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

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Experiencing Mastery, Backwards & One Step at a Time, with Julia Child.

Julia Child was terrific at teaching us how to cook, eat and live.

I have no monopoly on this insight.

But it's very enjoyable to be reminded not only how much a very effective and hard-working person can do in a very small space, but also how much Julia Child has to teach us about teaching and learning.

Not long ago, I stumbled across a little half-page essay by Child in a cooking magazine. It's a miracle of compression. In less than 650 words (about a half a page), Child:

  1. defines quiche,
  2. tantalizes us with a description of the dish,
  3. chronicles the dish's culinary rise and fall,
  4. whets our appetite for the dish,
  5. inspires us with a story of how make the dish more easily,
  6. gives a recipe for both the crust and the quiche.

All in eight paragraphs! How many of us could teach half as much in twice the space?

What's going on here? How does Child work this magic?

To start, Julia begins with the result, the end-product: its taste and smell and pleasures. Quiche smells good, and it's part of welcoming friends into your home. This is very motivating. You think: "I want to do that!"

Second, Julia makes the process easier by dropping out unnecessary or more-complicated steps. Her inspiring anecdote concerns an anxious neighbor who dread making the dough. Julia comforted the neighbor by advising her to skip that hard part: just buy a pre-bought crust. Who would be the wiser?

The effect was magical: the neighbor brimmed with excitement at her newfound ability.

We may call this "confidence," but learning experts call it self-efficacy: the feeling of 'I can do it!' Apparently, it doesn't necessarily come from experience. Some people just have more of that feeling. But "experiences of mastery" can boost that feeling of self-efficacy, hence preparing us for greater challenges.

That's what Julia did with her anxious neighbor: made the task simpler so the neighbor could experience a success and feel more confident to approach a bigger challenge. Julia was quite the psychologist!

Cooking is hard. It's a complex, multi-step, goal-oriented process. Changing the salt here changes the taste and texture there. Kneading more or less there, changing the temperature elswhere––each of these changes the end result. So you might have to go through the same process many, many times in order to get each step just right, otherwise the end result may be inedible.

It's difficult to do something without knowing where you're headed. And too much challenge overwhelms us. So these two strategies work very well: (1) emphasize the end result, the goal, and (2) simplify the complex process, in part by reducing the steps.

So are these two clever methods something that applies only to cooking? Hell no!

There are simple names for these methods. The first is sometimes called reverse-engineering. You take the end result and you take it apart to see how the pieces fit together.

The second is an old educational method called (depending on the context) chunking or scaffolding.

  • The idea of chunking is simply: the average person's memory only holds so much information. So in order to hold a long string of info, break it into smaller bits. We do this all the time when we separate phone numbers into three- and four-digit chunks.
  • The idea of scaffolding is simply to help the learner by building a supportive structure around him––like the scaffolds built around a building to work on it as it's being assembled.
    • You give someone pre-assembled bits of the work, so the work is easier, and then over time the learner is able to do the more complex task.

If you teach or train, you can apply the same methods to any complex, multi-step, goal-oriented process.

  • Say you want students to learn to write solid argumentative prose.
    • You might start by asking them to take some apart. Identify the argument, the evidence, the reasoning. Reverse-engineer what good writing is.
    • Then you might give the students the argument and have them support it with evidence and reasoning. Or give them the argument and a pile of evidence and have them pick which evidence supports and which undermines the argument.
  • You can do the same thing with scientific experimentation.
    • You might start by giving students a finished scientific paper supporting a conclusion based on hypothesis-testing. Working backwards, you can ask the students to explain why this particular experimental method was used, why another one would not have worked.
    • Or you can give the students the experiment to run so they can collect the data, or give them the hypothesis and the data and ask them to analyze the data to see if it supports the hypothesis or not.

In short, Julia Child was certainly a miraculously gifted teacher. And like all gifted people, she worked tremendously hard. But her gifts and hard work follow underlying principles. And one of the inspiring things about Julia Child is how much we can learn from her about teaching. Namely:

Any complex, multi-step, goal-oriented process:

(1) can be practiced forwards or backwards––and should be–– (2) can be practiced from any step or 'moment' in the process to the next––and should be so practiced, e.g., by providing pre-fabricated materials for each step in the process and asking the learner to use them so as to lighten the burden of learning.

Learning is hard.

  • Learning anything complex is harder.
  • Learning a multi-step process is hard.
  • Orienting all your thoughts and behavior towards one goal is hard.
  • Doing them all together is very, very challenging.

Julia Child knew how to lower the difficulty level while keeping us stimulated by the excitement and challenge of a meaningful goal. And she does this the same way we should: by starting from the end, working backwards, and making the steps easier by simplifying them or practicing them separately.

––Edward R. O'Neill

Monday, April 7, 2014

Our 'Two Cultures'

Many years ago, a very thoughtful man wrote about "two cultures." The man was C. P. Snow, a Cambridge intellectual, and the two cultures were: scientific and humanistic.

It was a very good idea, a very nice distinction, and it was very influential, and people still talk about it.

But Snow was talking about a divide within intellectual culture, and the most important divide we must come to grips with today is: between intellectuals and practical people. Students and 'experts' often demand that higher education be "practical," and intellectuals take offense, because it rubs them the wrong way to hear that what they have devoted their lives to is not valuable. (Wouldn't you feel the same way?)

