Saturday, February 7, 2015

But Am I Doing a Good Job Teaching?

As an instructional designer, I have a lot of conversations with professors. They come to me for help planning instruction. Maybe they want to use a new technology, and this requires some planning––and some reflection.

“What do you want the students to learn?” is the chief question. But there are other questions:

  • What do you want the students to learn?
  • What will you see that lets you know they’ve learned it?
  • What are your resources and limitations?
  • What works well about your current practice––and what would you like to change?

The most troublesome question sometimes is: “How will you measure your own success?”

In learning circles, this is often called “evaluation.” You did something new: Did it work?

One obstacle to evaluating changes to teaching is: we’re actually not very good at evaluating teaching effectiveness in the first place. There are competing models for how to do that. But on the practical level, we just don’t have a clear pathway to evaluating our own teaching effectiveness.

There are some simple reasons. Typically, the same person teaches and gives the grades. So it’s not like there’s some separate yardstick. Perhaps the professor thinks “they did worse this year,” or “they did better.” But it’s hard to measure.

Often when I ask professors “How will you measure your success?” they will say “I’ll compare this year’s grades to last years’s.”

This may not work, as students vary from year to year. Instructors write new tests. Our tests are seldom validated, etc., etc.

Yes, you can test your students using a validated instrument, if your field has one. But most don’t.

There is, however, a different way to measure success, and it has to do with Bloom’s trichotomy: competency, proficiency, and mastery.

A clear example can be found in musical performances, such as singing.

  • If you can’t sing a a certain number of pitches, durations and volumes accurately and consistently, you’re not a competent singer.
  • If you can sing loud and soft, high and low, in various timbres, then you have the some of the proficiencies.
  • But you’re only an artist when you can decide how to sing to achieve a specific effect. You can aim everything in a specific direction. Your skills are coordinated, integrated, and goal-directed.

Instead of comparing this year’s grades to last year’s, this other pathway asks the instructor to define competence, proficiency, and mastery, and to set goals for each.

This isn’t easy. The challenge is: those who teach are generally at the level of mastery. And at mastery, those lower levels have gelled into something the mastery. Like bricks in a wall that’s part of a building, the basic information of the field has become part of a larger structure.

  • The expert can recognize large patterns quickly and accurately, work with big chunks of knowledge, and move rapidly back and forth between details and the bigger picture.
When I was a professor, I found defining these levels very difficult, and my success was mixed.

When I taught Introduction to Film, I could get most of the students to mastery: they produced competent analyses integrating different film terms and purposes, and at the same time, they pursued their own interests.

  • To be competent at film analysis, you must be able to use the vocabulary correctly. If you can’t reliably spot a close-up or a zoom, you can’t do film analysis.
  • It’s not enough to be able to say “that’s a close-up”; you need to be able to say what it does, what purpose it serves. You must be able to explain or align details with purposes and patterns. The close-up brings us into the character’s mind, or plays such-and-such role in the narrative, or makes a formal pattern, etc. Without explanation, description is inert.
  • Finally, you’ve achieved mastery at film analysis when all your descriptions and explanations can be coordinated and integrated, you can say something larger in conversation with other scholars, and you can form and answer questions that suit your own needs and interests.

(I suspect these three levels must be similar for some very different disciplines, if only because concepts, functions and explanations, and debates are three disparate levels of increasing, integrated complexity.)

When I taught screenwriting, I had a great deal of difficulty getting the students to be competent because I myself could not define it clearly enough. Eventually, by comparing the best student work with the rest, I realized that for screenwriting competence means telling an involving story through actions. I knew this implicitly, but not explicitly. I had to pursue a conscious process to make this tacit knowledge explicit.

At first, my students couldn’t recognize an action, nor write one. Once I found a way to define sentences that present an action, the students could start to (a) write actions, (b) make them interesting, and (c) tell a story using them. (It’s like representing depth in a painting: if you can’t make blobs of color of different shapes and values, and you can’t organize them in specific ways, you can’t paint a landscape.)

