Intelligible explanations

Jon Udell directed me to a very interesting Seb Paquet blog post today, “The Fate of the Incompetent Teacher in the YouTube Era.” I read Seb’s post with great admiration. Seb tells a disheartening story of his own education that resonates with some of my own experiences. To take but one minor example, as an undergraduate I had a professor who put tristram Shandy on the syllabus but said “I don’t really like this book very much, and you needn’t bother with it.” I’m sure many students shrugged it off, but the implications were disturbing to me. If the teacher intended a kind of wry irony in his pronouncement, he failed in my case. The message I got was that he was largely going through the motions and that keen, wide-ranging interests were subordinated to personal taste and casual dismissal. The worst part is that I didn’t read the book. A few years later, I had a much better teacher in graduate school, and I read the book with great relish. In fact, it inspired one of my better papers, one I’m still proud of, and one that elicited very witty and acute comments from the professor.

I’m sure many variables make it risky for me to generalize too freely about the differences between the two teachers, but I feel confident that a certain kind of studied superficiality, a kind of arch mock-urbanity, put me off the eighteenth-century novel for a long time, regrettably so given the great treasures these novels embody.

I flashed on this memory as I read Seb’s post. I kept reading. I arrived at the part where Seb praises a competent teacher, Sal Khan, who does his teaching not in a classroom but via YouTube. He’s got nearly 1200 videos up there to date, all free to the world (aside from those parts where YouTube is blocked, such as many public schools). They’re the product of a project he calls the Khan Academy. The videos are about 10-20 minutes long. Aside from some standardized test prep and some brain teasers, the videos concentrate in economics, finance/business, science, and math. Really quite astonishing stuff. I’ve only dipped in to a couple of the videos myself, so I’ve no considered evaluation of my own to offer yet, but the testimonials and the success of Sal’s efforts are very impressive. Jon’s right to say Sal Khan is “on fire.” And he’s also a great stovemaker for the fires of others.

Seb praises Sal for the clarity of his explanations. They’re “clueful” and “understandable.” So much to the good. Seb also makes these hard-to-refute observations:

Let’s not kid ourselves: within a school, the students know who is a good teacher and who is no more illuminating than a wet pack of matches.

The net takes that to a whole different level. Eventually everyone will know who the good teachers are, and will be able to tune into them. They will be rock stars.

But what will happen to the bad teachers then?

There’s a quote by Warren Buffett that I like to bring up from time to time: “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.”

Well, the incompetent teachers have indeed been swimming naked, and in a world where learners are free to tune into many other, competent teachers, it will inevitably show. When you have something to compare to, bad becomes tangibly bad.

No argument here from me, at all. Love that Buffett quote, which will scale in interesting ways as the tide goes out on all sorts of institutions in the networked intelligence age.

But questions still remain. What constitutes a great explanation? Seb’s answer is that students know it when they experience it, because they experience understanding. That’s part of the answer, certainly. But it’s also a tautology, in many respects, and deeper questions soon emerge. Some writers–Ted Nelson comes to mind–say that teacherly explanations are themselves part of the problem, as they encourage simple paraphrase, reductive teacher-pleasing spitback, and other all-too-familiar adaptive behaviors. More haunting questions follow. What makes a learner capable of understanding that he or she has “got it”? Is it possible for learners to think they’ve “got it” when they don’t? Is it possible for learners to think they haven’t gotten it when in fact they have? (Yes to both, in my experience, with the latter more frequent than the former.) And what demonstrates understanding? For that matter, what constitutes understanding?

These are very difficult, complex questions. At the same time, I think it’s true that most students respond to great teachers in ways that are qualitatively different from the ways they respond to average or poor teachers. But what are those qualities? And what qualities of mind in the teacher are needed for great teaching to emerge? Can those qualities be learned, or is the idea to nurture and encourage the growth and refinement of those qualities in those teachers who already have them, with the first order of business being to devise good tools to identify good prospects for this profession?

If Bruner’s right and to demonstrate understanding the student must be able “to go beyond what is given,” then great teachers are great givers, great framers of the opportunity to go beyond, and generously perceptive when the “beyond” is not what they would themselves have identified as a beyond before the going occurs–that is, the “beyond” is really a beyond, not just something the teacher has withheld in anticipation of eliciting it from the students in what’s often called the “Socratic” style of teaching.

Perhaps the truly generous and great teachers ares the ones who best prepare, inspire, and welcome their students to teach them.

