Lack of diversity in the tech industry is a problem. It is a problem because it creates a culture in which women feel excluded and demeaned. It is a problem because it fails to provide identifiable role models to vast numbers of children growing up and wondering what they can do in their lives. It is a problem because it results in products that perpetuate exclusion.

In my school, basic coding is a required subject, because I teach all technology students in grades 8-10 and I designed the curriculum that way. I explicitly think of this as a feminist project (among other things). Based on the model of Stuyvesant High School – my alma mater – we can conclude that introducing girls to the realities of computer science at the earliest opportunity increases their participation and interest in the subject later. My hope when starting out was that I could have a similar effect on the gender ratio in my school’s upper level, elective CS courses. Of course, I can’t know that until next year at the earliest, but it’s something that’s always in my mind.

What I do know is that many of the students in my classes who are the most engaged, productive, and creative with coding are the girls. By coincidence, the four best projects in my classes so far have been made by girls (you can view them on my class demo site), and I am very proud of this fact inasmuch as it relates to my goal of promoting gender equality.

The drawback of both my school and Stuyvesant is that they are elite – mine due to price, and Stuyvesant due to a competitive entrance exam. Both of these barriers to entry perpetuate exclusion. What I would like to do as one of my next products is to see if I can promote CS education across lines of race and class. This is why I am in favor of initiatives to introduce rigorous and comprehensive CS classes to all public schools.

Skills Transfer

Computer science and programming education promotes computational thinking. Computation is, at its core, the execution of a set of ordered instructions. Learning to work with sets of ordered instructions – how to give them, how to understand them, and how to anticipate their outcome – has applications in virtually every field of human activity. This is especially true when some of those instructions are repeated – when they become an algorithm.

Many students only learn algorithms in the context of mathematics – they learn one algorithm for each arithmetic operation (or two, in the case of division: long and short), and perhaps later they learn some more, or perhaps they don’t. Algorithms are immensely important, though, and so it is unfortunate that people don’t study them explicitly. Most things run on algorithms. Nearly everything that I am notably good at, I am notably good at because there is an underlying algorithm which I have learned and optimized. I have an algorithm for packing a car trunk. I have an algorithm for winning 2048. I have an algorithm for finding something out on Google. I have an algorithm for debugging code.

You probably have algorithms, and the better you are at something, the more likely you are to be able to articulate one. What you might now know is that being able to think algorithmically will make you able to get really good at a lot of things really quickly. If you don’t believe me, try it!

At a higher level, computation is about breaking problems into smaller pieces and articulating a solution for each piece. It is about building and understanding systems. These are valuable life skills. The world is full of systems to understand and problems to solve.

We teach biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and general science to students – not because we think they will all become biologists, but because we want them to understand the scientific method. The scientific method is important, but computational thinking is more important. Computational thinking fully encompasses the scientific method – which is, after all, precisely an algorithm: a set of ordered instructions which becomes immensely powerful through repetition.

Of course, the hard sciences also teach students how the world works – and our world is a computed world, which means that computer science ought to take its place among the hard sciences. There’s no compelling reason why it’s more important for me to know what mitochondria do than to know what a DNS server does, and yet I learned about mitochondria in High School but I learned about DNS servers in my late twenties, in the course of fixing some problem I was having with my computer.

And that brings me to one last point: computer skills are of immense value both theoretically *and* practically. Computational thinking is an immensely valuable cognitive tool but computer science also provides you with the experience to be able to make the most of the physical tools that we encounter every day.

Some have argued that just as you don’t need to know how an engine works to drive a car, you don’t need to know how a program works to use a computer. Correct, but my dad taught me how an engine works anyway, along with how to change a tire and check the oil, because he thought there was value in having the theoretical and practical skills needed to understand and maintain something that I used every day.

So that’s why I teach kids to code.

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Advice for Expats: Health and Medicine

While I usually use this blog for advice and information about Georgia in particular, I couldn’t turn down the chance to contribute to HiFX’ new expat tip campaign (http://www.hifx.co.uk/resources/expat-tips/), which offers quality advice from expat experts to those looking to move abroad. With a few modifications I think this advice might even be applicable to people living in their own countries as well, but let me not oversell it – you can decide for yourself.

Getting sick is no fun, and it can be especially stressful and even scary when it happens in a foreign country. Particularly if you are coming from more developed nations into less developed nations, you may have concerns about the quality of local doctors and local medications. On occasion I have encountered situations that proved these concerns justified. That’s why I’ve developed a set of strategies that really come in handy for dealing with foreign medical services. What they come down to is: research everything, then check, then double-check.

