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Posts Tagged ‘teaching

Thanks to my Twitter PLN, I chanced upon this tweet.

Both my immediate reaction and critical reflection was: Nope, this I don’t like.

I do not have anything against fidget spinners. I do not have anything against practice provided that it is designed based on sound principles, e.g., spaced repetition, interleaving. [1] [2] [3]

It is not enough for teachers to design with just good intent. Their decision-making and implementation must be informed by rigorous research and/or reflective practice.

One design issue discussed in Twitter was that the spinner was meant to be a timer. Spin it, then do as many sums as you can before it stops.

What if the variability of the spinning momentum (some more, some less) an issue?

Is the speed of completion the desired learning outcome?

How is the use of spinners justifiable?

What better alternatives in terms of strategies and tools are there?

I am all for starting with where the learner is at. But my caveat is that the starting point is not to pander. It is to build on prior knowledge or experience and to provide a meaningful challenge.

Teachers may feel the tug of their hearts because they love their students, but they must be led first by their heads. They must first be critically informed or they risk designing in a vacuum and establishing the wrong sort of expectations.

I read this article, Sesame Workshop and IBM team up to test a new A.I.-powered teaching method, with critical optimism.

After reading the article, I still wondered if the AI was actually adapting to how kids learn or if it was learning how to teach as an adult would. The former focuses on learning while the latter is about teaching.

Teaching and learning are not synonymous. Ideally and intentionally, effective teaching should lead to meaningful learning. However, teaching does not guarantee learning. Let me illustrate.

The article claimed that:

kindergarteners learned words like “arachnid,” “amplify,” “camouflage,” and “applause,” which are typically considered above their grade level.

Kids were taught these words, but did they really learn to use these words in contexts that were meaningful to them? Will they retain and use the words appropriately in future?

My son learnt “chela” and “carapace” in kindergarten. I only learnt these as a Biology major in university. Today he cannot recall those terms or even learning them. However, those terms are etched in my memory even though I have not taught Biology in over 20 years.

I argue that my son was taught those terms, but only I learnt them. It is one thing to teach for short-term gain and retention. It is entirely another to design for long-term and meaningful learning.

If we teach AI the wrong way, then artificial intelligence will have another meaning. It will be about “learning” that is meaningless, superficial, and fleeting.

I was taught a lot as an undergraduate majoring in biology. Not all of it was true.

One thing that a lecturer taught me was this factoid: Human DNA is almost 99% identical to chimpanzee. That has stuck with me because it was so jarring.

The lesson then was that it took just 1% of evolutionary tweaking and protein-making difference to have a human. Back then I just took an expert’s word for it.

Today I have YouTube condensing the work and critique of several experts. The video below was built from five published references.

Video source

The main takeaway from the video is that the absolute number (99%) is misleading. The number was derived under conditions like ignoring portions of genomes and arbitrary rules so that the number is neither valid nor reliable. Change the rules and the number changes.

The larger issue is how students today might still be taught: From old textbooks, with outdated pedagogy, and without access to more than one source of information.

The biggest sin of any teacher is focusing just on content. This means the delivery of information and the testing by regurgitation of it.

Content is (or it should be) a means to an end. The end is not to reproduce that content in a test because information can be challenged and knowledge can change. Content should be a way to teach thinking.

The teaching of content today should not just be learning-about. It should focus on learning-to-be. In the chimpanzee and human DNA example, it is not just learning about the 99% factoid. It is about asking critical questions about it and knowing how to find valid and reliable answers to those questions.

Rising above, the teaching of a juicy factoid like human DNA is 99% chimpanzee stems from the pedagogy of answers and the attempt to engage students with interesting nuggets. The critique of such a factoid starts with the pedagogy of questions and continues with the empowerment of students to think and act critically.

About three years ago, I gave a speech in which I described how technology tools have changed but how some of our pedagogy has remained stagnant. I showed how we remain stuck at the show-and-tell method of teaching and schooling despite advancing technologically [slide].

When our ancestors learnt to draw on cave walls, they were using show-and-tell.

When we used blackboards, it was largely about show-and-tell. These days this is referred to derogatively as chalk-and-talk.

When the overhead projector invaded halls and rooms, most other strategies flew over our collective heads as we relied on show-and-tell again.

When whiteboards replaced blackboards, the strategy remained the same — show-and-tell.

Even when “interactive” whiteboards could do much more, teachers did much less and reduced them to smaller whiteboards and reverted to show-and-tell. (And some people had the audacity to call these white elephants “smart”.)

Despite the rise of personal mobile devices, vendors, instructional designers, and instructors took the safe bet: Content delivery by show-and-tell.

 by lukew, on Flickr
"" (CC BY 2.0) by lukew

Now we can add AR and VR devices to the mix. But the imaginations of some of the people who decide what AR and VR are good for is still stuck at show-and-tell.

Is show-and-tell that bad given how persistent it is? No, it is not. But it cannot be the main and only strategy in a teacher’s toolkit. After all, if all you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail.If your only tool is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.
Show-and-tell is not good because it has been persistent. It is still around because teachers are stubborn, fearful, or choose to remain ignorant.

Not only do teachers need a mix of strategies, they also need a balance. Right now, the balance is still tilted heavily on show-and-tell simply because that is how teachers were taught and it is what gives them a sense of control.

