[OT] Education Theory (was Re: Database Design Theory?)

Shane Hathaway shane at hathawaymix.org
Wed Nov 9 16:14:22 MST 2005

Ross Werner wrote:
> Certainly! I just think it takes longer than most schools have, 
> unfortunately. (Uh oh, I feel a long rant coming on about a gigantic 
> education reform needed ... must ... repress ...)

That's what blogs are for. ;-)

>> I've had a few excellent instructors who did indeed show why the 
>> subject was interesting.  I long for more of those precious few.
> I sat here writing (more or less) how I disagreed, but then I remembered 
> a particular CS class--Artificial Intelligence, where we made bzflag 
> tanks move around. That class was *waaay* more interesting than it would 
> have been if we had simply studied the theory. Why? Because we applied 
> what we learned to something interesting. I don't remember hardly 
> anything about minimax, because we didn't program that into our tank, 
> but I remember Kalman filters and and potential fields because they're 
> what made our tanks blast the heck out of the enemy tanks :)

That's a great example, although AI is a bit of a special case since the 
way to practice AI in the real world is to further develop the theory. 
 From what I can tell, AI practice is never far from theory.

> Of course, this is simply an example of learning the theory alongside 
> practical application of it, not learning practical applications 
> *before* learning the theory. What do you think of that sort of teaching 
> methodology, learning them alongside each other?

That works too, as long as the instructor can still make a clear 
distinction between theory and practice.  If the instructor presents 
both at the same time, the students are probably going to have a hard 
time distinguishing the two.  One way to separate them is to teach 
practice for a week or two, then theory for a week or two, etc.  Another 
way to separate them might be to have two instructors.  Or how about 
this: the instructor teaches theory from the left side of the room and 
practice from the right side of the room.  It could be a nice comical 

> Does this lessen the amount of theory a person is able to learn and 
> retain, or does it increase it? (I fear getting flamed by people who 
> would say this sort of approach turns Universities into trade schools ...)

I think practice with theory increases the students' ability to learn 
theory, but the risk of slipping into too many practical details is 
real.  There must be some way to avoid that risk.


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