In a previous post I went over ways to track down medications you already know you need – finding the local equivalents of anything from Advil to Zyrtec. This post is more about what to do if you actually have to go to a doctor.

Research your condition

When you get sick, it’s a good idea for you to have some idea of what your condition is and what the treatments should be. Even when I lived in my home country, I used to research my symptoms in order to decide when it was time to go to the doctor, and that skill has served me very well in Georgia.

Knowing what to expect when you go to the doctor can help you to judge the quality of the care you are getting and serve as a guide in case a language barrier prevents you from communicating effectively with doctors. It might also help you to find out the words for likely tests, procedures, and conditions if language might be an issue.

Once, I went to the doctor with abdominal pain that I thought could be appendicitis. When the doctor ordered an ultrasound, in Georgian, I knew what he meant and that the test was indicated based on my symptoms. This reassured me and made me feel like I was in good hands and that I was successful in communicating my symptoms to the doctor. On the other hand, if he had ordered an x-ray, I would have been worried that the doctor either didn’t understand me or didn’t know what he was doing.

Check your prescriptions

A lot of doctors in a lot of countries tend to over-prescribe medications. In Georgia it is rare for me to leave a doctor’s office with fewer than four prescriptions. After a few mishaps and a bunch of wasted money, I now go to the internet before I go to the pharmacy.

Here is where knowing the local language comes in handy. Make sure the doctor tells you the names of the medications they prescribe, instead of just writing them down – apparently doctors’ bad handwriting is an international phenomenon. You’ll probably want to try several ways to transcribe the names into Latin characters, if they aren’t already. Once you find the drug, you have to research the active ingredients, indications, side effects, and drug interactions yourself.

This research may be tedious, but it is important – one doctor here prescribed a cough medicine for my son when he was an infant. I researched the active ingredient and it turned out that this medicine was not recommended for children under 2 because it interacted badly with their developing respiratory system and could actually make their illness worse, not better. Needless to say I did not buy that medication, or go back to that doctor.

I’ve also been prescribed antibiotics for stomach aches, sore throats, and even colds. These antibiotic prescriptions for viral infections are not just unnecessary, they are dangerous – they can cause dysbiosis and they encourage the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

If you’re prescribed a medical procedure, check that too. If you don’t want unnecessary medications, you want unnecessary surgery even less. If you don’t trust yourself to do the research, it could also help to get a second opinion – maybe even put in a call to your doctor back home, who could help you weigh your options.

Double-Check your prescriptions

So you’ve researched your ingredients, crossed the harmful or unnecessary ones off your list, and gone to the pharmacy to get the rest of your prescriptions filled. Now you just have to make sure that the pharmacist gives you the right drugs – which means reading the label, possibly in another language.

In Georgia, most drug information is written in Cyrillic, which meant I had to learn a third alphabet in order to complete this step. It’s a good thing I did, because one time I went to fill a prescription for stomach medication and a pharmacist gave me a box of female fertility hormones with a similar-looking name (it seems even the pharmacist couldn’t read the doctor’s writing).

If you’re going in for a medical procedure or treatment, go over everything with the doctor who will be performing the procedure before you start – if necessary, get a translator, and have the doctor walk you through what is going to happen, step by step. Medical errors happen even in developed countries with no language barrier, so while this is a habit I developed in the US, I apply it even more carefully and diligently in Georgia.

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Well, that’s it. I hope you found this helpful or interesting. Leave a comment if you have any advice to contribute!

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To Teach a Programmer

This might fall under the category of “things that should have been obvious”, but teaching programming is vastly different from teaching English.

I’m in my second semester – the long semester – which I started off by introducing the kids to JavaScript. I’ve already taught them enough HTML and CSS to have a place to house their programs, and every day they write demo programs, from scratch, using nothing but Notepad and their browsers.

They are moving towards a goal – to write an interactive quiz, game, or storybook to use for the young learners in our school. I try to explicitly relate each new concept or tool to one of these goals, but I don’t really know a way to explain why you need to know how variables work in order to code a game without boiling it down to “you just do, and you’ll have to trust me for now”. You know – the answer we all hated to get from teachers.

