Monday, October 29, 2012

Vernacular Pedagogy: Some Hallmarks.

The best way to teach about teaching is likely: by example. There are so many principles and theories that could be "applied." But is that really the best way to approach teaching? Not likely.

Teaching is a practical art. You must do it--not just think about it. And when it comes to practice, a good strong example is often quite effective.

Happily, we do not have to scrounge around to find some obscure example of great teaching. There are terrific examples in plain sight, although most people don't sort them into the category of "teaching."

I am talking about what I will call vernacular pedagogy. This is any presentation in any medium which explains rich and complex material very successfully. Two hallmarks of such success are: many people are drawn to the material, and the teaching has a large impact. Information really is passed on, people really do learn, and so vernacular pedagogy has real impact.

Public television is a treasure trove of vernacular pedagogy: Julia Child, Carl Sagan, and Ken Burns quickly leap to mind. Since two are on-screen performers and the third a documentarian, we can see that the vernacular pedagogue is not the same thing as, say, a writer or a director or a TV personality: it's not a job it's more of an avocation.

Classical music has its own explainer-demonstraters:

But a single example of vernacular pedagogy suffices to present the hidden complexities of the form. I've picked Julia Child, because she's wildly pleasurable to watch and to talk about. Just as you could learn from her all day, you can talk about her all day.

Another hallmark of vernacular pedagogy is the combination of otherwise incompatible features. Think of a Julia Child show. It is:

  • practically purposeful,
  • richly layered,
  • easy to absorb yet
  • repays revisiting, it
  • often leads to a deeper engagement, and it is
  • deeply personal.

Practically purposeful. You feel you can do something afterwards you could not before. You are excited to try. You feel empowered, confident. (In learning theory terms, you feel efficacy--that Can-Do Feeling.)

Richly layered. There are many things going on, many topics, many kinds of information. Each is touched on lightly, deftly. It's not an obscure clue that leaves you lost: it's an essential string of related elements which is woven around another such string, so you're getting many things at once without ever being stumped.

Easy to absorb. You're conscious of learning, conscious of being immersed, conscious of absorbing something new, but you're never lost, puzzled, or frustrated. You know where you are, and you know where you are going.

Repays revisiting. It's not that we need to watch it more than once: it's that we want to. You make take a long break, you may think you know everything, but when you do return, you're surprised just how much is there.

Often leads to a deeper engagement. People often fondly remember Julia Child as their first encounter with more sophisticated cooking techniques. It's that moment when you go beyond throwing a piece of food in boiling water or a hot frying pan, when you go beyond fearing it will be burned or raw. You may go quite far beyond some of the recipes and techniques Julia introduced to you. But Julia will always have been a key turning point, the opening of a door.

Deeply personal. Not all teaching is. But great vernacular pedagogy is. Why should sharing knowledge, even very publicly, be so intimate?

I have noticed something with creative writing. (*Among my sidelines is teaching screenwriting.) If you approach creative writing in a certain way, if you start from the right place and work in the right way, some very personal stuff comes out in even the simplest writing tasks.

  • If you imagine a city, a vast network of places and the experiences you've had there, and you imagine running a simple errand, so much of your past and of the city may be attached to that simple route and task.
  • Knowledge is also a network, like a city and like memory too, and some expert guides know how to traverse their network of knowledge and know-how in such a way that a lot happens beyond the seemingly simple tasks set out.

In this way, a terrific vernacular pedagogue shares something very personal: personal it how it was acquired, personal in how it is organized, personal in how it is shared.

Why does vernacular pedagogy matter?

Today the liberal arts education is under fire. Many call for something that prepares young people for jobs and careers, rather than merely making them "well-rounded individuals" (which itself sounds pretty mechanical).

Reflecting on it in this way, vernacular pedagogy actually seems like a good model for some excellent things you'd expect from a liberal arts education. Vernacular pedagogy offers a stimulus to do something, begins a lifelong journey of revisiting some exciting and important issues, makes learning deeply personal, and begins a long task of becoming the kind of education that never ends.

  --Edward R. O'Neill

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Lecturing, Like Teaching, Is a Practical Art.


Practical Arts

There are many facts and principles that are relevant to cooking.

  • The way gluten works in dough to form something that is chewy or tender.
  • The various temperatures at which meat must be cooked to be tasty or safe.
  • Etc.

And you can know many such things and still be just a terrible cook.

In a practical art, you must actually do something. And the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating.

You can't just know some facts and principles: you must marshall the facts and apply the principles in a particular task, and you must know whether what's in front of you is rare, well-done or burnt beyond rescue.

Teaching Is a Practical Art.

The teacher must teach this lesson and then that one, this topic and that one, this student and that one.

There's no shortage of theories of teaching and learning. They can be found in:

  • instructional design,
  • educational psychology,
  • cognitive psychology,
  • curriculum design,
  • etc.

But a practical art is not applied theories: it is knowledge used. (And this is why arts education probably has more to say about teaching the practical arts than theories do: arts are not just ideas--they're applied.)

So what does a teacher actually do? And how do we help her do it?

Practical Arts Connect Instances to Types.