But teaching by telling does not necessarily lead to learning. We now have so many more tools and strategies that it is irresponsible to teach without skilfully incorporating some of them. We should do this not to pander to the times. We do this because it results in more effective learning.

What is your response to this tweet?

I have a few. One is that it is impossible to distill all that is teaching in a tweet.

Another is that the question presents a false dichotomy to seed discussion. The “telling” and the “letting” actually represent different ends of a large spectrum.

A more straightforward response, particularly from teachers who have learnt to go beyond telling, is that teaching is both.

I would point out that there is an imbalance. Teaching is still heavy on telling and light on letting. Telling is easier to do than letting, but easier does not mean better or more effective.

Just moving from monologue to dialogue is difficult. The talker must listen, analyse, clarify, and meet the learner where they are at. Reaching learners and empathising with them is fundamental to teaching. If we do not, we are just telling and yelling. Then no one is listening and learning.
If you cannot reach them, you cannot teach them.


When most people speak of “blended learning”, they might actually be thinking about blended instruction. (Here are some considerations of blending that focuses on learning.)

There are many ways to blend instruction. Some might involve the modes (off and online), the content (seamless multidisciplinary content), and the pedagogy (direct instruction with x-based learning).

Most would justify blending based on the best possible outcomes. For example, in the case of blended modes, being face-to-face affords immediacy in social learning while still being able to leverage on timely resources online.

Not many might point out the worst of blending, particularly blended instruction. For example, someone might blend boring didactic teaching with YouTube recordings of irrelevant content.

Blending the teaching or learning processes does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. The contextual design of blending is critical. Online strategies and tools might not work as well in a low bandwidth environment, language might be a barrier in one context, and pedagogical expectations might be different in another. Here are examples of each.

When I lead talks, I find out how comfortable my participants are with going online with their phones. Depending on the country, venue, and people, I might resort to low bandwidth texting-like activities and think-pair-share instead of challenging them to watch and recommend YouTube videos.

I have conducted a variety of workshops for equally varied groups. When English is not the common language, I rely on activities and succinct pitstops to get the messages through. When I am with a group more familiar with training instead of teaching, I need not worry about much pedagogical baggage from my learners.

Bloggers, Pinterest boards, and tweets might declare blended learning to be engaging. They might be referring to blended teaching instead. Such an experience is not automatically engaging, and if blending is left only with the one who is teaching, is certainly not empowering.

Like most educators, I agree with the point that @BluntEducator raised.

One question the tweet might raise is: What is more difficult than teaching?

My answer: Educating.

Anyone can teach, few can educate. A few years ago I shared some differences between a teacher and an educator.

I do not mean to create a false dichotomy between teaching and educating. I am trying to point out what might not overlap in the Venn diagram below.

Venn diagram of teaching and educating.

One reason for this dichotomy is that teachers tend to teach the way they were taught. Anyone who has undergone a decade or more of schooling has seen models of teaching. Some of these models were good and others bad, but all were embedded in the past.

While most kids are not studying to become teachers, what they see and experience is caught even if it is not taught. So current teachers tend to teach like their teachers, often because of or even despite the efforts of teacher education programmes.

Case in point: I observed this “from the sidelines” while enjoying a day off at a park.

What could have been an experiential learning session came across a lecture and safety briefing. Were the just-in-time delivery of information and safety reminders important? Definitely. But it dragged on unnecessarily.

More importantly, telling does not guarantee listening. Knowing something does not mean being able to do it right. If you are not convinced, consider these exasperated teacher expressions:

  • But I already told them…
  • How many times do I have to tell them…?
  • I just said this earlier, didn’t you listen?
  • I just said this earlier, why didn’t you ask me a question?

Delivering information does not guarantee that it is received. Teaching as some teachers understand and practice it does not guarantee meaningful learning.

What is arguably more important in outdoor education is students learning-by-doing, not replicating the passive sitting or time-tested strategies of a classroom.

A few years ago, my son went on a field trip to the zoo with his classmates. His enthusiasm soon drained when he learnt that the visit was actually an administrative exercise (forms, briefings, lots of waiting) and a frantic rush to complete worksheets (see checklist teaching).

Teaching outdoors is much tougher than indoors. Teachers cannot control the elements and students might get hurt. The boundaries are less obvious and the modes of teaching are more varied. These might be why most teachers prefer not to teach outdoors or go on field trips when content calls for it. It is too much like real life.

Educators embrace the complexity and uncertainty that the real world brings. The real world has ill-defined problems, no nicely organised textbooks, information that needs to be processed in real-time, mentors good and bad, and real consequences.

Teaching needs to change so that it more resembles educating. Educating anyone at any level means starting first with each learner and where that learner is. It does not start with content, a curriculum, standards, or a scheme of work. While these are important, they should be secondary to the context and how that person learns.

What stakeholders observe from the sidelines might be valid, particularly if they have strong educational backgrounds. If they notice that today’s classrooms and teachers look and behave in the same way they remember, they have a right to be worried.

If they see a disconnect between the way the world operates now and the manner in which schools claim to prepare their children, they have the right and responsibility to speak up from the sidelines.

If we think of ourselves as educators, we should be listening up instead of shutting them down.

So what is more difficult than teaching? Educating. And eating humble pie.

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