I bring up variables because one piece of research (.pdf) I turned up in my investigation into the (relatively young) field of computer programming pedagogy indicated that the workings of variables were the first of three major intuitive hurdles that potential programmers would need to surmount in order to have any degree of success in the field. Armed with this knowledge, I left plenty of time for my students to get accustomed to assignment and sequencing concepts and designed some problems meant to illustrate how assignment works and doesn’t work.

An interesting thing I noticed was that my students almost universally agreed that after the statement “x=y;” was entered, any subsequent modifications of x would be applied to y, and vice versa. In other words, they viewed the assignment as establishing a relationship between x and y, rather than just making a copy of y and putting it into x. I don’t have enough background in the conceptual roots of programming intuition to draw any kind of conclusion, and anyway it’s a small sample size (about 50 students in five sections), but this jumped out and I wanted to share.

In any case, I asked them to implement a small program to test their theory (just assign values to x and y, perform the assignment, then reassign one of the variables and output the result) and they all went “hunh, that’s not what I thought would happen,” and I explained it and we moved on. I would consider the lesson a success, except that one student asked “why do we have to learn this?” and I didn’t have an answer (see above) even though I wanted to shout, “are you kidding me? this could be the single most important concept in determining your success as a computer scientist!” and so instead I just had mixed feelings – I had successfully guided my students over this first hurdle, but also somehow bored them in the process.

And that’s the tricky part, because there’s a balance to find between the kinds of abstract, conceptual problems that are going to help the students form accurate mental models of what a computer is and what it does, and the kinds of concrete problems that are going to give the students that feeling of “I did this!” and the ability to show off to their community. I could just teach them how to patch code samples together and substitute their own questions to make a quiz or a game, effectively teaching them nothing about programming and essentially mimicking the work they’ve grown accustomed to doing with PowerPoint and Flash, but I have aspirations.

Also, I’ve always been an algorithms guy – interested in the problem for its own sake, rather than for the sake of creating a product – and so I can’t really relate to the students who just want to be able to write their own version of Flappy Bird and have no patience for all this “variables” nonsense.

The real challenge of this class is that I have to design a series of small tasks that, collectively, maintain in students a consistent sense of achievement (they have to feel like they’ve solved some small but meaningful problem on a regular basis – ideally at least once per lesson), a consistent sense of interest (they have to feel that what they are learning is building towards what they want to do, and not either a tangent or some arcane academic trifle oriented towards some vague future reward), and a consistent progression towards the actual ability to program (the tasks have to actually get the students over the conceptual and practical hurdles of programming).

This is even trickier than it sounds.

In any case, I’ve made some observations based on my experience in the classroom, and connected to some of the theory that’s out there, and I’m working towards an understanding of what some good practices or strategies might be. Viz:

- I had a theory that teaching based on Notepad and a browser would confer several benefits, and so far I am pleased with the results. It means that students can work on any computer anywhere (for a Mac they have to learn how to configure TextEdit, but still) without even needing an internet connection. It means that students can immediately produce results that they can easily share with anyone with a computer or publish on a personal webpage. It forces students to learn to manage their own files. It forces students to be careful with syntax because there is no error highlighting, which in turn trains students’ attention to detail. It allows me to move seamlessly from the HTML/CSS unit to the JS unit.

- Starting with HTML/CSS was also good. The HTML/CSS unit builds basic programming skills – and confidence – without forcing students to confront the intuitive hurdles early on. For instance, it sneaks in a kind of assignment: typing ‘src=“screen1.jpg”’ subtly and non-invasively reinforces the idea that the “=” is for assigning a value, not asserting equality. It also lets the students handle user input/output in a way they are familiar with, without the weirdness of byte streams, console input/output, etc. that are a sort of logistical overhead that often confounds a student who is grappling with the conceptual aspects of coding. This is all especially true with HTML5 (I can’t wait to start using the canvas element to painlessly teach graphical output). Basically, you don’t lose any of the rigor of programming by teaching web-only programming, but you do toss aside the stuff that will only become relevant if the student becomes a professional.

- Some of the students have started to pick up on my troubleshooting methodology. I have gained a strong sense of what the common errors are in the class and a rough order of likelihood (syntax is common, as you might expect – but it’s also very common for my students to save multiple copies of a file on the same computer and have one copy open in their editor and a different copy open in their browser, which I didn’t really expect but which helps the students learn to organize their files better than if I just let them use an IDE and eliminates the sense of dislocation I often feel when working with files in an IDE). I now see a small but growing number of students helping their neighbors using the same tactics I use (for instance, going into the Save As dialog to check where the file they are currently editing resides, and correcting obvious syntax errors). I am considering the merits of explicitly teaching a debugging flowchart rather than simply modeling this technique – the modeling seems to be working, but maybe an explicit lesson would work better? (See also: Why Don’t Schools Teach Debugging?)

