“x, y, z. Pretty close.”

My family and I spent a week with my brother, sister-in-law, and niece at the end of my winter break. My niece is a year and a half old, and unintentionally hysterical in the way that really young kids are.

My SIL recently taught my niece to recite the alphabet. As my niece practiced saying the letters and repeating the order, my SIL encouraged her by saying, “Pretty close!” My SIL used this phrase often enough that now my niece ends every recitation of the alphabet with a hearty “Pretty close.” To her, “pretty close” IS part of the alphabet.

(The alphabet recitation happened many times during our visit, and it never got old.)

I’ve been thinking about this scenario and how it relates to how students form mental models of course content. I recently introduced my Software Design students to git and GitHub. Students often struggle to learn version control — the workflow and the commands — and don’t develop great mental models as a result. Particularly at this point in the term, when they’ve only done two short labs introducing them to the key commands and ideas, git seems to consist of a series of magical and confusing commands you issue in hopes that your code will be saved in your local and remote repositories (as illustrated beautifully in this xkcd comic). It’s hard at this point for them to figure out which commands are “alphabet commands” — necessary to complete the task at hand — and which commands are “pretty close commands” — not necessary for the current task, but they’ve heard them in conjunction with the other commands and figure they must play a role in completing the task.

Eventually, my niece will realize that “pretty close” is not the last letter of the alphabet, as she gains more understanding of and fluency with language and has more opportunities to practice the alphabet with feedback. And eventually, given enough practice and repeated exposure to the workflows, most of my students will be able to cut out the “pretty close commands” as their mental models of git shift. My role, to help them get to that point, is to provide them with plenty of opportunities to practice various workflows, while providing an underlying model of what’s happening to the repositories as they issue and execute those commands and providing appropriate feedback to help students figure out what parts of their models are correct and which ones need refining.


What I’m reading: The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir, by Sherry Turkle.

What I’m listening to: The audiobook version of No Cure for Being Human: (And Other Truths I Need to Hear), by Kate Bowler. (Apparently it’s Memoir Week around these parts!)