Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Effective Teaching

Originally posted on August 16, 2017

I am proposing experiential approaches, learning by doing. A colleague a few years ago called my attention to this statement in the New York Times: “It doesn’t work if it’s not moving,” said Mr. Rodenbeck, the head of Stamen Design, a San Francisco studio that Google, Facebook and Microsoft have all used for help in turning fast-paced digital information into easily understood images. “It doesn’t work if you can’t touch it.”
My friend continued: Funny but the same can be said about action methods applied to life’s conflicts and challenges. Lecturing and even discussion groups about important issues we know are inferior to putting things into action and seeing them. Why hasn’t this caught on?
Action methods should be used: Problems are still dealt with through discussion. Of course it is uncomfortable to show rather than tell but there are warm ups for that. Giving a lecture using an empty chair and asking people to imagine what kind of thoughts and feelings a mother facing the loss of a child would have could so much enrich a lecture on symptoms of grief for example. Just a little reflection on Mr Rodenbeck’s statement above about facts ( digital information) vs images (seeing, touching, feeling).

As I read my friend’s essay and my response, I decided to post it. There are a number of resistances to experiential learning:

One resistance is the presence of someone or something that acts as an authority. It’s not a matter of giving an answer. The answer, such as it is, needs to be felt, and filtered through the body feelings, about which there is no control by the teacher. This shifts the role of the teacher as a source of information to being more of a swimming teacher—less control, more art.
Another resistance is that for some people, final answers don’t exist. Precise final answers continually need adjustment, even if only by a tiny bit. Skill learning is a constantly adjustable process.
Cybernetics—a strategy of systematic self-correction—is part of it, frequent often subliminal, often overt self-correction based on feedback. Instructors can set up the circumstances, but not ensure the process. There are different talents for different skills. It’s elusive and final exams don’t really test for it. Some folks have a faster or slower learning curve.

Part of cybernetics is intentionally or semi-intentionally doing it wrong or being willing to let it be mistaken, in order to get feedback. This is now a recognized principle in some higher learning circles but is generally not appreciated especially in basic learning, where it is less applicable. Although simple arithmetical calculations off exact numbers, this does not apply in dealing with more complex and chaotic systems such as human affairs.

Teachers thus feel out of control. Learning by doing requires risk-taking, being wrong, laughing at oneself, forgiving oneself, trying again, not worrying about proving one’s knowledge and competence each time, trusting the process. Most people raised in the 20th century or people -trained by people raised in the 20th century don’t get this.

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