Thoughts on Teaching Technology [u]

[Updated June 12, 2016, about six years after I first wrote it. I believe this now more than ever. Updated Jan. 3, 2021. Even in a world of online training, I think these thoughts still hold true.]

I’ve been thinking about teaching recently. Now, this isn’t surprising since my principle role is training in one form or another. Still, thinking about what I can do to make my teaching better is always a worthwhile activity.

More specifically, I’ve been reflecting on the challenges in teaching technology. And I’m starting to think we, as teachers, may be making it harder for our students to retain the right information due to the way we teach.

[ Update: I’ve been testing these ideas in my classes at USC, as well as when I train adults. In all cases, the more time I spend at the beginning explaining fundamentals the further we can go later in the course. ]

I’ve never mentioned this in writing before, but the genesis of these ideas began a couple years ago when I was at Apple for four days of training for Apple-Certified Instructors on the latest version of Apple Motion.

By the end of the first day, I could not believe how angry I was. At the start of the first day, we jumped right into 3D space and I promptly got lost. As the instructor said “click here” or “your screen should now look like this” I got further and further behind until, at the end of the day, I had no clue what we had covered.

Now for motion graphics folks, moving around in 3D space is probably old hat. But for those of us who still have a love/hate relationship with Motion and develop skin allergies at the thought of doing anything serious in After Effects, in other words, me, 3D was alien space.

What made this whole experience worse was that we were following the outline in the Motion book. Since I know all the authors of the Apple Motion books, I am not pointing fingers. Instead, this experience made me realize the difference between teaching a class in real-time (either in-person or on-line) and teaching by writing a book.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve used this experience to differentiate the methods I use to teach a class versus how I write a book.

A key role of training is overcoming fear. (Actually, while I think almost all training revolves around this, it is most obvious in a classroom setting, where every student feels they are being judged by their peers, as well as their teacher.)

When I write a book, or when I write a technique for this newsletter, I try to provide a precise step-by-step cookbook for someone to follow. But I almost never do this when I teach a class in person.

Someone purchases a book because they are interested in the subject and want to devote the time to learning something. Books have to provide step-by-step instructions because the instructor isn’t there to answer questions. As authors, we need to anticipate questions and answer them in the book. Assuming the book is well-written, if students get lost, they’ll go over the material again, or look for an alternate explanation elsewhere in the book, to regain their understanding.

[ Update: When you are reading a book, no one else is watching you work. You are not being “judged” on the speed with which you grasp a concept, the quality of your work, or whether your questions indicate you have any clue on what is being taught. You are also able to go at your own pace.]

But real-time is different. Assuming the students are there voluntarily — and I’ve taught classes where they weren’t very happy about being there — why are they attending a class in person, instead of buying a book?

I think that one major motivating factor is fear. Fear that they aren’t smart enough to understand the software. Fear that if they can’t learn it, they won’t get work. Fear that this knowledge they desire is just beyond their reach.

No student I’ve ever taught has expressed it this way. They use phrases like: “I want to make myself more marketable,” “I want to get a promotion,” “I need to do more in less time;” but their underlying concern is “what if I can’t?”

For this reason, I devote lots of time during the first day to helping students feel successful. I don’t have them open the book, as I don’t want them worrying about what page they should be on, or why their screen doesn’t look “right.” In some cases, I ask them not to take notes, just be in the moment and “do.” The experience of getting something to work is far superior to taking notes — at least in the beginning.

[ Update: This is a really important concept for me. I call it “Creating Garbage.” I explain that the very first project we will create will look awful – I go into over-the-top detail about how bad it will look. This takes all the fear of failure away. If I tell the class whatever they create will look bad, they stop worrying about their results and, instead, concentrate on the process. This is exactly what it takes to get someone familiar with software. Learn how it works, first, then each student’s natural creativity will guide them into creating something that will appeal to an audience.]

Before launching any software, I always explain the principals behind what we are doing, describe where we are going, and give them signposts they’ll see along the way so they don’t get lost. (I’m a firm believer in building a strong foundation.) Once we start using the software, I am never a stickler for accuracy; not at the start. Precision comes after you get comfortable with what you are doing.

Load a clip, I say. I don’t care which clip. Set an In, anywhere. Set an Out, anywhere. Here’s a quick way to edit it to the Timeline. Done. Hit the spacebar and play it. Poof! YOU are an editor! Very cool….

UPDATE: The other trend that I see growing is instructors who go too fast. It’s as though they fear that if they slow down, people will get bored. Perhaps. But the REAL reason people are taking your training is that they want to LEARN something. The faster the instructor goes, the harder it is for any student to remember the content.

Demos are fast, to capture the eye. Training should be slower, to capture the mind.  If you want to impress, go fast. If you want to be memorable, slow down. The finest speeches in the world were not delivered as a race.

The problem I had with the Motion class wasn’t the software, it wasn’t the book. It was that I was completely lost on the whole concept of 3D and while the book said “move the camera here,” a 3D camera was like no video camera I’ve ever worked with. I was lost in the concept and getting farther behind. I needed help understanding the big picture before I could appreciate the details. I didn’t need to create glorious art on the first take. I just wanted to create ANYTHING, know how I got there and how to get back.

Take a minute and think about the software that scares you. It probably isn’t editing software, since you visit this website. Maybe it’s accounting software, or databases, or design or foreign languages.

Think about why it frightens you — maybe you don’t understand how it “thinks,” or how it’s used in real-life, or your brain just “doesn’t think that way.” In other words, it has you intimidated.

If students are intimidated by something, trying to get them to do it accurately is the worst thing we can do. We need to help them feel successful, that they CAN learn this, before they can put this knowledge to work creating something for an audience.

If they have an affinity for the software, they will quickly start to demand more and more detail. But only after we’ve given them the freedom to learn without penalizing them for mistakes.

Get them oriented, comfortable, and successful and they become excited. They CAN learn this. They CAN master it. Precision and details come with time. But they’ll never spend the time if they are angry at themselves for being too dumb to learn – or if you move too fast for them to keep up.

As always, let me know what you think.


20 Responses to Thoughts on Teaching Technology [u]

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  1. Nick Rains says:

    Great advice Larry – I just adjusted a video e-course I am beginning to write (about Photoshop) to incorporate some of your insights. Many thanks.

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