During my senior year, I took an education class called “Qualitative Research Methods”, where I had to visit two high school CS classes to practice doing qualitative research. My motivation is that while I’m becoming more and more familiar with the Bootstrap curriculum and its pedagogy ideas, I don’t know much about what other people are doing in their CS classroom. And I think it’s important for me to understand the status quo of an average CS teacher who’s not using Bootstrap: who they are, how they teach, and what their goals and concerns are. This way, we can better design the curriculum to our target audience, and do a better job convincing them to join us. Here’s a list of things that I learned.

Birds of the same feather

It’s helpful when you can make a connection quick: finding a common ground/shared interest and making the other person feel like you are part of the community. For example, I told a teacher that I might be interested in becoming a CS teacher someday, and she started to give me tips on how I would need a business certificate to teach CS in PA, and then we had a much deeper discussion on the problem with teaching certificate and professional development. Practice multiple ways of introducing yourself. For example, I’ve said that I’m interested in:

  • science education (at a math teacher meeting)
  • afterschool STEM program (at a roundtable discussion for robotics club in middle school
  • becoming a CS teacher someday
  • CS and STEM education (at an education conference)
  • PL and HCI research (when CS folks ask me what I want to do in grad school)

Don’t be intimidating

It’s tricky to reach a balance between “I speak your language” and “I’m not here to challenge you”. One time a CS teacher started our chat by telling me “a computer is …”. So I became eager to prove that I was a legit CS person, maybe tried too hard to show off how much I knew. At one point, he said “oh, you probably know more about PD than me then.” And I felt like he became kind of defensive for the rest of the interview. In retrospect, I realized that teachers are sometimes used to being the authority in the classroom, and it’s in my best interest to show them that I was there to learn from them. There were clues that I should have picked up on: in the email, he always signed as “Mr. X” instead of his first name; he was dressed up, wearing a shirt and tie in the classroom. Be sure to look for these clues, and be careful to not come off as intimidating.

Everybody likes to talk about themselves

You don’t need to be super prepared to have a good conversation. Just remember that everybody likes to talk about themselves, so if you can be a good listener, the other person will usually find the conversation enjoyable. Check out this collegehumor video for a better explanation. In terms of interview, it’s important to prepare a list of questions beforehand, but it’s more important to ask follow-up questions when the person bring up something interesting and unexpected.

Why does this matter to your participants

In my education class, we talked about participatory action research, research that emphasizes on engaging and giving back to the community that your participants are from. After writing out why my project matters to the CS teachers, I felt much more confident that we would have a meaningful conversation. It also helps me to reflect on my own position as a researcher – why I’m doing this, why it matters. Why does my visit to a CS class matters to the teacher? Because they feel like they are offering advice to an aspiring CS teacher. And they probably also enjoy the conversation about their view on teaching CS and how they became a CS teacher. Ultimately, I’m bringing them a new perspective of what the researchers are focusing on right now, and their opinions will impact my future research, which will hopefully serve their class right.