Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Suck It And See

Kia ora tātou – Hello EveryoneCatriona, playing a tune on a cardboard tube.
When Catriona was very little, she found comfort in a little bag of sweets.
She rarely ate them, but would find pleasure in knowing they were there.
She'd pick one from the bag, suck on it for a few seconds, then replace it, in the knowledge that she liked that sweet and could return to it for a suck later on. She did that with all her sweets, discarding the ones she didn’t like.

One of Tony Karrer’s 100 conversation topics is Ways that my children are learning that is significantly different from how I learn. This posts is about Tony’s topic number 25.

Have you ever been confronted with a technology and didn’t know how to use it? Y’know, the situation where you need to use the darned equipment but never had the opportunity to learn how to, and there’s no one around to show you. Now! When you’re desperate to use it!

It'll go bang!

I find this happens to me a lot. I have to jolt myself into action to do some exploring, maybe push a button here or click a link there – tap the keyboard to see if anything changes. I have to push aside my fear that the screen might explode, or that smoke may come gushing out of the computer. I fidget and look around to see if anyone’s watching.

This is a fear that I’ve always had when trying out new things. I realise that it’s my fear of computers that drove me to want to find out more about them. They are fascinating things, computers. Too fascinating to leave alone, and yet too mysterious not to excite my fear that I might get pounced on if I play with them.

Perhaps it’s something to do with my upbringing in an age when technology was rich in contraptions. The Billy Connolly line, “You’ll poke your eye out with that!” doesn’t seem inappropriate.

“Leave it alone! You don’t know what you’re doing! You’ll break it!” These are all demon voices that shout from the past at me, when I venture to explore somewhere I’ve never been before at the computer. “You’ll go blind!”

Habits die hard:

I recall when I was teaching young typists to use what we called word processors, way back in the late 80s. These women were fascinatingly slick at typing - on typewriters. Yet they could not get their heads round the idea that the Enter key (labelled Return key then, funny enough) didn’t have to be tapped when you got to the end of the line, or that typos didn’t need correcting as you typed them.

I had a great time unteaching these young minds about all their habits. It was a lot of fun. It taught me that humans are creatures of routine. We follow practices and cultures, unquestionably. We become so committed to them that we’ll argue the point when someone suggests we shouldn't follow habit.

I introduced the typists to what I called the suck-it-and-see approach to finding things out on the computer and was met with looks of horror. "We would never do that," came the affirmation.

Across the barriers:

Young minds always catch me out with their direct thinking. And I’m not alone in this. Last year at the NetSafe Conference 2008, I listened to a presenter tell her story of a survey that had been constructed to fathom the practice and thinking of teenagers.

She told of a 14 year old girl who was asked the survey question, “Would you swap a blow-job for a mobile phone?” The girl immediately replied, “What sort of a mobile phone?” The thinking transcends the barriers – obviously!

I just found it!

I watch my kids with a new remote or computer game. It mesmerises me to observe the way they work. How is it, for instance, that with all the years of tuition, enquiry and practice I’ve had using PhotoShop, that my teenage daughter will find things on the application, within minutes, that I’ve never seen before?

I’d ask her, “Who showed you how to do that?” She would reply, almost insolently, “No one - I just found it.” She would have found it using the suck-it-and-see approach. But she would have had no inhibitions about ‘sucking’ to find out.

Suck it and see:

Here's an exercise. The next time you are using a new application, or one that you're not too familiar with, lay aside half an hour to check out the menus. Most apps, like Word 2007 for instance, are quite extensive, but half an hour spent checking out the menus on a blank file can pay dividend.

If nothing else, it can help you learn the layout of the menus. With any luck, you'll pick up a thing or two about how to do things that otherwise would lie hidden, never to be found, till a teenage child - son, daughter or student - stumbles across it in minutes while fiddling around.

I don’t honestly think that this approach is anything new. In fact, I’d say that it is a natural fun way of finding out and learning. My feeling is that the baby-boomer learners, like myself, may carry baggage unwittingly, that inhibits them from using the suck-it-and-see approach as a first measure in learning.

Haere rā – Farewell


Anonymous said...

I have to say Ken, you have a knack for finding interesting post titles! The approach that you've described with computers/computer programs is basically how I learn. No risk, no reward! Though many of our students are adept at this kind of learning with their tech gadgets; cell phones, computers, etc. they are often wary of using this approach with their school learning. Any thoughts on why?

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Claire!

A Happy New Year to you!

The only thing that I can think of in answer to your question is mind-set. If I can explain it this way:

I used to teach a wide range of subjects when I taught in the classroom. I enjoyed teaching senior physics and I also taught maths. I would frequently use calculus in the physics class when demonstrating a solution to problems in balistics. I could solve some problems in 3 lines using calculus that might take half a page doing it some other way.