One of my key ideas about teaching as a practical art is: the central distinction in any practice (as opposed to theory) is type vs. instance.

For those of you who are not philosophy nerds: the letter "y" is a type, and every single letter y, whether it's hand-written or typeset and printed in ink or glowing on a screen is an instance of that type.

  • Every practitioner is constantly asking herself: "Is what I'm looking at or doing an instance of Type X--or not?"
    • Is the steak I'm looking at rare or medium?
    • Has the gluten set up in this dough to make it chewy?
    • Have I stirred this batter too much and made it tough, not tender?


  • Is what I need to teach today a fact, rule or procedure?
  • Is the student behavior I'm seeing a result of lack of motivation, lack of prior knowledge of the topic, lack of doing the homework--or something else?

A Good Lecture Is Organized as Instances of a Type.

As education goes, so goes the lecture. Indeed, I am beginning to think the lecture is a very fine microcosm for so many facets of education, that one could begin and end with the lecture and still get a lot said and done.

That said, the type/instance distinction should be the central organizing principle of lecturing.

  • A big chunk of what we do in teaching is: to present abstract types through typical instances.
    • We start with the clearest, most prototypical instance. Only then should we introduce the abstract or general type--the rule, concept, procedure, etc.
  • Yes, we teach concepts and procedures and problem-solving and cognitive strategies. But the type-instance relation dominates over all these.
    • A concrete instance is the best way to present new information.

Why are concrete details so appealing? Shouldn't we start with a clear generality?


Dale Was Right--But Not Like People Think.

Dale's "Cone of Experience" is often trotted out to discuss instructional media--and to recommend hands-on activities over the mere reading of words off a page.

But people have forgotten what Dale was writing about.

  • Dale was trying to conceptualize various degrees of remove from concrete immediate experience to various kinds of abstractions.
  • Dale believed that what was more immediate was more striking and engaging, and anything derivative becomes increasingly pallid.

One can object to this as Platonism, but as a rule-of-thumb, there is something to Dale's idea.

Even if we admit that in a lecture or essay we are still using symbols called words to talk about an imaginary situation, an imagined situation described in detail can still be more engaging than words referring to pure abstractions. (Have you ever read a good novel? Those symbols can be pretty engaging.)

  • Compare the following two statements of the same idea.

    • e = mc2
    • If you squeeze a piece of plutonium hard enough, the physical matter in it will turn into energy--so much energy that 2.2 pounds of plutonium will produce the same size explosion as 21 thousand tons of TNT.

The latter is expressed in symbols called words--but it is considerably more compelling than Einstein's famous formula.

How To Lecture: A Suggestion

A clear pathway for organizing lectures would work like this.

  • Start with a clear and interesting instance of the topic.
    • Try to make that instance striking or surprising in some way--something that diverges from common sense.
    • Avoid introducing technical vocabulary before you have described the instance in ordinary language that non-experts can follow.
  • Only then introduce the general type of which you've given a striking instance.
    • Present this general type as clearly and simply as you can.
  • Revisit your clear & striking instance, and 'process it' into the chunks of your abstraction.
    • This is a bit easier if your initial instance is sequenced somehow to match the abstraction--for instance that each big piece of it or major player aligns neatly with a key concept in the abstraction.
  • Continue with a series of increasingly complex or ramified instances.
    • Alternate between interesting details and clear abstractions.
    • It is best to add complexity to your abstractions no more than one or two elements at a time: too many complications will prevent the listener from following.

In short:

  • Begin by interesting your audience in a fascinating and puzzling problem. The form here is a detailed story, a kind of mystery, about a problem--and its surprising solution.

How To Lecture Poorly

This suggests that lectures can fail to help the learner in a few ways.

  • Some poor lectures start at the level of abstraction and technical vocabulary and stay there too long. If the listener has no idea what the abstractions point to, it will be devilishly hard to process what's being said.
  • Another sort of poor lecture presents many details without saying what they're about or how they're related: many instances without any clear type. The listener wants to shout: "This is an example of what?"
  • Yet another type of poor lecture tries to get the student to solve a detailed problem she can't possibly

And if you want to see many instances of lecturing poorly, just look at some of the video lectures which seem to be the mainstay of MOOC's these days. (You'll also see some good lecturing, too--but you'll have to look hard for it.)

--Edward R. O'Neill

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What Style Is Best Suited to the Lecture?

Bashing 'The Lecture.'

Lately, everyone in higher ed seems to have some axe to grind about The Lecture.

  • Many are against the lecture.

  • Some are fine with the lecture: they just want it online rather than face-to-face.

  • Some want the lecture front-loaded and abbreviated.

  • Still others want the lecture captured--taped, watched-on-demand, put in a tin can, in single-size servings, and perhaps even wrestled to the ground.

Pity the lecture: more sinned against than sinning.

But do we even know what a lecture is? Don't different lecturers in fact do different things?

(Sometimes I think all debates are started by closet monists--those who thing All Is One, because if you are a pluralist, and you accept that x contains variety within itself, you really don't get enmeshed in some pretty silly statements.)

  • Isn't it rather foolish to think of the lecture as one thing?

  • Does the lecture simply "deliver information"--like Domino's 'delivers' pizza?