- The students actually respond surprisingly well to “try it and see what happens” prompts. Most of the time, if a students asks me a question “what would happen if…” – or if I ask the question and students give me a guess – I say “okay, try it and see what happens.” Even though I usually know the answer (although sometimes I don’t – I didn’t know, for instance, whether JavaScript would evaluate (NaN==NaN) to true or false), I want to foster in students a sense that they can answer their own questions in programming in a much more immediate sense than in almost any other field they are currently studying. If you have a “what would happen if” question in aerodynamics, for instance, it’s unlikely that your physics teacher can build you a functioning model to demonstrate the answer to the question. But in programming usually the question arises in a context where you are already working on a similar issue, and so with a few minor modifications you can just try it and see. I would have thought that “try it and see” would annoy the students (in other contexts, when I don’t answer their direct questions directly, their expectations of what a teacher is are violated and they get angry or uncomfortable). However, it seems like the fact that “try it and see” works, and also means they don’t have to take my word for it, actually appeals to them, and a lot of times it seems that when they ask me “what would happen if” questions they are not actually asking me for information, but for permission to experiment. So, I always give this permission as generously as I can.

- My students in particular respond better to problems of the type “take this model and modify it” than to problems of the type “take this information and act on it.” For example, almost all of my students were able to take their “Hello World” programs – a button that, when clicked, pops up an alert window that says “Hello World” – and, with very little help or prompting, modify them into a one-question quiz in which each answer had its own button which popped up its own alert window with either “correct” or “incorrect”. Practically, this is not a particularly difficult problem, but it is complex in the sense that it requires coordination between HTML elements and JS functions and knowledge of things like where attributes, arguments, and statements go. On the other hand, when we did our variables lesson, none of the students were able to arrive at the solution to the question “how can we switch the contents of two variables?” without significant help and prompting, even though the solution requires nothing outside of the problem’s immediate context, and can be solved in three lines using the exact two techniques (variable declaration and assignment) that we had spent that lesson focusing on and practicing. I’m not sure if this had to do with interest level, or level of abstraction, or something else, but it does give me pause about some of the other conceptual exercises I would have otherwise planned in order to introduce later topics.

It might be better to show students simple, working code examples that demonstrate a particular concept and also do something interesting, and have the students work through how and why the example works. I don’t like the idea of depriving students of the thrill you get the first time you figure out “var z = x; x = y; y = z;” on your own (I remember it from when I was their age), but since most students don’t really seem to get that thrill (I was in an elective CS class, whereas this is a mandatory school-wide program) it might just be a better service to the class as a whole to learn from dissecting and modifying examples rather than from trying to stimulate intuitive leaps that some students will never make.

I want to stress I don’t mean just telling students the answers. I mean something more like this – letting the students gain insight through a guided tour of some code, rather than through just happening to be the lucky student whose mind has been trained to produce code-like insights. This is another brick in the foundation of the growing idea I have that learning to code, and coding, can be made more systematic, and less intuitive, and that therefore – like long division – everyone can, and should, be able to learn to do it.

Also, the skill of examining a program for meaning is highly valuable in itself, and also probably under-taught in computer science programs. My CS degree program (which I dropped, in favor of Political Science, after two years) focused on algorithms, data structures, discrete math, etc. – the usual stuff – but I have the impression that in the professional programming world you will end up working on someone else’s code a lot (for instance, if you collaborate on open source projects) and I don’t recall ever taking a class that started with code samples and worked backwards to discover the technique or solution being used, rather than the standard format of starting with a problem and working towards implementing an algorithm/data structure/whatever to solve it.

If this technique can indeed help make learning to program less intimidating/more accessible, and can provide more concrete goals for students to work towards, while also teaching a valuable skill that is often missing from formal education, then I’m all for using it – as long as it’s also counterbalanced with a healthy amount of from-scratch program development. After all, I don’t want to turn out students who can’t write FizzBuzz.

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So this is probably my longest post ever, but I’ve been teaching CS for six months now and haven’t said a thing about it, so I’m actually cutting myself off short here. That said, six months isn’t all that long, so if any of you have any experience at this sort of thing and want to throw in your ideas/advice/cautions, I’d love to hear them.

