Teaching Towards Your Blind Side

On my way home this afternoon, I happened to catch American RadioWorks on NPR. This particular piece caught my attention when they talked about “expert blind spots”.

Deep expertise in a field is obviously a critical asset that colleges look for in their professors. Koedinger says it can also be an obstacle to teaching. He says experts often have a blind spot that blocks them from perceiving a problem from a student’s point of view. "If you’re a chess expert, the chessboard looks different" than it does to a beginner, he says. Experts grasp patterns and relationships by second nature. In essence, the expert can’t understand what the student can’t understand.

In designing the OLI courseware, Koedinger and the Carnegie Mellon team work with experts to overcome the "blind spots" and break each piece of knowledge into its building blocks. They deconstruct the patterns so students can rehearse putting the pieces back together. And because the OLI software captures every click of every student’s mouse, massive pools of "clickstream" data help the OLI team tease out what kinds of lessons and exercises lead students to master their subjects most effectively.

"One of the big surprises in this data set for me is when you look at the learning process from task to task, it takes a long time for kids to get better at specific content, whether it’s math or science or language," Koedinger says. "The progress we see is steady, but it’s slow. That’s one of those things about learning we often forget — how much repetition and practice is critical to becoming an expert."

It really resonated with me because of the computer classes I teach. It has taken months to develop some of the simplified or layman explanations and examples that I give in class to talk about things that are generally taken for granted in a modern technology skill set. I’ve had to adjust my terminology and approach to bring computer skills down to a level where people feel comfortable and confident. I’ve been using computers for over twenty five years; it’s a good reminder of how recent the development of the personal computer is when you are teaching people who have never used one in their life. 

Whether you teach computer classes in the public library like me or in an academic setting from elementary to college, please take the time to listen to this particular episode. It’s pretty damn amazing in looking at a potential of computer assisted education as well as the continued development of online courses.

If you’re someone in the classroom (regardless if that is at a college, high school, grade school, or public library), what kinds of technology assisted instruction have you used or seen?

6 thoughts on “Teaching Towards Your Blind Side

  1. Yes! Exactly! I, too teach computers daily, and have been using them for (mumble, mumble) years. Some of the things that seem completely evident to me are simply invisible to my students. I’m in the process now of redesigning our basic skills instruction, and I have trouble thinking of what to teach people unless I look at what someone else has already done. I finally developed a set of “advanced” classes so I could gather a small group of students to whom I can say things like, “Let’s close that file and go on to the file named (whatever)” without painstakingly detailing every navigational step. One advantage I have is that, although I look young, I am 51. When people tell me they can’t learn computers because they are over 50, I point out my age. That seems to give them a little more confidence.

    • I find that sometimes my job isn’t so much teaching people how to use the computer, but to instill confidence that they can learn and use the computer. Enough people over the years have told me that they are afraid to break it that I start off by telling them how they can kill their computer so that it never works again (pour a bucket of salt water through it while it’s on). Short of that, I tell them, you’d have to try real hard to kill it. Then I point out there is a difference between breaking the computer and opening a window or screen that they don’t recognize while focusing on problem solving skills.

  2. Oof … just read the link on expert blind spots. I could count the number of computer-savvy library school profs I had on, oh, one finger. While I think OLI stands a great chance of changing the way instruction works, I truly can’t imagine the current generation of humanities grad school profs gathering and managing the skills needed to teach in that way. For myself, I’m just not finding the time, between teaching and writing and managing to build those skills into my coursework.

    Mind, I’m positive there are some who could stand easily in that kind of environment, but not in almost any cases of the ones I know.

    Agree with you on the confidence, though. Best recent comment was that a student felt like she’d just been given the 64-crayon box with the sharpener!

  3. I’m a recent library science graduate. As a student and graduate reference assistant in an academic library, I have seen many examples of technology assisted instruction. Some classes I took were taught in computer labs so we could follow along online or used special programs (like OCLC Connexion). In others we used a device called a clicker to answer questions. One professor used a website (sorry I can’t remember the name) that allowed us to text in answers instead of buying clickers. Plus in non-computer lab classes, we were allowed to reference topics on our laptops, tablets, and/or smartphones.

    In the workshops and one-shot instruction classes I taught, I had the students follow along in the computer lab. I would ask them questions about how they thought searches could be improved or if they could see another way to search the database or catalog to ensure active learning. I would also teach them to use things like discovery services, link resolvers, and LibGuides. Overall, I found I spent less time explaining how to use the technology and more on search skills and determining reliable sources. However, I worked mostly with people who, like me, are digital natives. I realize this may not be the case for everyone.

  4. Since I do one on ones I can talk to each patron I’m helping and find out where their comfort level is and what specifically they are looking for. I find with a lot of my senior patrons if I do the steps first and talk them through it they have a bit more confidence themselves.

    I find they also apologize for getting things wrong, like mistyping or clicking on the wrong thing. I always tell them it’s nothing that, I’m used it and I do things wrong all the time myself. Most of the time I do something wrong when helping them.

    I did a one on one yesterday with a patron who just got a new Nook Glow and wanted help setting it up and downloading her first book. She got so excited when she downloaded the book herself, it was a great feeling to know she came in unsure of herself and within a half hour she knew she could do it.

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