Suddenly, when I could guaranty competency, I could spell out the proficiencies and help the students practice and integrate them towards a goal. Eureka!

When I taught Hollywood film history, I could get the students to competence, but I had no specific way of getting them to proficiency or mastery.

  • Everyone learned the basic facts and how they fit together.
  • But some students could give an analysis, and others stayed mired in facts. It’s hard to pursue your own interests when you can’t get beyond received knowledge.

Only later did I realize I could define the three levels as follows.

  • Competence in classical Hollywood cinema means a few things:
    • describing a film in terms of why it was produced within the studio system: “This is a B-picture at Warner Brothers, adapted from a crime novel, using contract players”;
    • describing visual and narrative details of films and other related visual artifacts;
    • recalling relevant facts about the institutions of the period.
  • Proficiencies include relating these historical and formal facts such that a film text (for instance) can become a symptom of various dimensions of Hollywood cinema as a social activity: political, cultural, and economic forces, just to name a few.
  • Mastery means collaborating with other scholars to test theories and hypotheses, and pursuing one’s own interests.

So: facts and concepts, interpretation and explanation, debate and hypothesis-testing.

It’s not just that competency, proficiency, and mastery allow us to test better: they allow us to teach better. We know where we’re trying to get our students, and they know where they’re going.

And if we do this, we can then measure our own effectiveness much better––because we know what we’re trying to do.

But the process of knowing what you know is generally not quick.

Grades are a blunt instrument. If we translated them into competency, proficiency, we’d better communicate our expectations to our students.

In my experience, Bloom’s trichotomy proves useful, because it helps us to know better what we know but can’t say––and so to say it.

––Edward R. O’Neill, Ph.D.

Friday, November 28, 2014

"Rational" Shopping and Data Visualization

Although today's entry is not about educational technology narrowly, it is about choosing tools and the limits on our ability to do that. It's also an exercise in data visualization--and its limits as well.

When I shop for cameras, I try to be rational about it. But rationality has its limits.

This image shows my spreadsheet comparing camera image quality as rated by, along with sensor size--compared to price. (The spreadsheet is too wide to capture nicely on my laptop in a single image.)

Each row's cells are color-coded from the minimum in that row (red) to the maximum (green).

Price is colored in reverse in each of the three tables: so the lowest price is green, the highest red. This reversal is underlined by a box around these row. (Where the camera can no longer be bought new, I left out the price.)

This gives a visual representation of the relation of price to image quality/sensor size.

To quantify further, I represented each number as a percentage of the maximum, and I also show rank from high (1) to low (18): these are the two lower tables.

Columns in bold represent cameras I own--God help me.

Not every similar camera is here: just those that interest me most. (I also made this thinking of a friend who needs a camera, and thus the choices also tilt towards those she might like.) Recent models, like the Canon GX7 and GX1 Mark II, aren't represented.

At only $300, the Olympus XZ2 represents an excellent bargain: very good image quality, a bigger sensor than most quality point-and-shoots, and a low price.

Similarly, the Olympus E-PM2 ("Pen Mini") is very high in image quality and costs under $500.

The Finepix X100 is notable for getting a high-quality image, due in part to its very large sensor. But then again it commands a premium price.

But the chart can't tell you everything.

Even though the Lumix FZ200 has a small sensor and relatively low image quality, it has a long zoom that stays at f/2.8 throughout its range, and it takes nice pictures. So the chart doesn't tell you everything.

Likewise (but in the other direction), the Canon EOS M is a tremendous bargain, but I will tell you: its autofocus is slow, and its touchscreen and interface clunky.

At this point, the Sony A3000 is also an amazing bargain, though it's actually a DSLR (like the Canon t4i).

Although the Nikon 1 J3 is in the middle of the pack, the camera overheats when shooting video and just plain shuts off. It's thus useless to me, despite taking good, sharp images. (I've blown them up to 18x24 with no noticeable artifacts.)