Also, big, giant hat tip to Danielle Sucher for being my conduit to many of the programming articles that I linked to in this post.

Posted in Computer Science, Education | 4 Comments

Private Schooling and Making a Difference

In the past I’ve made fun of the idea that TLG volunteers are “volunteers”, given that we were being paid more than the local teachers who were carrying the weight of our students’ education. Still, there was something of the volunteer spirit to be found in TLG – whatever our reasons for being here, it certainly wasn’t for love of money. And one thing I noticed for sure is that our students often responded to us as if we were giving them a gift by being here. Especially in the village schools, there was a palpable sense of appreciation that students, parents, and teachers showed us. We were setting out to help their children have contact with outside cultures and learn about the world, and that was considered to have value.

Teaching in a private school has its perks – and making a lot more money is right up there – but this winter break, as I’ve had time to relax and reflect on my crazy and hectic and incredibly challenging first semester at a private school, I’ve realized that I really, really miss that sense of appreciation.

I went from teaching students who had never met a foreigner to teaching classes with significant minorities of students from foreign countries. I somehow got used to feeling special in a classroom of Georgian students who wanted to learn my songs and rhymes and how to talk in my funny accent, and it’s a stark contrast when you’re teaching a group of 8-year-olds with a world-weary “seen it” attitude towards the new and foreign and different. It’s been, like I said, an incredible challenge to try to break through that and give these kids something that induces the same sense of wonder that just showing up brought to kids in Kutaisi or Kvitiri.

I also started to take for granted how fulfilling working for TLG was. I touched on this in some of my earlier posts – that teaching these students, in many ways, helped me to understand and contextualize my own childhood experiences. Even when I questioned the benefits we brought, or how much of a difference we could really make in the face of the institutional inertia that was our biggest obstacle, there was still a sense that we were fighting the good fight in TLG – that at the end of the day, our success and our students’ success were intertwined. It’s been tough to fill that void in a situation where you get the distinct feeling that your students are destined to do well in life pretty much no matter how they do in school.

Tough, but not impossible. As I read in a blog post somewhere, rich kids need good teachers too. One of the explicit missions of the IBO (I’m teaching at an IB school) is to promote international-minded students who are lifelong learners. It’s possible that the students we teach could become the politicians, the philanthropists, the NGO founders and UN delegates and peacemakers of the next generation. Our world needs international-minded problem solvers, and given the realities of our world as they are today, being an international-minded problem solver is mostly a luxury that poor kids – be they from Queens or Kvitiri – can’t afford.

Our challenge as private school teachers is to engage and motivate these kids so that they get in the habit of using their resources to serve their community and their world. It’s a very different challenge from preparing kids in Georgia’s poor regions for the kinds of jobs that could bring them up into the middle class. I think there’s a need for good people doing both of these jobs, but it’s not without a bit of guilt that I observe that teaching the upper classes also happens to come with a lot more money.

Please don’t interpret this as a complaint. I am happy to have a job where I can make a better future for my family, and I am happy to have another learning experience where I can become a better teacher and a better global citizen. This is just an observation that adjusting my outlook on what I do has been a much bigger part of teaching at private school than I could have anticipated.

I’m visiting family in Kutaisi this winter break. Maybe that’s why I’m struck with this bit of nostalgia – seeing some of my former students in the yard or running into English-speaking children in the store. Or maybe I just didn’t realize how important the sense of doing good in the world actually was to me until I found myself in a job where I don’t get near-constant reinforcement of the idea that what I am doing is important and appreciated.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Liberty Without Guns

Georgia has pretty strict gun control laws – not that you would notice.

I have often described the country as a libertarian paradise in many ways – laws are few and far between, and enforcement of existing laws is often lax to nonexistent. Government regulation rarely or never gets in the way of everyday activities, and it is amazing how much more present and real the government feels in the US than it does in Georgia. You can drink a beer out on the street, build a stairway without a handrail, change the wiring in the walls in your own house without a license, and generally dig your own grave in a variety of ways that Americans would find either liberating or terrifying, depending on their inclinations.

But carrying a gun around is not one of them. Most Georgians don’t seem to have guns, or they have them but only for hunting (and I mean like a simple, no-frills rifle – not like, an AK-47 that they use to hunt wolves from a helicopter or whatever bullshit people in America need unlimited firepower for), and my former police students explained that you need a license to own or carry a gun.