Usually I'd get pulled up with, "hey that's maths - we're doing physics".

Of course, I'd spend the next 10 minutes or so discussing tools with the class - the relative merits of arithmetic, algebra, differential calculus, integral calculus, all of which my students were familiar. Yet they clearly felt that calculus was out of place even when they understood that it was useful in physics.

Why was this? Simply because calculus was taught in maths, not in physics. Students went to the physics class to get taught physics and the elements of calculus were never taught there.

The principles behind integrated teaching and learning involve the same concepts that I attempted (often in vain) to introduce to my students.

In the authoritative environment of the school and classroom, I think students tend to become institutionalised. They fail to learn to think-outside-the-square, to use a rather hackneyed expression.

It's not just limited to what happens in the classroom. I observe the same sort of things happening in the workplace. Why, for instance, do teachers, trainers and training managers always manage to organise training sessions for their colleagues at the end of the week, or end of the term, or end of the year, when they know that theory and practice of good pedagogy is to provide the training immediately before there is a real opportunity to practice what's been learnt?

Teachers too seem to be unable to think-outside-the-square when it comes to teaching their colleagues. This is a societal cultural way of thinking, where application is compartmentalised - not integrated usefully. So it's hardly surprising that kids pick up this way of thinking.

So when it comes to kids doing things the way they think they are supposed to do them in the classroom, they don’t use the same techniques they apply, and successfully, out in the school yard or in the cafe or at home in their living room.

How's that for a one-off explanation :-)

Spot ya!

Paul C said...

I am involved with the PD of several high school staffs and the common understanding by developers is that to learn anything one has to practice the procedure or skill over and over again. That maxim applies for teachers as well as students. To hear someone talk about it in theory often does not translate into regular use.

V Yonkers said...

I wrote about this last year (I really need to improve my tagging!). I think the students are DISCOURAGED to make connections between courses. I know in the US, this idea that there is a difference between the topics comes from teacher training (teachers at the secondary level do not get training in the other disciplines, only the one they are going to teach) and from the testing.

I find most students do not want to blur the line between leisure time and school. In addition, many teachers actively protest the use of the tech gadgets in school. Is it any wonder a student would not want to blur those lines between leisure and school?

Anonymous said...

@Ken, great response! When I taught senior biology in the classroom I often got the same response from students, "hey, this is supposed to be biology, not math!" I wonder if there are many schools out there that take an integrative approach?

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koutou Paul, Virginia and Claire!

Paul - I agree that this (lack of) practice seems to be prevalent. Perhaps it's a bit like the lecturing I get from new dentists from time to time.

I have good teeth, but I keep them that way. The last two visits to the dentist required not as much as a scrape with a seeker, but both dentists were new in the surgery, didn't know me, and both went into a teaching routine I'd heard before.

I put this all down to the way I put into effect the advice that I always get from a dentist who doesn't know me. Obviously, from what all these dentists say, people don't do what I do. They may understand and agree with the flossing and the regular brushing, but when it comes down to practice, perhaps just a perfunctory scrub with a toothbrush now and again seems to pervent them from feeling guilty about not doing the routine properly.

Virginia - I seem to recall reading something on one of your posts about making connections between disciplines - I'll have to search it out :-)

And I must sort out my ideas for indexing my posts too, before I get far too many posts to bother about doing it properly - thanks for the reminder ;-)

I know what you mean about the teachers not being trained in other disciplines. For me, it has always been an interest to find out what other discplines do over the same ground. Y'know, graphing, to take one simple area, is done differently in maths than in science in school. I ask the question, why the h--l is this?

We all know that a graph is supposed to be interpreted universally by anyone, yet we use different conventions in one discipline from another. It's daft, especially when we're teaching it to kids!

Last century the quals authority in NZ caused a stir when they insisted on being picky about nomenclature conventions in chemistry. Effectively, they were making their own watered-down convention and calling it IUPAC, an international universally accepted set of standards. The quals authority should have known better. But no. It took them several years to sort out that they were quite wrong.

Claire - Thanks for taking the time to get back :-) you are an exemplary commenter!

Integrative approaches are in at the moment. But you know what? It's the same old story with most of what we've talked about here. Failure to walk the talk (another hackneyed expression). I call it ITLS which is my acronym for Integrated Teaching Lip Service.

It's all very well talking about doing it, like the 10,000 hours practice Gladwell reminds us about in his recent book that everyone's ranting about. When it comes to actually practicing, it has to be effective and according to the theory. The building industries in many countries, including this one, are guilty of giving the specs a light dusting over. When it comes to a rigorous inspection, they frequently fall far short of the spec.

Catchya all later