Explaining the hard stuff – 10 tips

We’re spending time today at my office discussing how to explain or present difficult/complex content. A colleague discovered this gem on the topic by Dr. Deborah Mowshowitz, Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia University.

Having taught complex subject matter going on 8 years, I have a grip on all of these to one degree or another but am weaker in a few and it’s wonderful to see them listed out. Dr. Mowshowitz knows her stuff and it’s a great review or primer if you’re new to teaching hard stuff. Some highlights:

1. Improving Clarity: Avoid pronouns and use nouns instead

2. If you don’t know the answer, admit it, stop, look it up if possible or get back to them.

3. Headline what you’re saying

4. Be on the look out to circumvent sources of confusion and proactively draw attention to/address them

5. Remember to think at their level & consider keeping things simpler, general if needed

6. Probe first, to pinpoint what students don’t understand

7. Chunk it in small bites then don’t continue until A) you’re sure they understand what you explained B) they need the rest

8. Don’t start too far back with the background material

9. Don’t assume too much – it’s not as obvious to them (similar to #5)

10. Figure out what they don’t know by collecting questions, “the old card trick” and asking questions (more relevant for teaching in a physical classroom)

I would add from my experience the following which also helps me a bunch:

  • Connect with relateable analogies (so know your target audience/students) & personal stories
  • Slow it down
  • Common words
  • Repeat
  • Formative assessments
  • Visual if possible
  • Make them teach it back to you
  • Application assignment

Gamification –> natural dopamine –> learning engagement

From the American Psychological Association:

“…Robinson likes to speculate about crafty real-world manipulation of natural dopamine mechanisms. One idea she has: “Designing classroom activities that may increase dopamine signaling, such as unexpected rewards along the way, may enhance the desire to perform well during and after learning. This could lead to better performance of learned tasks.

Yep. An understanding of dopamine in this context is so interesting. The trick is understanding gamification and learning well enough to design the experience in a way that treads lightly on potentially manipulative behaviorism hacks (hedonic treadmill, anyone?), and instead perhaps leans hard on a healthy injection of cognitivism (hi, intrinsic rewards.)

MOOCs … learner, are you hooked?

Being enrolled in one or two MOOCs at any given time for quite a while now (& even participating here and there! 😉 I can’t help but notice big differences among them in teaching style, design, organization and so on.

Some really stand out, others disappoint. Some are weak or strong on lighting and audio; some need more energy and others don’t; some hook you fairly well while others bore; some are clever yet others feel like a sit-down talking-to … & how does a sit-down talking-to feel as a distance learner? (The answer is that it feels exceptionally lame and boring, and you’d rather claw your eyeballs out and run away screaming.)

Other interesting things include how varying levels of resource utilization such wikis, etc. and communications. Some are exceptional about emailing, in some feel like the teacher is conversational and knows or cares about you.

apple1997As a whole, online, free learning requires an extra motivation boost. Hopefully these courses compel learners to stick with them.

I think we’ll see such courses evolve to be so polished we’ll eventually look back and view these like we now do primitive pages of the internet from the mid 90′s. Does this webpage for Apple lure you in?

Broadly speaking, does it not make sense that educational organizations in the online space will promote as presenter the most polished and engaging teachers? Perhaps other teachers will focus less on presenting and more on mentoring and facilitating community guidance. Will creative content developers, perhaps combined as instructional designers, not be increasingly in demand as co-developers to give the needed pizazz?

TED-Ed may be suited for “basic” material but reflecting on these four MOOCS don’t we all really want learnings more like it, that fascinate and engage us and help us want to come back for more? There must inevitably be an educational free-market drive that will squeeze interesting content and interactivity up the chain even into advanced topics we’d never believe today would be “sexied up”.


Mental barriers & task-shifting education

Last night while teaching a class I solicited thoughts on obstacles to applying what was being taught. It was a complex topic of artificial intelligence and programming in financial markets, so I expected ideas like “overwhelmed” “laziness” “looking for an easier way”. But interestingly one mentioned what I consider an under-discussed elephant in the (class) room: mental health issues. At best, for all our tech glitz, savvy methods, persuasive words and students’ motivation, ambition and work-ethic… how often do we not achieve sufficient learning lift-off because emotional or mental problems obstruct the way?

Image Psychiatrist Vikram Patel, Professor of International Mental Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, describes a process of task-shifting mental health in lower income countries – where often everyday people are not finding relief from debilitating depression and postpartum, anxiety, and so on. Task-shifting is A process of task delegation from doctors to nurses; and from nurses to other less specialized lay health workers. Task shifting improves healthcare coverage by making more efficient use of the human resources. (WHO, Jan 2008). Where mental health workers and medicine are scarce, he describes shifting tasks to lay people who are trained for specific purposes, reducing cost and increasing accessibility. This has improved the rate of mental health interventions in various areas around the world. His service delivery model is called SUNDAR (Hindi for “attractive”):

Simplify the message/communication
UNpack the treatment/service
Deliver it where people are
Affordable and available human resources
Reallocate specialists to train and supervise

Imagine empowering local people – assisted by technology and social communication – to understand core mental health issues, learn the basics of critical treatment strategies and deliver the solutions to their neighbors, while the rare doctor or professional is freed to oversee and train the operation.

How could this delivery model be applied to education with a novel twist on MOOCs and other trends we are observing? (apropos for a year now I myself have yet to finish a Coursera/other MOOC because I am busy, lazy … and at times my coping skills are overwhelmed with something or another that’s serious) And better, could we kill two birds with one stone by incorporating simple social solutions to psychological issues impeding learning?

Codeacademy debuts after-school program to teach programming

Continuing the conversation of free ed tech resources, we’ve seen Codeacademy recently debut an actual after-school program to teach programming. Fascinating!

For the un-initiated, Codeacademy is a web-based programming tutorial designed to teach JavaScript, HTML, CSS, JQuery and Python. For free. And oh so slick. Clean landing page (fascinatingly the designer describes how he created their landing page in one hour here,) interactive coding lessons sent weekly, simple calls to action, excellent social media integration… and Codeacademy nails gamifying and using social game layers. Instructional designersl: drool.

After School Programming Clubs is a packaging innovation more than anything else. It takes the core Codecademy software learning tools and packages them up so that students and teachers can organize after school programming clubs. Your email, your school = they send you a kit. Easy. What a great way to focus after-school group activities on some foundational STEM learning.