  • Is anyone generically against the book or the essay? Yes, people may be against the tweet or the Powerpoint, but there I have more sympathy.

It's like being against bottles--because some contain unhealthy stuff.

Against such facile assumptions, it should be a given that: a lecture can do many things.

  • Orient and preview. Think of a tour guide. 'We are here, and we're going there.'

  • Demonstrate how to do something--or how not to. 'Watch me do this, step by step.'

Doubtless there are many other things a lecture can do, but orientation and demonstration are probably central to lecturing.

This doesn't even yet get at: what a good lecture is or does. But we can get partway there by asking What style is best suited to the lecture?

The Classic Style.

One very nice framework for thinking about verbal style is the one offered by Thomas & Turner in Clear and Simple as the Truth.

Thomas and Turner outline a classic style, which they differentiate from a number of other styles, the two most important being: the practical style and the plain style.

  • The classic style pretends not to make an argument. It hides its argument under the guise of 'showing.' The writer seems only to present a clear sequence of descriptions. But the descriptions and the sequence are carefully arranged to bring the reader to the conclusion the writer plans out in advance.

    • Descartes' Meditations would be a canonical example. Descartes wants to make an argument about knowldge and introspection, but he does it by describing himself sitting by the fire over a series of evenings.

    • Indeed, Descartes all but invents the classic style, because he needs to assume that, in contrast to arcane scholastic mysteries, divine revelation or mere belief, reasoning and observation alone are needed to gain access to unshakeable truth, and he cannot prove this--it's unprovable--so he must instead build the assumption into his style.

  • By contrast, the practical style presents a professional discussing how to solve a technical problem with other professionals. The practical style is a report rather than an essay. It explicitly argues where the classic style feigns merely to show.

  • The classic style is also at one degree of remove from the plain style--which aims to set forth a basic or common understanding. "When I was a child, I spake as a child." The classic style, by contrast, assumes that common knowledge is not worth communicating: it's already known.

    • Therefore, the classic style concentrates on things that are surprising. The classic style even has a characteristic gesture of taking a common expression and twisting it slightly to produce an arresting insight--like an epigram.

    • "The truth is rarely pure and never simple" is both an instance of the classic style and one of the assumptions behind it.

Why We Have So Few 'Public Intellectuals.'

Now if you ask yourself "Which style do scholars write in?" you come to the sad conclusion that scholars write in the practical style: they debate about professional squabbles and quandaries, and they urge their fellow professionals to view and do things this way, rather than that.

Little wonder it is so hard for undergraduates (and even many graduate students) to enter into scholarly debates. The prose practically screams out "for professionals only--do not enter!" And many are content to walk away.

This explains why we have so few 'public intellectuals.' Scholars can't speak to a wide audience, because they are entirely trained to argue technical matters with other professionals. Scholars are professionals first and members of the public second--or third or fourth.

It is a sociological fact (yet open to inspection to anyone who cares to see) that the harder it is to enter a profession, the more one gives up and the less one gains, the more strongly one is yoked to one's identity as a professional.

Law and business degrees take less time to earn than Ph.D.'s, and the former professions pay better: the lawyer or MBA can afford hobbies; the professor, on the other hand, must needs be a professor first, foremost and always. Being a professor is more like a scar than a hat: you cannot doff it at will.

But this frame allows us to see why so much academic work seems so irrelevant--both to students and to the wider public. Scholarship is simply not written to be read by anyone but experts. And this means that scholars largely don't learn how to write or speak to be understood--not even by undergraduates. (Any undergrad can understand what Descartes says: it's what he means that's challenging.)

The Lecture as Collateral Damage.

Hence the lecture becomes impoverished, because the lecture should be in the classic style but can't be. All of which leads to some sad contradictions.

  • In the first two years of college, students often read texts in the classic style--and yet they are asked to write in a scholarly mode which is far closer to the practical style. There is a mismatch here: 'read something like this but don't write that way.' (The students aren't encouraged to write in the classic style largely because most professors can't.)

  • Thus, lectures should be at least partly in the classic style.

    • If you are orienting students towards something they do not already know, then they are not yet experts, not yet fellow professionals, and you cannot reasonably speak to them in the practical style--as you'd address fellow professionals.

    • So at some point, you must likely begin by orienting students towards the discipline and the subject matter using the classic style.

    • Lectures may descend into the practical style--'solve this kind of problem using this technique, and here I'll demonstrate it'--but it is the classic style which is best geared to engaging non-experts in something interesting and complex.

The fact that so few lectures avail themselves of the classic style only shows that we have failed to train scholars to speak or write in more than one style. Stylistic facility should be one of the main learning outcomes for graduate school--at least if we want our scholars to be understood, which I sometimes doubt. (Economists are a different matter: they clearly do not wish to be understood, because if they were understood, we would likely take them somewhere quiet and punch them.)

And if you doubt what I have said, I propose you perform a simple test. Go back and read some Descartes. Then watch one of the many video lectures now flooding the interwebs in things called "MOOC's." I think you will find you agree with me.

Lectures may be spoken but that is a far cry from being understood.


--Edward R. O'Neill