Finally, the columns are sorted by the average of all the percentages: the relation of each camera to the maximum in the cart. But of course we don't buy things "on average": we buy them for the things we want. And I always find that I'm shopping based on getting the best quality for a good price--hence the existence of this chart.

Sony A3000, here I come?

Not really, because to get a lens that achieves all that quality would add another $800....Eeek.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Using Online Photo Albums for Sequence Analysis

The online photo album is not a complicated tool. But it can be used to do more than share pictures of junior’s first trip to the zoo.
While prose writing is still a crucial skill our students can acquire, our students often need to analyze visual materials or to present analytical material in some visual form. Online photo albums are a simple way to do this. The photo album doesn’t do the work for you; you still need to know:
  • what you’re saying,
  • what the tool does,
  • what your options are–tool-wise, and more basically.
A familiar assignment in film studies is: the sequence analysis or shot breakdown.
  • The student analyzes a short clip.
  • She makes a table representing formal features–e.g.,
    • how many close-up’s vs. long shot’s,
    • how many still vs. moving camera shots,
    • etc.
  • Then the student typically writes a prose essay summarizing the results.
An online photo album can make a good alternative or additional assignment.
  • A visual presentation can be an intermediary assignment leading towards a prose essay.
  • Or it can represent a visual summary, an expression of some of the same ideas in a different form.
Trailer Shot Breakdown Analysis
A photo album will not capture all the nuance of prose: but reducing one’s arguments to a few points, or focusing on developing only a small compass of ideas can have a wonderfully clarifying effect. It’s like writing an abstract with pictures.
Ideas can be expressed in a photo set verbally or through the arrangement of images.
  • In the case of a verbal commentary or analysis, that can be put:
    • in the caption of each image;
    • or it can be inserted through explanatory slides created in Powerpoint or Keynote (or similar).
  • In the case of the visual elements, even changing the sequence of the images allows students to explore different ways of creating meaning. The images can be sorted:
    • sequentially, as when representing the shots of a scene in the order in which they appear in the film; or the images may be sorted
    • logically into types or kinds. In this case, they kinds represent the argument.
To show these options, I have grabbed still frames from the first two minutes or so of The Maltese Falcon.

  • This is a familiar movie, and the opening is (or used to be) used to demonstrate editing and its analysis in Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art textbook.
  • Normally, a student would analyze a scene or other more-organic unit of a feature film. In this case, I’ve studied only a fragment, as that simplifies the demonstration.

Captions May Supply the Verbal Content.

This Google Plus Photo album adds captions to screenshots to call out important dimensions of the clip (like framing and duration), while other important elements of storytelling are previewed and narrated.
  • Clicking on an image brings up the image on one side of the screen and the caption on the other.
  • Adjusting the browser’s degree of zooming allows the caption to take up more space on the screen, thus making a good balance of image and analysis.
  • As an added bonus, a ‘backdoor’ lets you create an embeddable Flash-based slideshow you can put in Classes*v2, WordPress, etc.

    • The annotation obscures the image, but it’s an interesting option.
    • N.B. To do this, the photo album must be set to public.

Slides May Supply the Verbal Content.

The verbal analytical dimension may be added by generating text slides in Keynote or Powerpoint to create a ‘visual essay’ which analyzes the clips using brief text slides interspersed between frames representing the shots.
  • This example analyzes the shots in order.
    • The text slides preview key things to look for in the subsequent few slides.
      • This approach suggests the viewer will go back and forth to connect the argument and the evidence.
  • A different approach is to organize the shots by type or kind in some way.
    • This album counts how many shots of specific types and then labels and sorts them.
    • By labeling, sorting and re-arranging the elements one is analyzing, patterns emerge that may not have been apparent in the un-remixed text.
      • This could be called the basis of much analytical thinking: re-sorting experiences to compare them and find non-apparent patterns and resemblances.
    • What counts as a ‘type’ can be motivated by one’s curiosities or observations.
      • In this case, the symmetries and asymmetries of gender become revealed in neat ways by sorting the shots by various formal and other criteria--I.e., an idiomatic folksonomy rather than a scientific taxonomy.

In this case, the album with the captions was made first and then the photos copied to new albums.
  • Hence these images all bear captions, though in practice that would likely not happen.
An additional challenge is how to represent movement or duration.
  • Long takes or camera movement could be represented by multiple frame grabs.
  • The one-frame-per-shot ratio has the virtue of visualizing the shot count.
  • Whichever choice the author makes, clearly labeling the result helps orient the end-user.
–Edward R. O’Neill, Ph.D.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Three Simple Tools for Sharing Visual Commentary and Annotation

For a long time, scholarship largely focused on words and numbers.

Yes, art historians and theater scholars and radiographers thought a lot about images. But today the visual dimension of knowledge increasingly leaves mere words and numbers in the shadows. Chalk it up to the proliferation of screens–on our desks, on our walls, in our backpacks and pockets–or to whatever you like.
But it is in many ways a welcome change.

Many of us involved in scholarship and teaching spend a lot of time using images: gazing at them, thinking about them, writing about them; but also collecting, organizing, commenting and publishing them.

But how do we do this? Using what kinds of tools?

Those who manage large collections of images have specialized tools. And art historians and film scholars still write (lengthy) prose essays.

But using images to think about images has a special appeal. And tools like from making and giving presentations, editing movies, and sharing photos are all relatively easy enough to make them good candidates for vernacular scholarship: serious thinking that takes place in popular media.

When thoughtful people take up a medium, they think seriously about genres and forms.
  • Am I writing a novel or a tweet? A memoir or a lab report?
  • Am I drawing a landscape or a portrait? A wall-sized canvas or an ivory engraving?
And critical writing is no different–except that we who do critical writing could really spend more time thinking about genres, especially as we do and encourage critical writing on web pages and through viral videos and as info graphics.

Happily, some critical genres cut across media and can serve us well as we act critically in popular media: annotation and commentary are two crucial genres for critical analysis, and both of them lend themselves to visual media as well.

Both annotation and commentary bear a strong relationship to the text they comment on.
  • Annotation usually implies the presence of the text. An annotated edition is a manuscript that bears the annotations right on or beside the text.
  • Commentary may stand apart from the text it comments upon, but “apart” is often not far.
    • My edition of Hamlet contains some commentary in footnotes, and other commentaries before and after the text itself.
    • DVD (and now Blu-Ray) commentary tracks yoke together a text and a commentary: the two are synchronized.
When we use simple tools to share visual material, and when we try to work critically with these media, what features of the tools are we using? How do we annotate and comment?

I wanted to explore these issues by putting a dozen or twenty of the same images into three different readily accessible tools.
  • iMovie is a popular video editing tool which now costs about $15.
  • Google+ Photos is a service for sharing photo sets or ‘albums’: with a few people or the entire world-wide web.
  • Powerpoint is the ever-present
    • These files may be uploaded to Google Drive and published there
    • You can also record a voiceover and publish the presentation and voiceover together as a movie. But I skipped this, because I used iMovie to accomplish the same results.

What I Did and Why.
  1. I’m an amateur photographer, and I adore Hollywood glamour portraits of the ’30’s and ’40’s. I have books full of them, and over time, I’ve collected 50 or 80 such images from the web. So that determined my topic: convenience.
  2. I had the files in Dropbox, but I uploaded them to Google+ Photos, since I could organize them in a sequence there. The uploading involved selection.
    • In this case, I intuitively put together images that seemed to me related.
    • I had some notion of comparing images of men and woman, so that provided a sort of rule or principle.
    • But as I moved the images around, I found myself pairing them along the lines of similarity and contrast.
  3. As I browsed and sequenced the images, I started formulating my ideas about them.
    • The sequence turned out to involve shades of similarity.
    • I started with one that was highly emblematic of the whole: a kind of titular representation.
    • And then I arranged images of women, followed by men, with sub-similarities.
  4. I downloaded them all from Google+ Photos–simply because they were all in one place and neatly arranged.
  5. For iMovie I drag-and-dropped them onto the timeline. Once there, I composed some voiceover, which I recorded right in the software. I was then able to cut it into bits and slide it here and there to fit the images.


“Affordances” is the fancy word for the features of tool that let you do certain things.
  • The weight of a hammer determines whether it can tack carpet or crush rocks. You could say the ability to crush something heavy is an “affordance.”
    • The idea is to get away from features and to wonder aloud about what they get you.

iMovie has specific ‘affordances’:
  • It lets you add a voiceover.
  • It lets you add titles over images and between them.
  • It has a ‘Ken Burns effect’ in which still images are zoomed or panned across, to keep some visual interest.
  • And you can choose different transitions between still images (or video clips).
What would I do with these?
  • The voiceover seemed perfect for commentary. I could use the auditory channel for commentary, since the visual channel was largely full of what was being commented on. It was a neat divide.
  • I decided to use the titles to spell out the main topics.

    • Sure they were said out loud. But in some cases, I realized I had not recorded anything announcing the main topic.
    • So the titles became unifying themes that brought together multiple images, as well as the voiceover.
  • The Ken Burns effect is somewhat random in how it pans or zooms.
    • I decided that I could start in close on the visual element being described. Then I would zoom out to see the whole image.
    • So the pattern was to focus on a detail and then reveal its context. I did this with every single image. I decided consistency and repetition would make things easier on the viewer.
  • Finally, iMovie allows a transition that looks like un-focusing and re-focusing. It’s different than a ‘dissolve,’ in which one image slowly replaces another.
    • Since the context was cinematic, I thought the cross-focus transition fit nicely.
    • I used no other transition, as the images are from ‘classical’ Hollywood, and part of that classicism was parsimony: very few effects used carefully. So I wanted to match the material in this regard.

Link to visual commentary example created using iMovie

For Powerpoint, I went a bit further.

  • Powerpoint allows you to use simple, stock visual elements: like arrows.
  • You can record a voiceover, but I decided I had just done that: I would force myself to find a different pathway with Powerpoint.
  • The author can also create specific transitions: one image bumping another off to one side, etc.
I decided the visual logic of a video and a presentation were different.
  • A voice speaking to you over related images is very different than the same images presented without a voice.
  • So I decided I needed to structure my commentary more clearly.
    • Instead of a series of observations, I wanted to show consistency, repeated elements.
  • So I organized the images a bit differently.
    • And I tried to make very clear themes with sub-elements.
  • The images sat to one side–the right–and the themes and sub-themes were spelled out on the left.
    • First the viewer sees the image.
    • This way you get to see it with your own eyes.
    • The next slide spells out the theme and sub-themes: in this case, the effect the photo produces, and how it’s produced, the techniques.
  • Finally, I decided to use those simple stock visual elements:
    • I put arrows connecting the techniques to a specific place on each image.

To publish the presentation, I uploaded it to Google Drive.

  • Google Drive can then autoplay, and it lets the user choose a smaller number of transitions.
    • I chose a fairly slow pace, to give the viewer time to look and read.
    • By using a transition in which one image instantly replaces the next, my themes and sub-themes suddenly appear, and so do the arrows.
      • There is an animation-like effect.

Watch the Powerpoint-made presentation in a separate window here.

Finally, for the Google+ Photo album, I used the feature of ‘captions.’
  • Each photo can have a bit of explanation about it.
  • So I elaborated on my voiceover text here. There’s a little more space, so I could add some extra detail.
  • The casual browser might read these or not. So I tried to write them to reward reading.
In short, for this tool, I was relying largely on sequence.
  • Google+ Photos does let you edit the images. I could have emphasized some visual characteristics. But I opted for restraint. Let the images speak for themselves, and let my voice be softer, less obtrusive.

Going to lets you find code to embed a slideshow. (Somehow Google+ users don’t rate access to this feature.)

Hollywood Publicity Portraits of the 1930's & 1940's

And there’s a more static embedded version.

Both draw on the original photo set.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Friday, August 8, 2014

Three Questions, One Answer.

In a recent blog post, Doug Mckee addresses three issues in how he should teach this fall.

1. Should I ban laptops in lecture?
2. Should I make discussion sections mandatory?
3. Should I cold-call students during lecture?

Basically: no, no and no--all for the same reasons.

1. Should you "ban" anything in lecture?

Or rather: were you to try, what would be the justification?

In teaching we do things for very few reasons.

a. Because they are inherent in the discipline and academic life. "We're reading Durkheim because he helped to found the discipline." "We'll use APA style because that's what professionals do." "You must offer arguments, not opinions, because in our domain, opinions have no value."

b. Because they are convenient. "We need to get all your papers at once so we can compare them and grade them before the next work is due."

c. Because they adhere to university policies and laws. "No smoking in the back row." "Grades are due on the 11th." "No sexual harassment."

d. Because they embody our values about human freedom and responsibility. "You must take up your own argumentative position." "You may turn in the work late, but it will be marked down." "Write about the one topic on the list that interests you most." Pursue your freedom. Experiment. Explore. Fail. But take on the responsibility of existing and choosing.

(I can't think of many other justifications for why we do this, that or the other in teaching.)

And all of these questions are opened to reasoned debate--because that is one of our values.

Once you say "You will not open your laptops," you are dictating. And you have lost. Now you are a cop, not a teacher.

Practically speaking, I know professors who have had good luck with the "three states": put your laptops away and focus on this (discuss with a peer, whatever); open your laptops and do this specific task; leave your laptop open or put it away--I don't care, just don't distract your neighbor.

You can also play with the sequence. If you ask them to use it, then to close it, the act of opening it may be more self-aware.

2. See "1" above.

a. What does "mandatory" mean? Again, from my perspective this is the wrong relation to the student.

We can mandate little in teaching. Rather, we reward and we punish. (Behavioral economics and game theory surely apply here--though I fear that those theories have no moral code embedded in them, and therefore they may be useful tools but they are not arbiters.)

Extrinsic rewards don't motivate learning very well. So you can reward and punish for attending or not. But neither will help students learn.

Why not go the other way? "Go to section, don't. No points for it. Go if you value it. And we'll try to make it valuable." Ask every week how section could be better. Make it a discussion topic in the web site. When you can't decide in advance, make it a learning experience.


b. One good principle in planning teaching is: treat all questions about teaching as something to be proven experimentally by teaching.

Reframe the issue as: What could I learn about making the section worth going to?

Survey students weekly--did you go or not, why? Ask the section leaders to experiment, to explore how best to meet the students' needs. Maybe the first few weeks the sections would have different specific activities that students rated, and thereafter, students chose "which activity should we do today?" Make it their section. Meet their needs.

Or just put super-important things in section. Sell how great section will be, and then say "of course it's totally optional."

3. See "1" above.

a. They are coming to lecture to learn. Would you pick on someone for not having understood the material as well as someone else? That person needs more help, not public shaming.

b. I tried this once. I would never do it again.

I once put the students' names on index cards. I shuffled them and picked one at random.

Once the index cards came out, students sat up straight in their chairs.

I called a name, and the student stammered and hemmed and hawed. Other students tried to rescue those I called on--defended them.

One student shot his hand up later, after not having known the answer to an earlier question, and after class explained to me: "I knew the answer, I just couldn't think of it, and so I had to show you that I'd done the reading."

And I thought: who am I? To make someone prove a point to me?

After that I brought out the index cards and put them on the desk. They were radioactive. Students would stare at them. If no one answered a question, I moved towards the cards, and a voice would ring out with something to say.

It wasn't motivated by something good. But I got good discussions. Not because of randomly calling on students all the time, as a policy. But by making a point that we needed to discuss and that I would do what it took to make that happen. They didn't want that. 

But I would never teach that way again.

4. Learning devolves on human agency.

Agency is the center of learning. Through learning, I become more capable, and I feel myself to be more and more of an agent, less and less of a passive, receptive entity and more and more myself. 

Humans become more capable by overcoming meaningful challenges in an increasing order of difficulty, a difficulty matched to their abilities. (It's tragedy when someone is outstripped by the task he faces; tragedy defines common humanity by contrast.)

Anything that takes away from the agency of the learner is bad for learning.

Yes, we need rules and limits.

But when possible, all meaningful choices should be passed to the student.

To experience one's humanity through the responsibility of choice, to embrace the possibility of failure, and to own's one's successes: this is the heart of education.

--Edward R. O'Neill, Ph.D.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Is It Possible That We Actually Loathe Learning?

Even those who profess to love it most?

I went to a conference recently. The topic was: learning. More specifically, “instructional design,” which is: how to plan a learning experience so that people actually learn, and maybe even enjoy it or find it meaningful. (Imagine.)

There were three presenters. They were smart, experienced and thoughtful. They’d all published books. I was positively impressed in every way.

In every way but one.

Every single presenter got up and told us the most wonderful methods for creating great, effective learning experiences. They talked about the brain and cognitive research and technology options and design methods. All three brought forth a wealth of ideas. And I’m grateful for what I learned.

But not a single speaker used the methods she described.

Not one.

Not for a moment.

One showed images to represent the ideas. One told anecdotes. Another used the Socratic Method and asked questions.

And none of these methods were the speaker’s topic.

I wish this were a kind of temporary aberration: something unusual about these three experts. But I’m afraid it’s not.

But in my experience, whenever experts in learning get together, you can count on one thing: they will never practice what they preach. I don’t think I’ve ever seen even a single presentation about learning, teaching or pedagogy which actually used the methods it described. Gave examples, sure. But not used, not thoroughly, not even for three minutes.

Is it possible that those who seem to care most about learning secretly loathe it? What is the explanation for talking about learning without taking care that we make it happen?

One element at work here is surely what I have called The Piehole Illlusion: the mistaken belief that if it comes out of my piehole, it will go straight into the listener’s brain. Mission accomplished. Case closed.

It’s easy to understand. The speaker thinks “I have all these ideas, so I’ll just tell them.

This is like thinking: “I have the most wonderful idea for a novel…I’ll just write it down.” Of course, we all know: that’s not ‘writing a novel.’ (Or, as Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s writing in On the Road: “That’s not writing––it’s typing!”

One of my mother’s favorite jokes sheds light on this topic.
An expert is asked by an organization to give a speech on a topic the expert knows well.
Organization: “We’d like a ten-minute speech.”
Expert: “I’ll need two months to prepare.”
Organization: “What about a 30-minute speech?”
Expert: “I can have that for you in a month.”
Organization: “What about a three-hour speech?”
Expert: “Oh, I could do that right now.”

This is a longer version of Montaigne’s famous comment at the end of a letter: “Sorry for writing such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.”

It’s a lovely witticism, because it’s counter-intuitive that the amount of time it takes to write something is not proportional to the ultimate length of the thing written. Good writing is, at a minimum, compressed: just as Montaigne squeezed a complex thought into two phrases.

This is rhetoric: thinking about your audience, about where they are and how to act upon them, thinking about what strategy you will use, how you will express what you have to say effectively and efficiently.

And that of course is the point of Montaigne’s bon mot and of the joke my mother likes so well. It’s the same absurdity involved in simply “telling” or “writing down” one’s thoughts. (It's also happening in Montaigne's bon mot.)

In all these cases, what comes to the surface is: writing is work, and work of course takes time. It’s hard work to help another understand an idea or acquire a new idea, skill, habit or disposition––just as it’s hard work to change oneself through learning.

So is that it? Do we avoid making learning happen when the very topic is learning because of some misunderstanding about communication being work? (I’m ruling out sheer laziness, since the people involved have no fear of hard work.)

What’s going on when those who in theory know the most about learning cannot use any of the methods that they know so very well? What is a reasonable explanation for the failure of the most learning-centric actually to be learning-centric?

Perhaps we don't hate learning so much as fear it.

Learning is change. In the most powerful learning, we become something different from what we were. Yes, we can just accrue factoids. Yes, we can just have our existing beliefs confirmed; we can become more aware of our own assumptions.

But when learning is really transformative, we ourselves are actually changed. This is the power of learning––and also what makes learning unfathomable and scary.

In a powerful change, you can’t foresee what you will become. And after the change, you can hardly grasp what you used to be.

I remember hearing an NPR story (probably on This American Life) about a hearing-impaired man who did not know sign language. After he learned, he could no longer remember what it was like not to know.
In a very different frame, it’s hard to remember what it was like when you did not know that Santa Claus was your parents.

Not all learning is this dramatic a change. But when your paradigm shifts, when you learn something that re-shapes and re-arranges what you knew and believed and did before, there is a point-of-no-return.

Learning in this sense is unstable, frightening, unknowable. To learn may mean to begin a journey which leads––we know not where, and we cannot know, because the person who begins the journey is not the same person who ends it. And that loss of self is something fearful.

The typical way cultures handle such transformations of identity is: through rituals. And I’ve written before about how learning demands and can be supported by and conceptualized as a sort of ritual facilitation. Learning itself isn’t magic: the underlying principles are scientific. But learning may require a bit of magic.

Some mental processes might be so deeply intertwined with personality structures that cultural rituals might actually be required so that the changes of self do not become overwhelming. Good teaching supports a change that goes to the very bottom of our personhood, and this might explain why great learning experiences get remembered with such intense feelings––even of reverence and awe.

A great teacher doesn’t mind being a sort of shaman-priest. That’s one reason there are so few of them. Magic is some tricky stuff, and who today wants to align herself with magic when science and technology are the Big Noise?

Experts on learning, on the other hand, perhaps fully aware of what they’re messing with, perhaps wisely shrink back from that risky semi-magical role.

So in a way: three cheers for both great teachers and wise experts on learning. Each ‘knows’ her topic in a different way. It’s like the difference between being a good chemist and being a good cook: the chemist knows why the cook’s recipes work; whereas the cook uses the chemistry to create a delightful experience. Each kind of knowledge has its own kind of value, and we stumble when we fail to cherish knowledge in all its diverse forms and habits––as is true for all forms of life.

But I will not cease to wish that the learning experts could practice just a bit of what they preach, in part because I take the word “preach” quite seriously.

And also because there is not enough magic in the world today, and we need every bit we can get.

––Edward R. O’Neill, Ph.D.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Beautiful Ideas

Waiting for the train yesterday, I met a charming young woman.

She was slight and looked more like she ran a health food store.

She was a grad student at Yale doing computing and stats in the life sciences. She want to a small Eastern Seaboard liberal arts college.

She never had a fondness for math. Many courses were just “do this, do this, do this—there was no Big Idea."

But as she took courses, she founds some inspiring professors.

What made a good math lesson?

“I had a professor who would start with a big idea. Something important and inspiring and impactful. He would point to research or a photograph or news story to show the impact of something mathematical. It inspired you and made you see the beauty of the topic.”

How did you sustain your attention?

“If I knew the Big Idea, and then I could see some of the pieces, then I could do all the work—because I knew how it fit together. Then, no matter how tedious or hard it was, I knew what I was doing, where I was going."

Now this young woman uses computers and statistical methods to do genome sequencing and analysis in order to cure and prevent cancer. “I’m not really a math person. I just love beautiful ideas and doing something meaningful."

--Edward R. O'Neill