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Easy to Teach isn’t Easy to Learn

This is another post that comes under the category of Pedagogies for an Information-Abundant Learning Environments.  It was just after my second three-hour presentation today, in Queensbury, New York.  I have one more to go, early evening, with community folks.  I do this fairly often, offering to present a 45-minute session for parents and community.  It’s an important message for them to hear, and I’ll get anywhere from four to a hundred people showing up.

Anyway, Gwen Brilling came up to me just after my presentation and said that she wanted to tell me a story.  She said that although she is fairly close to retirement, she has been very interested in computers and the Internet, attending as many staff developments as she could.  She said, though, that her pattern was to learn something, and then, without using it right away, she would forget how to do it.

So, a few weeks ago she got her son, a Junior at SUNY, to show her how to run a particular program, and she sat their ready, with pencil and paper in hand.  Her son said, “Mom!  What are those for?”

She told him that she was going to take notes and he said, “Mom!  Put that away.”

So they went through the program in a number of ways, and basically played with it, and she said that her perceptions of technology changed dramatically that day.  She said that she had always tried to write down the steps and learn the steps, rather than just running the program.  She said that it was her tendency to take notes, that it was the way she’d always learned.  But now, she just plays (or works) the program until it helps her do what she needs to do.

It seems to me that breaking something down into steps and teaching the steps makes it easy to teach something — a way to explain it.  But it is difficult and probably not productive to lists steps when working in most information-abundant information environments.  There is always more than one way to solve the problem and even more aspects of the problem that need to be factored in.

I think that it’s important for us to model this, as staff developers.  Pull up a program from time to time that you don’t use regularly.  Let the teachers see you playing with the program to get it to do what you need it to do.  Model that learning happens to a mind at play.

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  • http://ed421.com Stephanie Sandifer


    This story really reflects my personal belief about learning how to use technology. Many years ago when I was an undergraduate studying graphic design, my professor loaded a very early version (either version 1 or 2) of Photoshop onto one of the computers in our lab. He didn’t have the manual. He called me over to the computer and told me to check out this new program. I sat down and played. And played.

    Years later, when someone looking over my shoulder asked me how I learned so much about Photoshop — specifically wanting to know what book I read or what class I took — I said I just played around with the software until I knew what it could do.

    Several years ago when I had the opportunity to teach Photoshop in one of my classes, my approach to teaching it was two-fold. To satisfy the administrators who wanted to see lesson plans and teaching materials, I put together step-by-step guides and provided students with access to video tutorials and a variety of “best of Photoshop” books. However, in the privacy of our classroom, when no one was looking, I simply instructed the students to “push every button and click on every menu item until you know what everything does!” Of course I went around the room from student to student helping them and we did do some step-by-step activities to learn specific uses of Photoshop as they became more experienced with it, but in the initial learning phase I encouraged the students to just explore and discover the program on their own — just like I had done when I first learned how to use it many years earlier.

    I think the “explore and discover” method can be very effective when it comes to learning new technology, and I agree that we should model this approach to our teachers.

  • http://pesdtechnology.blogspot.com John Kain

    David, thank you for validating what I have been saying for years to teachers in tech trainings: “Please stop taking notes and just explore the (software program, Web 2.0 tool, etc.)! If you’re taking notes, the best thing that’s happening is that it’s not helping you learn, and the worst thing is that it’s preventing you from learning.” I will use your post in my trainings this summer.

  • http://bryant.mysdhc.org/teacher/0527bliss/ Chan

    I have tried to get the pencil and paper lists out of my training. The last training I gave I created a note taking wiki for the participants to use to record notes ideas and thoughts about the training. Some still wanted to write down the notes on paper and then transcribe to the wiki.
    The wiki I created was also a way for the teachers to “play” with technology but many felt that using it just to take notes was a waste of time and I’m sure that if they thought they were playing then that would be even more of a waste of time. This mindset will be very hard to get over.

  • http://www.patriciaellencone.blogspot.com Patricia Cone

    OK OK – play is good. However for those of us who need to use our kinesthetic sense to reinforce with what we are playing, note taking is an ok way to do it. Sometimes I play and then I forget – and I feel frustrated. I may never look at my notes ever again, but I will probably remember what I just did as it is etched into more than one neural pathway.

