Jessica D. Bayliss, Ph.D.
All teachers have a teaching metaphor, although not all have considered what the metaphor is or how it can guide their behavior in the classroom. Some teachers view themselves as pitchers of an exotic liquid filling empty student glasses, some are drill sergeants, and I've heard of at least one person who views himself as a bulldozer dumping knowledge into student heads. Teaching metaphors are individual and influence the behavior of the teacher in the classroom. Metaphors impact everything from assignments to lecture style.
My metaphor did not come to me immediately. At first, I saw myself as a guide through known and unknown lands. I rather liked the image of Gandalf - a wise leader, although not a perfect one. I soon realized that this is not who I am and I'm not leader-enough to fit into Gandalf's shoes nor do I own a magical staff or have a beard. I enjoy walking with people more than leading them and I had to discard the guide metaphor.
I found my metaphor in the most unlikely place - the story of Arabian Nights. Scheherazade is the heroine who saves her own life through telling amazing stories during the night that end in breath-taking cliff hangers at dawn. These stories keep her new husband from killing her as he fears that Sheherazade will betray him in a manner similar to his previous wife. Not only does Sheherazade not betray her husband the king, but a common theme emerges from her stories - just because a person is betrayed once does not mean they will be betrayed again. Scheherazade's stories are creative, but they are also learning stories. She is not a perfect storyteller, but is able to think on her feet and recover. Against all odds, Scheherazade deeply believes that the king is not a murderer and that he can be saved from his fears. This deeply held conviction makes her a truly remarkable and amazing heroine.
Scheherazade is my metaphor. It's not because I'm afraid that students will murder me on evaluations for a bad lecture. Scherazade believes strongly in the king even though evidence suggests he will kill her. Some students struggle in classes, but I don't believe it's because they are incapable of doing the assignments. Heavy work schedules may make school tough and some students are afraid they won't be good enough, so their low self esteems cause failure. Computers are everywhere and anybody who wants to learn Computer Science has something to add. What we need in the field is not necessarily another fast programmer, but rather people who can see problems differently, share knowledge with others, and add a part of who they are to the field.
Just as Scheherazade's husband would not have believed her if she'd just told him to trust others, students have a hard time understanding why they need to learn the random equations thrown up on the board. Scheherazade gave the king moral examples through stories. I believe that facts should be given in the context of the problems they can help solve. I am not perfect, but I want to tell the stories of Computer Science.
Let me give an example. Recently, I ran into a student that I'd had for CS2, our second programming course. He complained that he was struggling through graphs and graph algorithms in CS3. He said that he didn't know why he had to learn about graphs, and he was having a hard time putting the information into any sort of context. I asked him if he played computer games and his eyes lit up.
And so it was that I told the student about Unreal Tournament and waypoints. You see, Unreal Tournament is a first person shooter game that can have artificial opponents or "bots". These bots have to navigate the land of the game quickly and efficiently. This is done with a network of locations and known methods of traveling between them. In other words, an Unreal Tournament map contains a graph for bot travel. While the main algorithm used for finding bot paths is normally A*, any graph searching algorithm may be used. An example algorithm that would find the shortest path from one location to another is Dijkstra's algorithm. Dijkstra's shortest path algorithm is learned in CS3 and illustrates that there is a trade-off between optimality (Dijkstra's algorithm will give an optimal answer) and time.
This story changes the nature of learning graphs and graph algorithms to learning the best way to get a bot from point A to point B in a game with waypoints. Character path-finding is a story that requires the knowledge of graphs and graph algorithms for the story to have a happy ending. Without graph knowledge, the characters would either wander randomly or might take an obnoxiously long time to get from one place to another.
Having found my metaphor, my outlook on teaching is changing. I used to depend heavily on powerpoint presentations, but have found the formality of these presentations to get in the way of stories. In class, I am doing a lot more demos and examples along with some group work. I prefer students to ask questions and that we have class discussions.
The best stories contain a conversation between the storyteller and listeners - the storyteller talks a little and the listener then asks for elaboration. In some cases, the listener may even express disbelief. This is why every story is different when told to a different audience and how the same story can help different students. Occasionally, the teller may walk away with new ideas or ways of looking at the world because of the interaction. This is one of the reasons that teaching is such a wonderful and satisfying job. It also shows how a teaching metaphor affects teaching from assignments to lecture style.