Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

Every now and again, a library member will approach me at the reference desk and preface their inquiry with the phrase, “I have a stupid question”. My standard response comes from Lewis Black (“I will be the judge of that”) which I sometimes manage not to say out loud. Despite their declaration to the contrary, I’ve never heard a stupid question. I’ve heard ones of genuine curiosity, easily rectified inattentive reasoning, and momentary mind farts, but nothing that arises to the level of thinking, “I question the integrity of the oxygen supply to your brain”.

A few months ago, I remember teaching one of my computer classes . As I was greeting people and checking off registered name, a person entering the computer center leaned in and said in a low voice, “I’m the stupid one.” I made a joke to pass it off, but they were insistent. “No, really, I’m not smart.” Oh man. I haven’t uttered one word of instruction and this person has already charted a course that leads towards a failing outcome. How do you overcome that?

I made a point in telling them that, in seeking help to learn more about computers, they’ve already made one smart move. That there were people who had already given up on themselves without even trying to find someone to teach them. Also that I was also there to help them along, to guide them through, and to answer the questions along the way. They changed their tune, a mixture of being taken aback by my bluntness and embarrassment that I would not let go of the point, and by the time they left the class they thanked me for giving them the confidence to use a computer.

It’s this last key point (confidence) that I work to instill when I’m teaching my computer classes. Although it is not an original discovery in any way, shape, or form, but I find that attitude can be equally if not more important than knowledge in the classroom. I could ramble on about how a computer works, the features of Microsoft Word, or the privacy settings of Facebook for hours on end, but if my students don’t have the courage and confidence to use the mouse or type on the keyboard, it’s wasted breath. So many of my students (nearly all older people) come in frightened that they could press the wrong key or click on the wrong icon and the whole computer will crash, blow up, run off with their spouse, and spend their retirement money in Bora Bora. The main lesson I try to impart is approach this as an adventure, that there aren’t any bad screens only unfamiliar ones, and that everything can be fixed (even if requires a family member or friend to help them out). 

I know I’m going to get pushback on this, but there really isn’t anything that is a stupid question in our business. We are there to provide answers to questions, even if they seem rote, basic, or just plain lazy. There is a keen difference between these behaviors and being completely mentally dull. Given the expansive definition of the term itself, some nuance and context are required to figure out what the real issue is (which, I should note, doesn’t rule out the librarian as being out of line in this equation either).

In that interaction, whether it is in the computer lab or the reference desk or out on the floor, the most important thing that we can give our library members is the confidence to ask the next question. While our answer to their inquiry can be overturned by later data, the attitude of the interaction outcome will leave a longer lasting impression. Overall, when we judge an inquiry as stupid (read: beneath us), it can be a dangerous term in which to frame the people who walk through the door seeking our help.

One Two Three, One Two Three, One Two Three…

I am not a natural dancer. My girlfriend reminds me of this fact, accompanying it with one of those pats on the arm meant to cushion the blow of receiving unwelcome news. It’s not a surprise anymore after a year of learning country line dancing, both single and couples dances. I still have some trouble finding the beat and, even if I do find it, staying on it is another matter. I’ve gotten a better sense of the beat over the year and can correct myself to match up, but it’s an ongoing process.

Over the weekend while we were visiting her parents for the Thanksgiving holiday, I was invited to come to her parent’s dance club. The club has an hour lesson followed by about two hours of open dancing. Ballroom dancing, I should add, as it is another kind of dancing that I am not wholly unfamiliar with. I’ve had a single lesson for West Coast Swing, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten outside the rigid formulas of country dancing. While you can add your own variations (“styling”, as I’m told it’s called) to country dancing, there is always a known basic formula for moving around the dance floor. With ballroom dancing, you get to decide what happens next.

This is a relatively new and somewhat foreign concept for me.

On Saturday night, we learned the basic steps of the waltz. It was during the lesson that I experienced an incredible amount of frustration. While I understood and was able to replicate the steps in practice when they were broken down into one or two sets of movements, connecting these different steps together in a continuous flow was proving to be difficult. I felt incredible frustration at an inability to connect my thoughts on what my body should be doing to my actual body movements. I knew that I had to step and move a certain way and my body didn’t seem to be receiving that same message. The steps started to jumble up together like a giant knot and I was trying to pull it apart on the fly paired with a partner.

