Some random thoughts on the limits of growth mindset

It’s been a long time since I posted and a lot has happened.  I took the art course and finished it. Had the summer off and am now woking very part-time back in the Computer Science department – leading tutorials and helping students with programming one to one.

Taking the course was a really interesting experience for my understanding of learning (and teaching to some extent) and I think there are lots of parallels with students learning computing (especially programming).

On the  Learning Confidently tab I said the following:

Everyone will tell you that programming takes practice. Sometimes, though, it is hard to make yourself practice – Instead you avoid difficult situations for fear of failure

Some of us have a harder time than others with this and one theory is that this
is evidence of a belief about yourself that says your ‘intelligence’ is fixed and there is
nothing you can do to influence it.

If you substitute the term ‘drawing ability’ for ‘programming’ and ‘intelligence’ you have some idea of my experience in the art course. I went into it with no experience, no confidence, and (I still believe) not much talent – just a real desire to learn more. I did learn more, I did improve my skills, but I could have done even better had I stretched myself out of my comfort zone – and, in particular DONE more in terms of practice.


However …… the reality is that I don’t have enough drive and/or enough native talent to continue, and in the end I am OK about that. While everyone can improve by practice, let’s face it I will never be a professional basketball player! I may be an adequate artist with more practice, but that is realistically the best I can hope for. On the other hand, as a student, I found maths and computing fairly easy and although I had to work at them too the rewards came easily and that felt good.

<<My illustration of The Thing from Gormenghast>>

So, when is it appropriate to give up on something? Real ‘hard-line’ growth mndset people might say ‘never’., but I doubt that anyone will keep on and on at something without any success at all. I do know that you will never improve unless you persevere for a while.

How do we find the sweet spot between native ability and hard work? I have no answer to this. Personally, I will continue to take art classes because I enjoy them. But you may eventually decide that computing is not for you – and that is OK provided you tried. (And remember that trying involves reflecting on your learning and giving yourself the best exerience for your learning style that you can find.) There are lots of other activities that are rewarding and stimulating. Ultimately you will find them!

<<I suspect that the more I think about this the more I will have to edit it!>>


Starting afresh

I have decided to try something new and taken Voluntary Severance and Early retirement from my job as a lecturer at Aberystwyth University. I will really miss being involved in such a great department but just feel it is time to do something different.

In September I’m starting a full time art course. I’m nervous and excited, and (when I think about it) realise that this will be a new place to practise all this learning theory stuff in another context.

I’ll keep this site and blog for the foreseeable future – who knows what happens next!

(slightly obsessive) tidiness

I just finished writing the first draft of a paper. It is a followup to an ICER paper on ‘Graduating Students’ Designs’ that I have mentioned here before . I’ve really enjoyed being the person from my research group who got to do this this time and I’ve been pretty obsessed – to the extent of formatting the paper in the right style for the conference it’ll probably be sent to – even though that is ridiculously premature – just so that I can see how long it will be.

That sort of obsessive need to tidy up a paper or a program is one of the things that I think computer scientists often have. It’s what keeps you working on something late at night to get an assignment really polished – rather than handing in something that ‘just works’.

We should celebrate it because when you are in the right mood it is fun!


Imposter Syndrome

This is an interesting topic of psychological research. Basically, it is the feeling that despite your accomplishments you feel like you are faking it. I think that is more common in women and minorities in a field, and what prompted this post was a very accomplished woman of my acquaintance mentioning it.

I have a theory that it might also be more common in computing circles. It is hard to admit that  you don’t know something (see previous posts) and the atmosphere in the computing community may make that harder.  There was a very influential paper that discusses academic computing communities (let’s not even get into some other computing communities!) called ‘Defensive climate in the computer science classroom’ by Barker, Garvin-Doxas and Jackson that discusses this – you can search for it on-line.

It is good for us, in every way, to find friends who are supportive and who will understand our accomplishments  realistically – so that when we have moments of self-doubt we can get a bit of cheerleading, and give the same in return.

I’m impressed

I just went up to our computer lab and observed one of our postgrads demonstrating a ‘digital glove’. It picks up the user’s movements and generates music from them. Next week he (and it) are going to a ‘show and tell’ organised by BCS MidWales:

I am always really impressed by the range of things people do for fun.

In addition to the fun this is also a really nice way to meet people and enhance your CV.

Graduating students’ designs

There have been a few papers about what students graduating from a CS program think software design is. You can find them by going to the ACM digital library. The most recent has just been accepted for ICER 2014 which will be held this summer in Glasgow.

I have been involved in all but the first of these papers, and think it is a really important and interesting area. The good news is that this time, looking at Aberystwyth students who all had a good CS programme of study, the designs were pretty good. In addition some clear things emerged as needing to be stressed. These were:

  • that there is a language of computing,
  • that designs contain parts,
  • that behaviour needs to be modelled – and that the use-cases need to be linked into something that describes the behaviour in each case.

That is what I am now attempting to emphasise in my teaching.

This makes software design a ’round trip’ activity. ‘Tidy Nice’, as we say in Wales!

The joys of reflection

One of the things that educators are very fond of talking about is reflection and how reflecting on your learning can help you improve.

I am thinking about this because I am off work recovering from having a knee arthroscopy (I think it is kind of interesting – but most people react by saying ‘yuck’ so I won’t go into detail).

So, basically, I am having some time to reflect – so far I have had some thoughts about CS courses at Aber and about recruitment; done a referee report; and also worked on a paper with Sweden group. I have been pretty productive actually …. should build more time into my regular life for this.

Twittering away ….

I guess one of the things we all have to come to terms with, is how willing we are to admit to not knowing things – and how we do that. This comes up quite a lot in academia and I suspect more than average in Computing. Do you admit to the things you don’t know or pretend you know everything?

The Zen Buddhists have this concept of beginner’s mind, which is “an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would”  (thanks – Wikipedia). Fits in quite well with some of the ideas on these pages, I’d say.

So, in the spirit of beginner’s mind, I just did my first tweet – it is about Borth bog being on fire.
See: for the bog,
@ltt_aber for the tweet.

Learning on MY own

Funnily enough I just spent a fairly happy few hours migrating the site from straight html to WordPress and only once I was finished did I realise that learning how to do things like this is exactly what I am talking about in ‘Learning Alone’. What’s more ‘Learning Confidently’ and ‘Learning your way’ come into it too.

I’ve been meaning to learn something about WordPress for ages, but something held me back.  I am, by nature, a ‘fixed mindest’ sort of person – meaning (in my case – this is a vast oversimplification, read the research) that I tend to want to show how clever I am by doing things I know I am good at. I’m trying to get away from that – by doing things I find interesting but don’t have much natural talent for, recognising that I’ll never get better at things unless I practice, etc. but it was partly that that was holding me back. Also, following video instructions is not my preferred way of learning to do something and that was also contributing to a reluctance to ‘get my hands dirty’.

But, once I actually started, it was really pretty easy and I enjoyed myself.

So, a case of ‘Doctor – heal thyself’ I guess.

Site moved to WordPress

I am changing the site from straight HTML to WordPress. I guess it looks more modern, but so far the main advantage is that you get to see pretty pictures of Wales. I’m sure there is some  Education research somewhere that says ‘looking at something completely different helps you learn’