    • http://2cents.davidwarlick.com Dave

      I think there is a lot to what you are saying, and it probably has to do with learning styles. I can’t remember a joke unless I tell it to someone within five minutes of hearing it. Writing something down helps.

      At the same time, I wonder if it’s the complexity that comes with abundant information environments that demands less of a sequential, step-by-step approach and more of an intuitive feeling your way in process. I wonder if growing up playing video games helps with this.

  • http://tracevidence.edublogs.org/ T Gidinski

    This is how I’ve learned anything about computers from day one. Back in the “commodore 64″ days, it was more fun for me to hack into a games’ code and change things to see what would happen than it was to play the actual games.

    However, why are so many people, especially adults, afraid of learning this way? I’ve heard all the excuses, the main one being “I just don’t have the time or the need to learn this stuff.”

    This has led me to create a new post on my own beginning blog. Thanks for the insight, David!

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  • Stephanie Patten Wrobleski

    Thank you for your presentation to Queensbury teachers. I have to say that I learned more than I had thought I would. As a teacher of students in need of remediation in English, I found your information exciting and useful. I plan to use many of the ideas in my classroom next year.

    Thank you again,
    Stephanie Wrobleski

  • http://exploratorylearner.blogspot.com/ Bud Deihl


    I enjoyed your thoughtful post. I agree with you and with many of the people who responded, as I live in both worlds; I experiment and I take notes. I do experiment and poke around to find what I need and after years of this approach, I’ve learned to build on anticipated actions based on other software experiences. However, this occasionally gets me into trouble, as the “norm” or expected action is sometimes not the chosen method in particular software.

    You’ve made me reflect on my own teaching and I realize a transition in my teaching style over the past couple years. I have always provided notes with step by step instructions for use both during and after the class. For some time now, I’ve been providing the notes, but my classes are becoming a conversation about teaching and/or the application of technologies to meet (usually educational) objectives. As you point out, “There is always more than one way to solve the problem and even more aspects of the problem that need to be factored in.” Allowing people to work experimentally helps them discover multiple options and through regular use, they will discover good reasons for choosing a different path to achieve what appears to be the same end.

    Another opportunity that is often overlooked is the use of technologies to achieve something for which they were not designed. The name of the game is to keep and open mind and see what the technologies can do for you.

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  • http://successfulteaching.blogspot.com Pat

    For my special ed students, they could copy the steps all day long and I could explain the steps for weeks but unless they actually do the steps and practice them, the steps mean nothing to them. When pairing the steps with the actual doing, they seem to retain and understand what they are doing. Great post!

  • http://dakinane.wordpress.com David

    Thank you for posting this. I am always telling my technophobic colleagues to put the pen and pencil away and get their hands dirty by playing. The playing part seems to be the most challenging aspect of my request, perhaps the crutch of the pencil is too! It seems to me that reluctant teachers who are busy just want to know how to do the job rather than invest the time in learning through play. It is a shame that they can not see the irony in that as they love to let the children learn through play. Do they regard play as a childish activity?

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  • Pat R.

    As a student, I have often heard the instructor say, ‘Now, put down your pens and just listen.’ Your story reminded me of how we can become creatures of habit with jotting down all of the details, conferring with our peers re: missing information, while at the same time possibly overlooking the main points of the session. This brings to mind the importance of determining what truly constitutes new learning: the ability to apply the information in a relevant manner, versus the ability to dictate the facts. In all areas, it appears that the use of sensible application holds utmost value in order to validate the retention of knowledge.

  • http://www.teachersaqtrisk.com Elona Hartjes

    My experience is similar to Gwen’s. I too took notes for a long time when learning new programs until I saw how the teenagers I teach learn to use new programs. They just dive in and keep trying until it works for them. They don’t seem to think in terms of mistakes. They seem to think that that’s not the result they wanted so they just keep trying.

    That realization was very liberating and has made the whole thing less stressful and gave me the confidence to set up a class blog and use all kinds of digital technology in the classroom because the students and I can learn together as a team.

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