To put it in perspective, it was the type of frustration that makes you want to run away crying and screaming in rage; sticking it through feels like every part of your brain is calling out for you to quit now. I’m proud that I stuck it through the rest of the night, but it was emotionally and psychologically draining. It left me feeling very vulnerable and in the clutches of a black mood as we drove away back to our hotel room at the end of the evening.

In thinking about this experience on the long drive back to New Jersey, I started to wonder if I had seen that kind of frustration that I experienced in some of the people who have come to my classes over the years at the library. My thoughts lead me to consider the basic computing class that I teach. It’s an excellent example as to how some concepts that are so basic to some can be so distant to others. I thought about the number of times someone expressed being nervous about typing on the keyboard, clicking on things on the screen, or even moving a program window. Had these people felt their own version of the knot, where the concepts suddenly turned into a jumble? How many people stuck it out in the classroom when all they wanted to do was leave and never turn on a computer again? How were they able to deal with their frustration?

Was I able to get them through those moments?

After the lesson and stumbling through a waltz during the open dance, I was relating this knot allegory to my girlfriend’s mother. It felt good to be able express this frustration, but the advice she gave me in return helped immensely. I’m paraphrasing since I don’t remember her exact wording and I felt like it really hit the heart of the matter.

Another couple was having trouble with a lesson that had both basic and advanced steps and it was really putting a crimp on their evening. The instructor told them that when the dance came up again to go out and just do the basic steps over and over again. Don’t worry or think about the advanced stuff, just focus on the basics. In working on holding their frame and technique, it would help them get create muscle memory and become comfortable with a series of moves they could build on and always return to.

On the basis of this advice, I have to commend my girlfriend for being very patient with me for an evening full of basic step waltzes. (I had enough technique to be able to rotate a little, so it wasn’t that routine.) But this kind of experience is a nice reminder about the difference between people who come to things naturally and those who have to work on it to excel at it. And, more importantly for me, that I need to be more alert and sensitive to those people who might be frustrated in that same way to provide them with the help and encouragement they need to unravel their own knots. Any knowledge can be broken down into “one, two, three”, but translating it into skill is a wholly different matter. The next best thing to being a natural is being someone dedicated to mastering it.

In the meantime, I had better start practicing or else we’ll be doing basic steps forever. I don’t know if she has the patience for that.

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?

Class & Lunch

Today I taught a continuing education class for my fellow library professionals about blogs, microblogging, and RSS feeds. It went very well by my own estimation as I was able to finally use some of the knowledge gleaned from the Pres4Lib conference back in June. Specifically, I made sure I was prepared, relaxed, and tried to make certain I was addressing everyone in attendance. It was hard since I was positioned in the middle of the computer lab with people behind and in front of me. I had some stops and starts, but it happened when the internet was slow to load something or I skipped around on some of my major points or got ahead of what I wanted to say. There was probably more talking off the top of my head than should have been, but my experience with all the sites reminded me of all the ins and outs. The thing I would do next time is make certain I provide a recommendation for each site as it would relate to a patron reference question experience. I did for some sites but not for others, although it ended up getting cleared up at the end.

Tree, Clouds, Sky What made today really nice was lunch. I had stopped to get something to eat from Wawa and went to eat my lunch at our main branch where I was teaching the class. Today was so gorgeous that I decided to park over by the trees on the side of the parking lot. In a quick command decision, rather than sit in the car and listen to the radio while I ate or go inside, I went and sat under the trees. I’ve come to the realization that I may spend too much time “connected”; between Facebook, Twitter, Livejournal, various message boards, email, television, and radio, I am just bombarded with information most of the day. It is a matter of taking the time to shut off everything, to sit with my thoughts, and (as my anxiety counselor might put it), just be.

So there I sat on the grass, under the trees, with my back to the busy road that runs in front of my library, listening to the wind, watching the clouds, and slowly eating my sandwich. It was simply divine; and something I should do more often. And next time, maybe take a picture or two. Oddly enough, it reminded me of something I had heard today. The host of Tell Me More on NPR was chiding a guest who was speaking far over his time allotment and wanted more time with this quip:

"Time is a resource that they are not making any more of, and I am in charge of it.”

Something to think about next time when I am just be-ing.