Friday, July 19, 2013

Another technique that I have had good success with is presenting the same abstract principle in significantly different contexts. It is important that the link between the examples and the general principle be explicit, understood by, and ideally discussed by the audience. The best results I have seen is when some of the audience provide the explanation themselves, perhaps with a little bit of coaching. This has additional benefits such as engaging the audience as an active participant in their own learning, and demonstrating to the audience that the material can be understood by their peers. This has been a subject of some interesting recent research1,2 – indeed, reading this is what got me started writing about this topic. Relevance makes an appearance again – examples that are relevant to, or memorable for your audience are more effective.

In physics conservation principles such as the conservation of momentum and conservation of energy are stressed early with multiple examples from mechanics and electromagnetism. After four of five years these and other fundamental principles are ingrained into the learner's thought patterns.

Most disciplines lack such overarching principles so more effort is required to identify and incorporate abstractions into the learning process. Computer science, for example, has my favorite abstract principles, the concept of abstraction, and its child, the layered architecture. However, it is easy, perhaps even common, to focus to tools and algorithms while losing site of these important principles. To teach them in a way that is usable throughout the learners career requires that the abstractions be revisited with a clear discussion on how the principle manifests in each specific situation.

1) Analogical Encoding: Facilitating Knowledge Transfer and Integration, Proceedings of the twenty-sixth annual meeting of the cognitive science society
2) Learning and Transfer: A General Role for Analogical Encoding, Journal of Educational Psychology 2003, Vol. 95, No. 2, 393– 408

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Putting knowledge – and education – to use.

This same principle has fascinating implications in the hiring process and in ethics.

People's ability to bring knowledge to bear on a problem as strongly dependent on the context of the problem. In software engineering I frequently raise an issue only to be countered with “I already know that”. Yes, but you are not employing that knowledge in your work. Knowing something about a topic, and indeed being able to discuss it fluently, is not the same as being able to employ that knowledge in a real world situation. Here, Joe Kraus, the founder of Excite, currently with Google Ventures, describes experts and "the mismatch between what they say is important, and what they actually do". This same phenomenon is commonly referred to in instruction as Transfer of Learning or Generalization. Understanding and addressing this is critical for effective instruction, instruction that can be employed out of the classroom in the real world, or even to disparate problems within the classroom that are manifestations of an underlying principle.

Of course I expect that many of you are saying "I already know that". But are you actively putting your knowledge to work? Are you measuring the effectiveness of your techniques?

What might some of those techniques be? Consider for example priming the pump – setting students into the frame of mind where they can see where the lessons will go, and how the material is relevant to the real world, especially their specific real world interests. Take a few minutes out of the last lesson of the week to give some pointers on what the next week will cover. Include comments guided by the known interests of the students. Yes – this means getting to know what drives your students. They will be thinking about the questions or applications from the preview all throughout your lessons. Also, cast the preview in a form that makes it clear that these goals are achievable by them. When I give a lecture I provide an abstract designed to get your attention and show the value of the talk. At the beginning I will provide an overview and touch on the relevance of the talk to your real world concerns. During the talk I will talk about applications, and if possible engage some of the audience members in a discussion about issues and applications important to them. I can remember when I was teaching and I employed these techniques then to good effect. OK, I admit I didn't generate any abstracts for my students.

More soon...