So intellectuals focus on what they feel is lofty and valuable and important, and practical people worry about jobs and skills, making and selling things and delivering services––all things intellectuals also need to live. But a good rift makes people forget what they have in common, and that's what this rift between intellectuals and practical people does.

Intellectuals are concerned with ideas, and practical people do things. Yes, being concerned with ideas means doing things: writing and researching and lecturing––and teaching. It's not that "those who can't do teach," but rather: that those who teach do not perceive their professional doing's as teaching; they rather see it as a heap of ideas, facts, principles, theories, and other similar abstractions.

And therein lies the rub.

Ideas are abstract. Actions are concrete. "Doing things" aren't even the same as "actions," because words that name actions are mere descriptions. The words "baking a cake" name an action: they don't get any cake baked.

Those concerned most with ideas often favor them over practical concerns. There really is some substance to the image of the 'absent-minded professor': to intellectuals, many practical details are just not as interesting or meaningful as ideas. But many of the professionals who work with professors find ourselves more on the practical side of the divide. Professors appreciate our help getting things done, but when what we do extends into their idea-domain, things get tricky. And we instructional technologists and designers and ed tech folk experience this daily.

And so practical matters are hard to grasp intellectually exactly because they aren't ideas, and they aren't susceptible to many intellectual (which is to say: abstract) approaches.

Take the law of universal gravitation. It's not in this room, nor on the planet Mars. It's a law, not a thing. The law may govern things (matter, to be exact), but the law isn't itself matter––and it would be madness to think so.

And the same for "social solidarity": sociologists talk about it and measure it, but you can't hold it in your hand. Likewise "meaning" and "reason" and "textuality," and all kinds of other abstractions whose importance we can admit without wishing they were food or water or sunshine.

Actions, like other things, exist in time and space: this thing is to the right or left of that, and I put one foot down first and the other foot down next. Immanuel Kant constructed an astonishing theory about time and space––but reading it won't help you find your keys or walk without falling down, for both of those are doings and not ideas. The idea of walking is subtle and complex––have you ever read anything about kinesiology?––but actually walking is nothing when done right, everything when done wrong.

Yes, matter may be arranged to express and to show and to prove an idea: in letters and numbers and demonstrations and experiments. But those are things and actions subordinated to an idea and arranged beautifully to express that idea. And it is a very special skill to express the abstract in the concrete. Great artists do it. It would be ungrateful to ask ordinary people, even the most thoughtful intellectuals, to approach that level of skill. We have some such expectations, and we're often disappointed, but we also tend not to recognize how high our expectations have been.

Exactly part of becoming an intellectual is: learning to subordinate practical matters entirely to ideas. If you ever went to graduate school, even for a professional pursuit, you likely remember the wrenching process of learning the procedures and norms of your discipline. You only get the ideas by doing things in a very specific way: using words this way and not that, footnoting like this, researching like that.

It's like those scenes in the musical My Fair Lady (or the play Pygmalion from which the musical is derived) in which Eliza must learn to speak properly. Even those who went to college, however briefly, may remember the odd feeling of the persnickety finickiness of college professors, they way they seemed to rephrase our thoughts in slightly different words––oh but those little differences seemed to matter so much! It was like treading on eggshells.

So intellectuals teach. And they believe and feel that they're teaching abstract ideas. And so all the practical matters of teaching often seem just beneath them––and they are: in the sense that practical matters are of a completely different order from ideas.

And yet teaching and learning are completely practical. Teaching and learning take place in time and space. The first day of classes is September 14th. English 216 meets on LC 114 Mondays from 11 to noon. Your paper is due next Thursday in my mailbox by 5 pm.

And teaching at its basis is instructions: do this, then that, in this order. If you can't give clear instructions, you may teach well or poorly, but no one may show up to class. It's not that everything can be reduced to a set of procedures, but if I don't know how to write a paper, I can't show you what I've learned about Descartes.

Instructions and procedures, like so many things in education, are, in a very rich and profound sense, a platform for knowledge, not the knowledge itself––just as words are a platform for poetry, and poetry a platform for feelings and thoughts and experiences and reflections and things.

That's aesthetic: how things are arranged to point at once both towards and beyond themselves, to become gestures whose import we don't just think but also feel and sense in very powerful ways. At that far end of things, teaching is indeed an art: an art of doing and instructing and arranging actions and experiences.

But here and now, at the near end of things, teaching and learning are like, say, project management. And "like" is the key relation here, because practical matters are connected by relations of similitude, by analogy. Baking a chocolate cake is like baking a lemon cake. And baking a cake is like baking biscuits––but different in crucial ways. And baking biscuits is like baking cookies, but again different, etc.

Practical matters are concrete doing's, but they are ordered in relations of likeness, with typical and prototypical instances, and types emerging from the instances: a butter cake, an angel cake, a biscuit, a scone, a muffin.

In the domain of ideas, analogies are risky and suspect: they can work or fail, and much of the domain of logic arose very long ago to prevent analogies from going to far.

And that, in a sense, is how science and the humanities, logic and poetry, parted ways––so that a couple thousand years later C. P. Snow could write about the two cultures.

Today our leap across the divide is a trickier move: connecting abstract ideas and concrete actions. For we who work in education must take all our abstractions and carry them to those who need them: putting one foot in front of the other and hoping we can be graceful enough in ordinary things to get as close as we can to making helping others learn into something very near to art.

––Edward R. O'Neill