And how does one assess that?

Much to continue to mull over here: some ideas to tinker with, and some practices to encourage, but still very much a set of “conjectures and dilemmas” (Bruner) to keep exploring.

I do think that great teachers exhibit a peculiar and peculiarly useful self-awareness of their own presence and approach as teachers. I’m not talking methodology here. I’m talking mindfulness. And this Sal Khan has in abundance. When I read his reflections on his work, I’m truly awestruck. This is the reason I always read the acknowledgements and dedications when I pick up a book. They offer their own “about”-ness, and at their best they demonstrate the author’s particular cast of mind and character of heart in relation to the thing he or she has made.

I’ll close this ramble with a very inspiring selection from Sal’s “Frequently Asked Questions” page, one that set me thinking most fiercely about the sources of clarity and intelligibility, qualities that are essentially communicative and cannot be understood outside the context of communication, especially communication with oneself and the willingness to enact the drama of one’s own cognition, wonder, and passion:

The conversational style of the videos is the tonal antithesis of what people traditionally associate with math and science instruction. The less obvious distinctions are, however, what make the site hard to reproduce.

I teach the way that I wish I was taught. The lectures are coming from me, an actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him. The concepts are conveyed as they are understood by me, not as they are written in a textbook developed by an educational bureaucracy. Viewers know that it is the labor of love of one somewhat quirky and determined man who has a passion for learning and teaching. I don’t think any corporate or governmental effort–regardless of how much money is thrown at the problem–can reproduce this.

A lot of my own educational experience was spent frustrated with how information was conveyed in textbooks and lectures. There would be connections in the subject matter that standard curricula would ignore despite the fact that they make the content easier to understand, enjoy, and RETAIN. I felt like fascinating and INTUITIVE concepts were almost intentionally being butchered into pages and pages of sleep-inducing text and monotonic, scripted lectures. I saw otherwise intelligent peers memorizing steps and formulas for the next exam without any sense of the intuition or big picture, only to forget everything within a matter of weeks. These videos are my expression of how the concepts should have been expressed in the first place, all while not compromising rigor or comprehensiveness.

“An actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him.” A simple description with enormous depth. Can there be a true going beyond, a deep understanding, without fascination? And for the teacher, what are the most effective ways, given the teacher’s peculiar strengths and gifts, to convey fascination in a way that permits understanding, and also results from that understanding, in a recursive and never-ending process? My suspicion is that the highest-quality fascination, the kind that generates and releases the most energy, cannot be the result of method, though certain techniques may help. Instead, it must come from the readiness to be fascinated–and a gift for turning that readiness into a certain quality of mindfulness about the possibilities for fascination in others.

8 thoughts on “Intelligible explanations

  1. Thanks for this, Gardner. Much to chew on here and I so appreciate (now) knowing about Salman Khan. What an intriguing and low-bandwidth way to approach learning. Interesting. And I loved your insights about getting beyond what is given and inviting students to different (unanticipated) performances of understanding. Yes, yes. Your analysis also put me in mind of a really good Chronicle of Higher Ed article about critical thinking that I just read:http://chronicle.com/article/Beyond-Critical-Thinking/63288/
    Its premise of making a transition from critical thinking to practical exploration seems to dovetail well with these ideas.

  2. @Robin Thanks for the link to that article. Really good indeed–and the comment stream is at once revealing, troubling, enlightening, and hopeful. I’m once again in your debt–it truly was an exceptional piece.

    One issue Roth doesn’t address (explicitly) is the careerist value for humanities scholars of debunking–not engaging in disputes in good faith, but undermining entire cultures of discourse as a way of demonstrating moral and intellectual superiority, publishing more articles, gaining more notoriety, etc. Having lived through the age of High Theory, I can attest that the humanities have made indignation and high dudgeon into artful professional moves, to the detriment of students and faculty alike. (Much of this was a response to the collapse in the job market in the late 70’s and early 80’s. At times it got so cookie-cutter it was practically Mad Libs.) Not everyone, and not all the time, but enough that unmasking and calling out and other forms of moderate to scathing denunciation led to a widespread culture of learning about people without being able to learn from them. When Roth talks about one-upsmanship, this is (I think) part of what he’s getting at, and it was and remains very ugly….

    I’ll be re-reading this piece often in the days ahead. I’m grateful for it, and for your thoughts, as always.

