08 January 2013

The Invisible Teacher

I've often thought back to my own experiences as a student, and I keep coming to two related ideas: when I learned from a teacher it was almost never explicit, and the rest of my learning was (seemingly) independent.

Today some of my students were working on Lego Mindstorms programming. They were figuring out how to make it play a song of their making, using the tone generator. The book they were working from didn't provide a very good explanation as to how it worked, so the student asked for some help working it. As I helped, I thought, this is stuff I should make sure every student understands! But as I've reflected since then, I've come to the conclusion that it simply wouldn't work. If I came out and gave a little lesson about how the tone generator works and how you can translate your music knowledge to programming skills, very few would actually internalize it, if any. But those students that asked me about it today were primed and ready to hear it. I didn't plan on teaching it. They didn't need to know it to pass off the assignment. It just sort of happened.

So I came up with a title for a book I will never write. The Invisible Teacher: Prime them, and get out of the way. Well, out of sight, because you'll still be around, and they'll need you...

Is It the Flipped Classroom?
I've watched the flipped classroom model soar into popularity and then get dragged down by naysayers. The clever rhyming catch phrase they use is guide on the side rather than sage on the stage. Of course, that idea's been around since long before teachers started screencasting their PowerPoints. I can't help but love the imagery of a teacher standing in front of the classroom, almost standing in the way of their learning.

Something About Babies and Bath Water
On the other hand, I'm also picturing attempts at starting a lawnmower, motorcycle, or snowmobile (the three small-engine machines I have experience with). Explicit instruction may not always be the best, but sometimes there really isn't a better alternative. And it's not that you think they'll remember much of what you say, but one of these lessons might just kickstart the students' brains. Suddenly something will click. A student will make a connection between what the teacher just said and something they've witnessed.

I Like the Blended Model
Unlike the straight up flipped model—kids, go watch the movie and then I'll help with the homework—the blended model is, well, blended. It's not just watching the lecture as homework and the homework becomes classwork, it's all blended up to where students watch a clip here, do a tutorial there, and the teacher provides that live human support that credit card companies flaunt.

Project-Based Learning and Assessment
I described the blended model to some old friends of mine a few weeks ago, and one kindly asked the question we all ask: with pretty much everything you ever wanted to know available online, why do we need teachers at all? I wasn't surprised nor offended by the question, as I'd internally dealt with it before. As I said in the previous paragraph, one role the teacher plays is that of the live support. Sure, students can breeze through simple tutorials without any help at all, but simple tutorials provide very little learning and no feedback. What students need are challenging projects that cannot be assessed by a computer. A teacher needs to be there both to point students to the most important tools out there, challenge them to use them creatively, help them when they run into trouble, and assess whether they learned anything.

I have mixed feelings about Codecademy for this very reason. I like that it provides simple, small challenges that students can use to learn some code. The problem is that a computer program determines whether you've successfully passed. Clever programmers can create slightly sensible feedback, but it often crumbles and students stumble. Throw in a live teacher who has a decent idea what he/she is talking about, and you might have a solid program. Codecademy might pass you for creating an ugly web page with sound code, but a teacher can look at it and give more constructive feedback, more challenging and personal projects.

Of course, I'm saying this to be more of a goal for myself rather than describing what I already do.

The Invisible Teacher
Back to the topic, which is honestly an old one. People simply learn so much better when it's more independent exploration. When curiosity is piqued and that insatiable drive to devour all the available learning related to it, that is when learning is at its best. I picture a benevolent version of The Hunger Games where Katniss is in the forest just surviving, not really going anywhere, and the invisible teacher tells her where water might be, and if that doesn't move her, sends fireballs to get her on her feet. Then the invisible teacher drops mysterious packages her way to make sure she never gets stuck. The invisible teacher may even act as Peeta and invisibly protect her from as much harm as possible.

The invisible teacher is like Mr. Miyagi, giving what may seem to be meaningless exercises (although in this day and age they'd need to be a lot more fun) only for the students to find out later (during the same class) that these exercises have provided them with skills and knowledge to tackle the bigger problems, which aren't so straightforward.

Illustrator is one of my favorite programs, and it shows in the volume of vector graphic assignments I give my design students. In my perennial curriculum overhaul, this time around, I'm trying to eliminate explicit and boring tool practice, and instead give assignments that seem to be centered on a fun design problem, rather than a tool. Yet at the same time they do focus on specific tools in the software. The assignment that made me realize this is possible is the monster assignment. It was the first thing they ever did in Illustrator, and for all they knew, they were just making a monster. They created far more creative monsters than I imagined. I just showed them how to move, rotate, scale, and change the color of different pieces. They didn't realize I was showing them the selection tool, they only saw the issue of creating a funny monster. (Honestly it's one of the few things I'm really proud of this year.)

I primed them, and I got out of the way, and I've never seen better results.

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