Monday, March 7, 2011

How Do You Teach?

Yesterday in How Do You Learn?, Iris talked about her little friend Quinn and how he's managed to develop a style of learning that works for him despite of all the teaching he's received. As I read Iris' depiction of Quinn sharing that he was "Just, just, just so happy", I said to myself, "Yeah, learning is something that makes me happy too!"

I think I may be happiest when I'm learning and yet I can't remember ever being happy to be in school. Of course, as Iris pointed out, there's quite a difference between being taught and learning. In my experience, it's often the case that teachers focus more on teaching method than on learning method; it's the job of the student to adapt to the method of teaching, not vice versa. However, if you're is concerned about your students learning, it seems that it might be useful to adapt teaching methods to the learning styles of the students.

One might argue that this is unviable, that one cannot economically address each student's method of learning. However, I think the argument may be a red herring. In fact, although there may be subtle differences in styles of learning, the underlying method is pretty much the same for all of us, we learn through imitation, trial and repetition. We've been learning this way for millennia. It's only in the past few centuries that we seem to have lost sight of this in our formal methods of education.

We were setting up for our gig in Vegas and I asked Will how he'd learned to do so many things so well. He easily replied, "I'm an actor; I learn things by imitating them. People always wonder why actors seem so diversely skilled. It's because we just copy someone who has the skill."

For me, Will's statement was profound and sympathetic. I realized, "Shit, that's how I learn!"

I'd never put my finger on it (at least not so succinctly), but I learn quickly when I see examples and I'm hopelessly lost when reading descriptions. When picking up a new programming language, I don't purchase a book on software, but instead, find samples of working code. I've learned Dutch simply by listening to Iris talk with friends and family, picking up on patterns and then asking questions. Put a sheet of piano music in front of me and I'm lost, but play the tune for me and I've got it. Describe a writing technique and I may or may not get it, but show me some examples and I'm golden.

I then thought about my friend Jonathan who developed a chip that detects and blocks epileptic seizures. After being inundated with information on the brain, seizures, etc., he finally asked doctors to simply show him examples. Show me an electrical reading of a brain in a normal state and then one of it in seizure. That's all it took. Seeing examples of brains in "normal" states and then examples of brains experiencing seizures, he was able to figure the rest out.

Of course, all of us learn initially through imitation. We see others walking and we want to walk. We hear words and begin using them.

It's taken me years to realize this, but the primary reason I don't learn well in traditional classroom settings or by reading is ambiguity. Most teachers and writers of texts are sloppy with semantics, the result being that one could easily interpret what was said or written multiple ways. If you're not too creative and your default interpretation falls into the norm, then you've got no problem. However, if you read, "You can never pour too much water on the nuclear core." and think, "Did he mean, never poor too much water on the nuclear core! or there's no amount of water that would be too much?", well that's when the trouble begins.

At first, my solution to not being sure of what the teacher meant was to raise my hand and ask, "So, that means thus and such." However, teachers and students alike soon got tired of what was for them my simply repeating what had been said. "Duh, that's what she said, stupid." So, I abandoned questions for the solitude of ambiguity and as a result, started learning by looking at examples and imitating them.

The trial part of learning is important because it ensures that you've understood. In a classroom setting, trial may be as simple as repeating in your own words or as complex as carrying out an assigned task under the guidance of the teacher, receiving feedback as you go. Without trial, unless topics are presented in a manner that is semantically unambiguous, you just never know if you've really understood what was taught.

It's because of this that I'm fond of teaching methods that question rather than instruct. For example, if I were teaching someone the difference between swing-time and straight-time, I could say something like, "To play straight time, play an eighth-note pattern; to play swing, play something between an eighth-note pattern and a triplet-pattern dropping the second note of the triplet." Alternatively, I could play a straight-pattern and then a swing-pattern and ask what you heard. Were the two patterns the same or different? How were they different? If you were going to describe each, how would you go about it?

It's much easier for the teacher to confirm the assertions of the student, than for the student confirm the assertions of the teacher.

Once you've seen it and tried it, then you know you've understood it, but you don't have it yet. Fortunately, keeping what you've learned is the easiest part. All you need to do is repeat it (repeatedly). Repetition is the cement of learning. It will bond anything to your brain. However, it's indiscriminating. It doesn't care whether it's right or not, whether it works or not.

So, until you've tried it and confirmed that you've understood it, repetition isn't a great idea. Unfortunately, many kids get sent home with exercises that cause them to repeat methods that they haven't yet understood. For some it works (repetition is a great way to see patterns), but for many, it deeply entrenches something that will need to later be un-learned.

How Do You Teach?
Of course, there are many ways to teach. However, I've never encountered someone who can't learn through imitation, trial and repetition. So, thinking out loud I would say that, if you want to teach someone regardless of their learning style:
  1. Show an example and perhaps a counter example
  2. Ask questions about the examples that lead to understanding
  3. Have the students try it out under your supervision to ensure that they've understood. If they haven't, ask more questions
  4. Provide assignments that let them repeatedly apply what they've learned.

How will you teach?

Happy Monday,

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