How teaching works

When I read Feynman’s lectures for the first time – in my first year of college – I was perhaps one of the few people that read the introduction. Feynman quotes Edward Gibbon: “But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.”

I love it when I have an opportunity to quote (or misquote) statements like this :-). I had the occasion to do just that in a recent conversation with Binny, who wanted to know how I thought education start-ups could differentiate themselves after the low-hanging fruits, of providing content online or making education apps, run out.

I answered him elliptically (don’t I always?) and told him some general thoughts about how education works, in my opinion.

First, the Gibbon statement. All solid education is, perforce, establishing relationships between new things and things you already know. The task of an educationist is to anchor a new fact or a new piece of knowledge to the knowledge already in a child’s head. If software or technology could help do this in a more individual way, that would be a breakthrough. In most classrooms, the child is encouraged to ‘ask questions’. The purpose of asking questions is not to ‘clarify doubts’, but to really allow the child to guide this process of anchoring, by relating new information to old. I was an inveterate asker-of-doubts when I was a student. Now that I think about it, most of my ‘questions’ weren’t really questions at all – they were statements, suffixed with ‘Am I right?’ – really a restatement of what my teachers would say, but in frames of my own reference.

Second, the question of credibility. The first few classes that any teacher teaches is a process of credibility building. All children are distrustful of authority, especially when this relates to facts that cannot be seen or experienced directly. When a teacher goes up to a blackboard and claims, as Newton did, that all bodies in the Universe attract each other with a force of gravity GmM/r2, the teacher is performing an act of imposition – imposing a fact upon a student, hoping that his or her credibility, which has been built so far by interactions with the class, will allow the child to trust such a statement. How would you establish trust in an online atmosphere, or where the interaction is between an app and a child (and not between a teacher and a child)?

Third, the competitive aspect. I recalled for Binny that when I was studying for the IIT JEE, competition played a major part in getting me to struggle for 40 minutes on a problem that I would have normally given up on in 20 minutes – the thrill (for some people) of being the only one to raise their hands when the teacher asks, ‘Who has solved the problem?’. How would you establish this in a ‘new’ educational environment?

The fourth point was in direct response to a question Binny asked me – what was the best educational material I’ve seen? – and the top-of-my-head answer was, RSA animates, such as this one:

And the key of these kinds of videos is that they hold your attention through multi-sensory stimulation, where you are concentrating your auditory and visual senses on the subject at hand, instead of listening offhand to a boring teacher.


3 thoughts on “How teaching works

  1. Great post Q. I was one of the few that did read the intro to Feynman’s lectures (I tend to read everything cover to cover) but don’t remember the Gibbon quote. Thanks for that!
    Point 1: You are absolutely right. But there’s also a lot of reinforcement learning- i.e. trial and error till you get it right. I think this is the part where technology can help because you can take an re-take quizzes till you “get” it asking questions to yourself and others along the way. You are speaking for yourself when you say you were always asking questions in class coz most people are not comfortable doing that. Good discussions take time to develop and structured settings are terrible at encouraging this. Some classes, like MBA ones, try to encourage this by assigning course participation credit but it’s hit or miss.
    Point 2: This, I believe is the single most important feature of learning in a structured setting. I agree that online education has a long way to go in terms of establishing trust. There are a few alternatives here like augmenting online learning with in-class discussion sessions in the real word like Sal Khan advocates. These alternative approaches show promise but time will tell. This is less of an issue with the Stanford and MIT offerings where experts in their fields are teaching undergrad and grad level courses, so trust is less of an issue.
    Point 3: Gamification is big and can easily implemented in an online setting. Lots of promise in this area.
    Point 4: RSA is brilliant! Not everything can be this good! Regardless, I find Khan Academy, Udacity and Coursera to be awesome. In the end, I think as long as the instructor is passionate about her subject, learning tends to be fun.

    1. Thanks, Booz! I can always rely on you to add something intelligent to any discussion 🙂

      Gamification – that’s a really exciting idea in education. Do you know anyone who has done that successfully?

  2. You are too kind. I only had something to add because I took a couple of these online courses and enjoyed them.
    Khan Academy is working with schools in California and have a gamification component- badges and stuff. Apparently, the kids are into this kind of stuff and it’s working well. The college level courses I took had a more standard upvote/ downvote approach will contributor level ratings to their forums- kind of like Reddit or StackOverflow. That worked well too. But of course, I don’t know much about gamification and I plan to address that lack of knowledge. I have signed up for the Wharton course on gamification on 🙂

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