Education. Nevermind – what was it anyway, pt I

What is education and how do we educate?

Lately I have been questioning not only myself, which is something I always do, but more importantly I have questioned more or less everything about education. I believe that a Kill Yer Idols strategy when reviewing situations in life is good. By applying this approach, which in this case translates into not fearing to question EVERYTHING, I found that the books on programming are really hard for newbies (I’d go as far and say some of them are totally useless) - some books were hard for me with my 15+ years experience as a programmer. I have also questioned the choice of programming language, the task of finding the best language remains. I have also ranted about finding a strategy.

Nevermind (What Was It Anyway) - Sonic Youth, NYC Ghosts & Flowers, 2000

So what will I shamelessly, pointlessly and in the usual chaotic style ramble on about today? First I need to find the meaning of the word education. Or perhaps I need to find my own interpretation of the word. So this post’s quest is about finding a good, and in sync with today’s students view, interpretation of education. And with that as a basis discuss the teaching forms (lectures and supervision) and how to best use them to reach the goals (students acquiring knowledge).

What is education?

What does Wikipedia have to say about education?

Education in its general sense is a form of learning in which the knowledge, skills, and habits of a group of people are transferred from one generation to the next through teaching, training, or research. Education frequently takes place under the guidance of others, but may also be autodidactic. Any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts may be considered educational. Education is commonly divided into stages such as preschool, primary school, secondary school and then college, university or apprenticeship.

Ok, let us sum this up:

Knowledge, skills, and habits are transferred through teaching,
training, or research taking place under the guidance of others,
but may also be autodidactic.

This leaves pretty much room for me as a teacher. I am avoiding the word lecturer since that word seems to imply that we are talking about lectures. I can do a lot of things to make the students learn, or acquire knowledge. I can motivate students to learn for themselves. I can stand in front of the class and talk for hours about some topics. I can ask students to read for themselves and remind them that they’re now doing university studies and all complaints are void. For me the important and interesting thing in the definition of education is the word transfer, or perhaps if we rewrite it as acquired which is what the students do. I will try to focus on the student perspective by looking at “acquiring knowledge“.

Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best” - Frank Zappa

Some random questions to get my brain started:

  • Who is the education for?
  • What is/are the teacher’s preferred way to educate?
  • What is/are the students’s preferred way to get knowledge?
  • Are the modern search engines today destroying our students?

Oh my Emacs… so many words and nothing said yet. Sorry, I guess more words will come and an equal amount of stupidities.

On lectures

Lets start of by looking at the usual way of teaching, lectures. For how long are the students paying attention to you (the teacher)? I’d say roughly about 10 minutes, which is about what research finds. When you see some students really focusing on their laptops, they’re not paying attention to you or the subject. They’re playing games. Just walk behind students in a room when you’re not lecturing and see for yourself. I have noticed that by using some techniques you can extend the attention window quite a bit. The techniques include:

  • Interactive coding – write code from scratch “on stage”. Even if you make a mistake it’s good, since the students pay more attention to you - they want to spot more errors. Writing the code “in front of a live audience” makes it easier for the students to ask questions.
  • Walk around and make gestures – don’t stand still.
  • Change your voice – run the commands below[0] for an idea how boring a teacher can be.
  • Distract them – this is easily done for me since my brain usually wanders off in different tangents all the bleeding time. What ever you do to confuse them wakes them up and you can get their attention again for some more 10 minutes.
  • Use the white board – don’t overuse presentation programs.
  • Show some passion.

By using the techniques above I think, I do not have proper backing here, based on my experience that I can transfer more knowledge to the students than I would otherwise. But still, I don’t believe that old fashioned lectures is the best way. In some courses I sucked and in others I sucked less. And I think that I’ve done a good job in some of them. I once held a course where I didn’t get enough time from my department to give the course – in this case I think that the lectures weren’t as good as I liked them to be .. sorry guys. In some courses I have gotten quite good reviews as a teacher, yeah I also find that hard to believe. But applying the Kill Yer Idols strategy here and really question myself as a teacher – given that a teacher should make sure that the students acquire knowledge –  I must say that the students’ results were NOT better or worse when I got better (or worse) reviews.

Does this mean that no matter how crappy the teacher is the students will always get the same results?

No, but the quality of the teacher’s lectures is in my opinion exaggerated.

So there is something spooky with lecturing. The reason is, as stated above, that the students aren’t paying attention and if a student looses focus for a minute the remaining lecture may in the worst case be useless.

So why do we keep on lecturing?

I don’t know. I really don’t know. It’s easier for us teachers to give lectures I guess – we just do our thing in front of the students for 90 minutes and then we can go back to our offices and read articles. It’s the way we’ve always done it.

I tried out flipped classroom in the last term, as I mentioned before in the unlikely case that you’ve stumbled upon my blog before.

Flip teaching’ or a flipped classroom is a form of blended
learning in which students learn new content online by watching
video lectures, usually at home, and what used to be homework
(assigned problems) is now done in class with teachers offering
more personalized guidance and interaction with students, instead
of lecturing.” Wikipedia on Flipped Classroom

I made some video recording of some of my lectures. The students liked the videos. I really disliked making them videos – listening to sound of your own voice is one thing but hearing yourself saying unrelated or stupid things was hard at the beginning – but that’s how my brain works so I better get used to it. Perhaps it is my Gothenburgian heritage that seem to make me do unintentional crappy jokes on the fly. It takes time to prepare a lecture. This time is increased a lot when creating videos so Flipped classroom isn’t exactly making things easier for teachers – unless the goal of the teacher is to help the student acquire knowledge ;) . Another time I will write about my findings when recording them videos. All I can say right now is that I used (no surprise I guess) only free software (used GNU Xnee to retype the code for me).

So the students liked the videos. But did we get a good discussion going?

To be honest, no!

I will read more about flipped classroom and think about what can be done. But at least the students could look at a video over and over again and ask question about the subject at the lecture.

Does flipped classroom make the student acquire more knowledge?

Yes, I believe so.

One problem though. I’ve noticed that with Flipped classroom, compared to normal lectures, you can’t, for obvious reasons, adapt the lecture to your class. When lecturing the old fashioned way you can adapt and repeat based on the looks on the students’ faces etc. I miss this in Flipped classroom.

Flipped classroom is good. But for some students it is just one way of lowering the barrier to acquire knowledge themselves. If a student have lost confidence I don’t believe classical lectures or Flipped classroom will help them.

Conclusions (so far):

I believe Flipped classroom is better then normal lectures, given that the goal is for students to acquire knowledge.

Lectures and/or flipped classroom will not help students who have lost confidence in themselves.

There are other ways for a teacher to help the students acquire knowledge. I believe that the best ways to help the students are:

  • Encourage and help them appreciate themselves
  • Motivate

When to use these ways? More on this in the next blog post which will be on exercises and supervision.

[0] Assuming you’re on a GNU/Linux computer (or similar):

curl http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education -o edu.html
html2text -o edu.txt edu.html
festival --tts -b edu.txt

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2 responses to “Education. Nevermind – what was it anyway, pt I

  1. Pingback: Education. Nevermind – what was it anyway, pt II | hesa's Weblog

  2. Pingback: Free Software in Education News – March « Being Fellow #952 of FSFE

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