No, in Tbilisi, you worry a lot about getting hit by a car when crossing the street, and not at all about getting shot by a psychopath (or by a trigger-happy cop).

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I saw this image macro on someone’s fb wall that had a picture of a woman holding a rifle and the text said something like “you don’t support women’s rights if you want to strip them of their right to self-defense.” This is bullshit in like eight different ways, starting with the fact that a rifle is highly impractical for self-defense in the vast majority of situations in which a woman might find herself in need of a firearm.

But also, there’s something to be said for a woman’s right to not have to worry about self-defense. I mean, isn’t it more meaningful for a woman to be able to walk around with confidence because no one is going to bother her than for a woman to be able to walk around with confidence because she knows that if it comes down to a life-or-death situation, she might be able to kill one or more assailants?

You are not safe in any situation where you have to carry a gun to feel safe.

And what about a woman’s right to be protected from the trauma of shooting someone? What about the psychological effects of having weapons training – of practicing and mentally and physically preparing for and rehearsing the act of killing another human being? What about the social impact of living in a society where people are assessed as threats rather than as neighbors and friends? What kind of quality of life can a woman expect to have, knowing that she is one step away from becoming a war zone?

In other words, this pro-gun poster supposes that the burden rests on women to modify their behavior – by acquiring and learning to use a deadly weapon – in order to remain safe.

But wait – doesn’t that sound like something else? The burden on the victim, in this case women? Sounds to me like rape culture.

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So if you evaluate gun rights rhetoric in light of the ideas of feminism, and specifically of anti-rape activism, it places the entire issue in an interesting light. We would never say that a woman who wears a burka and never leaves her house, all to avoid being raped, has more liberty than a woman who wears whatever she wants and goes wherever she wants and understands that she lives with some rape risk.

And yet we hear that a man who fortifies his house with enough weapons to re-fight the War of 1812 and carries a gun just to go get Starbucks has more liberty than a man who spends his leisure time reading or jogging and never worries about whether he might have to kill the next person he meets.

It seems like a peculiar kind of liberty that makes us afraid to walk around unarmed.

The fight against rape culture is a fight to move the burden of preventing crimes from the individual to the society. It is a struggle to educate men and women about what constitutes rape, about warning signs that it’s time to intervene, about how to report a rape and how to act in response to a reported rape. It is a struggle to convince people in society to collectively reduce the number of rapes by engaging in positive individual and collective action. It is not a struggle to arm all women so that they can just shoot their rapists.

I would argue that we could make a similar argument against gun culture. If we live in a society, it should not ultimately fall to the individual to protect himself or herself from violent crime or to defend his or her property from incursion. That’s the whole point of society – in a sense, the reduction of the need for individual self-defense is the whole reason we put up with each other.

Maybe you can’t trust your government to uphold its end of the bargain – maybe you live in a high-crime area and law enforcement just doesn’t do its job right – but taking matters into your own hands seems more like a desperate, last-ditch attempt to stay alive than a coherent social philosophy which we should enshrine along with our most cherished ideals. Maybe you sometimes *have to* take matters into your own hands, but your *ideal* should be a society in which crime is discouraged collectively, through education, community-building, and other positive action.

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Judging by the example of Georgia, the right to own a gun doesn’t seem to correlate strongly to other rights that we value in a democracy – especially in a modern, egalitarian democracy. To beat this drum one more time, lack of intrusive regulation in Georgia means we pay a flat, low income tax and flat, low VAT tax, we pay anywhere from 10% – 20% of the price for medications as Americans pay, we pay much less for utilities, phone service, and internet, and we invest almost no resources in complying with a set of labyrinthine laws designed to confuse and confound the public and turn the entire populace into criminals.

Meanwhile, public services are more efficient, public transportation is more comprehensive (and cheaper), and essentially the government governs much less, and much better, than the American governmental apparatus. Georgians are strong advocates for their own rights, and angrily reject the types of corruption in their politics that Americans accept without question in our politics. Again, imagine an American politician losing an election over an issue like prison rape – prison rape! It’s as American as apple pie.

The country has problems – including widespread poverty, underdeveloped regions, and a lack of credible opposition to a growing theocracy – but it would not be at all credible to say that the people of Georgia are lacking when it comes to political and civil rights, liberties, and freedoms.

And somehow they manage it without a well-regulated militia.

Posted in America, Civics, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments