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.

“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 Picasaweb.google.com 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.

Hence...

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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Learning--and the Three Hands

The word "hand" plays a role in many very common figures of speech.

  • Such expressions are useful or "handy."
  • They come easily to us: they're "ready-to-hand."

And yet their exact meanings and origins are obscure––probably exactly because they are so common.

The familiar distinction between "firsthand" and "secondhand" is important to law and to journalism.

  • Eyewitness testimony is "firsthand," and it's the gold standard for journalists.
  • "Secondhand" report is, in some legal situations, inadmissable, and much journalism is just that: a secondhand recounting of a firsthand observation.

A "thirdhand" account would be someone relaying a secondhand account––and so on.

To use an example, take: riding a roller coaster.

  • A firsthand experience is: riding the roller coaster.
  • A secondhand experience is: watching someone else ride the roller coaster.
  • A thirdhand experience is: hearing an account by the person who watched the person riding.

To be more abstract:

  • Firsthandedness means: experience.
  • Secondhandness means: observation.
  • Thirdhandness means: symbolic mediation, reducing experience and observation to a transmissible form.

So what has all this to do with learning––my recurring theme in these blog posts?

Much of higher learning is thirdhand. We read books that summarize knowledge. Often these books don't even include direct observation, and they may even summarize other books (which may summarize other books, and so on). You could say: we observe knowledge and talk about its features and how it's produced. We encounter knowledge as it's encoded in symbols.

While some see video lectures as 'revolutionary,' we are still talking about thirdhand experience: someone summarizing something someone else saw or did. Does it matter so much that it's watched on a smartphone on a bus?

Some college courses have more firsthand experience than others.

  • Science classes still have labs where the students do science themselves.
  • The study of literature always involves a firsthand experience of a poem or novel or play.
  • Some social science courses include direct observation and learning to be a semi-professional observer: a child development course may involve going to watch pre-school students.
  • And fine arts, when studied as a practice, must involve doing: you can't just read and write about painting; you must paint with your very own hands.

But many college courses simply involve encountering symbolic representations of facts and abstractions. It is this sense in which college students end up with "no real-world experience." Sometimes that's meant to be a damning claim, when it in fact misses the point. But from the point-of-view of building knowledge in all the possible ways we will need to build it, this kind of thirdhand learning is seriously deficient.

To read about poverty, see films about it, acquire facts and theories about it is completely unlike observing poverty with one's own eyes and ears, let alone being poor oneself. It's with this fact in mind that instructors have students do things like: volunteer at the local food pantry or soup kitchen, try to eat for a week on the same allowance as received under 'food stamps,' and the like.

You can download all the lectures you like, do online quizzes until your fingers bleed: you will never have the same involvement in the subject matter as experiencing it or seeing it for yourself.

(I don't think a film about the topic entirely counts, because it's still someone's constructed symbolic account. In a film, the form constructs meanings for you. By contrast, if you experience and observe for yourself it's incumbent on you to construct the meaning, and from a humanistic perspective, that's where the heart of the matter resides: in taking responsibility for ascribing meaning and discovering one's own agency in that act and process.)

You may object: but very important knowledge comes in books and other symbolic media. Fine and good. But who knows something significant about roller coasters?

  • The person who has read all the relevant information?
  • The person who watched one being ridden?
  • Or the person who has ridden the roller coaster herself?

It seems to me that: a complete, well-rounded education on roller coasters would involve some of each.

More broadly: not all learning in life comes from books and symbols; we also need to learn by doing and by observing. And we significantly short-change our students when we deprive them of practice in firsthand and secondhand learning.

A quick formula would then be a more complete education requires at least some of all three 'hands.'

  • Students should do things themselves: experience the subject matter firsthand.
  • Students should observe the phenomena under study as directly as possible: learn by secondhand observation, interviewing, etc.
  • Students should consume (but also produce) thirdhand accounts of the facts and knowledge they are venturing to acquire: learn by reading and writing thirdhand representations of the phenomena under consideration.

If we did this, students would become more deeply involved in the topic, while also learning techniques of observation that are often highly transferrable to new situations.

And we would then produce students more prepared to convert the raw material of experience and observation into reliable knowledge.

––Edward R. O'Neill

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Practice of Teaching? Eight Modes of Instruction

We know a lot about learning. Quite ironically, we know little about teaching.

Perhaps its wrong to think of teaching as some separate process––as something other than: facilitating learning.

The trouble is: what we know about learning is all theory. And as everyone knows: theory is not practice.

Theory is a set of abstractions. Physics has "gravity," and sociology has "social solidarity," and literature has "textuality." You can't point to gravity itself anywhere: you can only see it in action––and then only when you know what to look for.

And learning has "motivation" and "working memory" and "cognition" and "executive functions" and "agency" and "self-efficacy." If you know what all these aspects of learning, you 'just teach based on them.'

This is a lot like saying: learn all about color and pigments and perspective and then 'just paint a painting.' Or: 'just learn the laws of physics and then go split an atom.'

In this sense, teaching would just be: turning all the underlying elements of learning into something you can see––because you know what you are looking for (and at).

And yet: no one knows clearly and simply what that is. What is the "application" of all the ideas of learning?

Indeed, we the best procedure is probably to reverse the whole thing and to say that the whole issue of teaching can be reduced to the very gap between abstract theories and concrete actions: making ideas and abstractions concrete and perceptible and actionable through definite steps.

Yet what are these "definite steps"? We should have something on the side of teaching that corresponds to the Big Ideas of learning (motivation, working memory, executive functions, etc.)––and yet which is not abstract but rather a concrete procedure.

One such notion would be modes of instruction.

That is: there must be certain ways of teaching which are so basic and so elementary that they can be separated out like elements in chemistry. These would be the smallest possible ways of teaching, and I think it's possible to identify eight. (I'll leave out the word 'instruction' to characterize each, to avoid repetition.)

  1. Direct or nominal: This is the most common, and it can be represented by the verb "to tell." The instructor thinks "I'll just tell them." The knowledge being aimed it is simply named. "The square of the hypoteneuse is equal to the sum of the other two sides of a right triangle."
  2. Demonstrative: This is also very basic, although often ignored in favor of direct instruction. It's simply showing. With the triangle example, the instructor walks through the equation––even measures an actual physical triangle.
  3. Indirect or analogical: This is the use of metaphor or allusion to get the point across. An allegorical tale could be invented personifying the sides of the triangles and giving their feelings, for instance.
  4. Exploratory or experiential This is giving the learner something to do, without necessarily explaining either the result or the goal. Here the students would be given triangles and asked to measure and explore their properties. This kind of purely exploratory method had a fashion for a while but now is looked down upon.
  5. Procedural or algorithmic: Here the learner gets a specific sequence of steps to follow. No mention need be made of the goal, and indeed, lots of bad instruction falls under this heading.
  6. Goal-oriented: Here the learner is asked to achieve something specific. "Determine the relation between the two sides of a triangle joined in a right angle and the third side." No more guidance might be provided: just a goal.
  7. Social or observational: Here the learner is asked to observer others doing something relevant. You could say: this is implied in all demonstrative instruction, in which case neither of the two is really elementary. But observing other learners or other aspects of the physical and social world seems so central to naturalistic learning, that it would be absurd to exclude it as a method.
  8. Reflective: Here we ask the learners to recall and reflect on experiences. You could object that this requires an experiential or exploratory moment, but the experiences reflected on need not be a part of the instruction, so the process of reflecting does have some independent value.

These eight basic modes of instruction could be reduced to verbs or even sentences, depending on how the instruction was implemented––which is to say: who did what in relation to the verb. E.g.,:

  • tell,
  • show
  • imply,
  • explore,
  • walk through,
  • achieve,
  • watch,
  • reflect.

Or, for the teacher as the grammatical subject and the learners as the object:

  • I tell them.
  • I show them.
  • I imply.
  • They explore.
  • They go through the steps.
  • I set a goal which they achieve.
  • They watch others.
  • They reflect.

The methods change dramatically if the instructor is no longer the center. Indeed, inverting every method produces something dramatically different: the students tell or show the instructor; the instructor explores or watches or reflects. These would seem to be good instructions for how to make the teacher a learner, which is what a good teacher ought to be. And so the fact that changing the agent changes the impact does not say much about the validity of separating out the modes.

One very clear implication seems to be: each mode of instruction has a fatal weakness.

  • If you don't understand the terms of a direct explanation, you're out of luck.
  • Similarly, if the analogy makes no sense to you, the effectiveness is near zero.
  • You can show me something, and I can attend to the way you stand, rather than what you're doing.
  • Etc.

What this says to me is: effective teaching likely combines several of the basic modes of instruction. Indeed, telling usually gets followed by showing, then students going through steps, etc. But many practical teaching procedures skip entire modes of instruction (such as reflection), and yet we do not actually know which modes should be accompanied by which, nor in what order.

We could find out, though. A very nice research project would be a meta-analysis of studies of instructional methods. Researchers would code the methods studied to determine which modes of instruction were being used. And then the effectiveness of each method could be analyzed statistically in terms of the various modes being combined, as well as the combinations.

The fact is: we simply do not know (a) whether these modes of instruction really are primary, nor (b) which work best in which combination (let alone with which subject matter, which one might want to hold constant).

If these methods sound terribly concrete, that's exactly the point. Does one engage motivation better? Or another addresses issues in working memory? Are agency and self-efficacy supported better by this or that method? That is not the point.

Or rather: we could find all that out.

The point is: to make instruction something do-able and systematic and to know which techniques to use when and in what combination.

And then we would know more about teaching––which is something, as the poet said, "devoutly to be wished."

––Edward R. O'Neill

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Anything But Learning: An Imaginary Dialogue


Surely these guys know what they're doing, right?

Some months back, I wrote about our society's weird inability to look at and think about learning. We'll give students hardware, design games for them to play--anything but think seriously about learning, how it happens, what supports it, what blocks it.

As an instructional designer, I work with professors, and I often find that even those who care deeply about learning are looking for an easy fix: a computerized something-or-other which will help them skip over all the hard parts and get right to the learning.

Hence, I often find the same conversation happening again and again, with slight variations. Here is what that conversation would look like, if I could say what I really want.

Professor:   I've found the most wonderful new thing-a-ma-bob.

Instructional Designer: Truly?

Professor:   Yes. I'm having some thing-a-ma-bob engineers create a few for my students.

Instructional Designer: I see.

Professor:  It's a good idea, isn't it?

Instructional Designer:  Well, let me ask you this. You're an expert in the discipline of x-ology, right?

Professor:  And proudly so!

Instructional Designer: And when you have an x-ological problem, you know what to do.

Professor: I sure do!

Instructional Designer: And if you don't know how to solve it--

Professor: I consult with colleagues or read the literature of my field. 

Instructional Designer: Of course you do.

Professor:   I'd be a fool not to.

Instructional Designer: So what about learning?

Professor:  What about it.

Instructional Designer: You want your students to learn, yes?

Professor:  Of course!  

Instructional Designer: So why consult a thing-a-ma-bob engineer?

Professor:  Well, he's an expert in thing-a-ma-bob's, and nowadays people are using thing-a-ma-bob's to learn. You're pulling my leg, right? Surely you've heard of this.

Instructional Designer: Of course I have. But thing-a-ma-bob engineers know tons about thing-a-ma-bobs--

Professor:  And nothing about learning?

Instructional Designer: I was going to say: no more about learning than most people.

Professor: You're just being a professional now. You want everyone to consult an instructional designer or neuroscientist or educational psychologist every time she walks into a classroom.

Instructional Designer: Not every time. But now and again.

Professor: But I know what I want the students to learn! The thing-a-ma-bob engineer just has to build it.

Instructional Designer: Do you? Do you know?

Professor:  Yes! They're learning Arcane Topic Zed. 

Instructional Designer: But that's where an instructional designer can help. What about Arcane Topic Zed are they learning?

Professor:  Oh just the basics, you know. Nothing fancy.

Instructional Designer: But what must the learn to do? To recall, to distinguish, to apply, to synthesize?

Professor:  Well, the answer is very complicated. 

Instructional Designer: Which is why a thing-a-ma-bob engineer is not your ideal partner. You don't go to an engineer and ask "build me a house." The engineer would say "you need an architect to make a plan." And the architect would say "What kind of house? To do what? To house how many? In what seasons? With what hobbies?"

Professor:   And you're the architect.

Instructional Designer: Well, designers design. They help create a plan with specifications.

Professor:  Then can I get the thing-a-ma-bob engineer to build it?

Instructional Designer: To your heart's content.

Of course: in life, you don't get to have that conversation. The professor can do as she likes. And you really just want to partner with this person, so you don't get to lecture her on the value you provide.

Instead you must wait and look for the opportunity to provide that value--so you can demonstrate by actions and results what it is you do.

And meanwhile: blog about it.

--Edward R. O'Neill