  3. Gardner,
    I much appreciate this post! I will humbly offer some a few thoughts in keeping with a resolution to try to lurk less and contribute more to conversations with awesome IT colleagues (like you) in my learning network from whom I learn much and to whom I return little. I am resolved to at least try to change that in 2010…so here goes:

    As an assignment in an instructional design course I took last fall (there is much to be learned from sitting in the student chair from time to time) we were challenged to come up with a definition of ID. I could not separate that from long years of teaching and concluded that good TEACHING and GOOD INSTRUCTIONAL design are difficult to separate and much too contrived an exercise. Both involve careful attention to the usual tangibles like selection of texts, set up of calendars, etc. But my general conclusion was that good design and thus teaching involve so much more – the intangibles that are often overlooked, difficult to describe and often impossible to replicate from one person to another.

    I concluded that good teaching involves the creation of a set of circumstances where learning is most likely to occur. Simplistic, yes…but for me a statement full of meaning. For learning to occur, the teacher/designer needs to be mindful first of those intangibles – a most critical part of the learning circumstances created. How a teacher makes students FEEL is as important as any other ingredient in the mix ( you allude to this I believe)…and includes the passion for subject and learning as you note in your closing thoughts about fascination….

    Lately, I have been teaching online and not in the classroom…so am particularly concerned about the learning circumstances I can create. I fretted some when I read about ‘great explanations’ since teaching online alters opportunities for interaction we are accustomed to in the classroom.

    Further on, this statement of yours particularly resonates with me: “Perhaps the truly generous and great teachers ares the ones who best prepare, inspire, and welcome their students to teach them.” So I set about to convey – virtually – my welcome to my students – now with fresh resolve as I am informed and reminded by your post.
    Many thanks – especially if you stuck with me to the end of this ramble!

  4. @Steve I sometimes think we know more than we let on. Bruner’s account is pretty convincing for me. The trouble is that “understanding” is complex, and therefore assessment is complex, and therefore assessment doesn’t scale well and it isn’t cheap. And because assessment needs to scale well and be cost-effective, it has to be designed in certain ways–and then “understanding” is either ignored or (perhaps even worse) defined in terms of the assessment, leading to a beautifully circular argument that reinforces all the bad practices, reductive thinking, and self-justification. My dream is that a networked world can furnish us more robust avenues and opportunities for demonstrating and prompting the “going beyond,” if we can free our minds. Big if, of course, especially with many academics’ snobbish dismissals of social media.

    @Cindy Thanks for that deeply thoughtful response! I’m grateful for it and for your resolution. Framing the learning encounter is crucial indeed. I’m with you all the way there, and with the idea that the intangibles, the sense of occasion, the heightened expectancy, are also crucial elements in that encounter. I also suspect that the teacher’s attitude in relation to the knowledge she or he has, and the learning he or she continues to experience, communicates itself vividly to students. So I’m an expert, I’m an authority, I’m a scholar–what do those things mean to me? What relationship do I have to myself as a learner? Do our current structures of education, particularly graduate education, lead to deeper and deeper versions of actual human beings fascinated by the world around them? Or do they reinscribe punitive one-upsmanship, defensiveness, fear, and dread? Some of my friends use the phrase “intellectually generous” to describe those actual human beings fascinated by the world around them who are willing to share that fascination in all its fragility and vulnerability. How can we communicate our own intellectual generosity to our students, and model it for them, and encourage it among them as well?

  5. “assessment isn’t cheap” – so true! This reminds me of a quote attributed to Elbert Hubbard that reads, “There is something that is much more scarce, something finer far, something rarer than ability. It is the ability to recognize ability.”

    I hadn’t yet fully realized how that simple fact critically undermines any attempt to make human ability an objective quantity. Thank you for helping me there!

    “My dream is that a networked world can furnish us more robust avenues and opportunities for demonstrating and prompting the “going beyond,” if we can free our minds. ”

    I believe this dream is already coming true for those who know where to look. But I don’t expect it to come true in academia to any more extent than as a marginal activity. Too much freedom has been sucked out of it by now for that to happen.

  6. @Seb That’s a great quote, and I thank you for it. I usually hope you’re not right about academia. Many days I suspect you are. Some days I hope you are, and that I will live long enough to see the great disruptions yield tremendous, long-overdue innovation.

  7. I’m confident that you and I will live to see the change happen. The current system is more brittle than it appears.

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