On Randomness & Teaching

I really enjoyed this article from Fast Company on the value of randomness in art and design.

As I read, I found many points resonated with what I feel about certain aspects of my teaching practice:


...The key here is an intelligent decision about what is ordered and configured versus what is appropriately random. In this kind of situation, a random function directly generates some aspect of the work, but that that aspect is usually not the focus.

I write often about the power of using programming and computation to take care of tedious tasks. This article reminded my that I also use computation to introduce randomness in situations where I don't care about the specifics. I often use a random group generator to make groups for classes. When the size of the groups matters to me on a given day, I use the generator. When the composition matters though, I might arrange them by hand because I don't have a tool to manage group composition automatically.

Another situation is where I need a nicely factorable quadratic expression - the values don't matter, but it must be factorable over the rational numbers. The randomness fills in where the details are unimportant here. I can make up a pair of binomials and multiply it out mentally, but I'd rather put in the time to make a generator do this for me. This is where my Khan Academy powered reassessment problem generator has been serving me exceptionally well:


Randomness also helps identify what matters to me and what doesn't. Sometimes I'll start generating random problems and realize that I want negative coefficients, or a pair of irrational zeroes. Making decisions and recognizing the patterns is what I want to be spending my time doing, and the computer inserting randomness helps me focus on these tasks.

Here's more from the article:


Sometimes, the contribution of an artist or designer consist of the rules, logics and coded relationships rather than the output of that process. Repeatedly running the algorithm with random input values can productively undermine results relative to process.

It is an interesting challenge to design generators of questions that nurture specific types of thinking in students. Sometimes that thinking involves deliberate practice of a skill. Other times it involves figuring out a pattern. If students observe after solving a few equations that the form is the same or that the distributive property always seems to be useful after step three, they are identifying and making use of structure as CCSS.MP7 wishes they would.


Having students notice what is the same about sets of different problems requires that you have a set of problems for them to look at. Textbooks always have these sets, but they are already neatly organized into rows and types. Being able to generate these problems easily and have students do the organization is a great way to get them to do the pattern finding themselves.

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