On Didactical Reduction (especially in the DH)

Didactical reduction means abstracting complexity to facilitate learning. It is the act of reducing and simplifying teaching material as to promote student learning. Sadly, I feel that didactical reduction doesn’t accomplish its ends most of the time. Here is why and how I think we could do better.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

I have seen many classes where the content to be taught was reduced so drastically that is became simple and clear – but maybe **too simple and clear. It became meaningless.** The material became so easy to understand (or, even worse, a complex topic was made to seem like a banality), so that students stopped paying attention. “I already know this” or “I get this” are not necessarily thoughts a teacher wants to provoke. We use didactical reduction so that the complexity of a topic is hidden and we don’t scare our pupils. But fear isn’t always a bad thing. Fear means respect. And if a student never starts respecting a topic in its complexity, the student will never actually learn it.

Often, topics end up being reduced to banalities due to overly motivated didactical reduction.

There is no more incentive for students to learn them. I see this a lot with the more technical aspects of the Digital Humanities. Programming can seem scary to Humanists, so we reduce it to a bare minimum and then complain about how we can’t program. It’s either hack or yack with the DH, isn’t it?

Well, I don’t think so. I think that the DH have not yet reached the point where they have enough self-confidence to dare and face their dear students with a difficult class. Would anyone question the maths exams in a Computer Science degree even after they’d failed five times? They would complain, but they would not question why they  were necessary. (At least not at the back of their hearts where they know they are.)

It’s all just introductions in the DH?

In the DH, we are so afraid of the supposed lack of technical aptitude of our students that we basically just stop teaching them real skills. We do some theory, but not too much – it could scare away the students. We do some programming or other technical work but remain so much on the surface that no student could leave the class and actually feel that they master the topic. And maybe achieving mastery of a topic in just one class would be too much to ask. But then again, why do we even bother teaching a class if we don’t expect our students to have any actual skills after they have sucessfully completed it? Is it part of the nature of the DH that we are ‘Jacks of all trades’, we collect introductions to everything and master nothing? (Sorry to be provocative here, mabye this is exaggerated but also, maybe it makes my point more obvious.)

Challenging students means taking them seriously

I personally feel that teachers tend to not take students seriously enough. And by that, I don’t mean to insult or point fingers, but I think it is inherent in the nature of teaching that teachers deem themselves superior to their students. And this might be the case, of course. But this assumption brings with it a lot of presuppositions like the possible lack of aptitude or talent in the students. We mean well when we use didactic reduction but implicitly, it also often means that we don’t dare to challenge them because we’re afraid they might not be up for it. And that is a lack of respect.

Safe places, respect and challenge

I personally feel that trusting someone to be able to face a real challenge is a form of respect a teacher owes to its student. Showing respect by challenging people to learn and trusting them to be up for the challenge is something I apparently do unknowingly all the time when I teach. No matter if I teach Latin at school, teach university students or explain programming to 10 year olds. I trust students to be up for the challenge so that they can trust themselves. At first, they can be reluctant but once they realize how empowering it feels to learn an actionable skill, they love it.

I was very surprised to get very good feedback after teaching children during a sort of summer school this year. After all, my ski instructing years (the last time I actively worked with pre-adolescent children) were long past. But I think the reason why children I teach tend to idolize me is because I am one of the few people who treat them like adults. Who trust them to be able to handle responsibility and who take them just as seriously as I would a professor. Who doesn’t treat them like they’re dumb. Apparently, hardly anybody else does that or else it wouldn’t be so special.

But not treating a person as though they were dumb also means that I have expectations. I think them to be able to master a challenge but this also comes with the obligation to take the challenge. Adolescents tend to show more reluctance and resistance here. Challenging yourself is hard work and it might transform you. Change is feared and supposed to be painful. But it’s what makes learning worthwhile.

What I’m really trying to say with this is: You can only see your students’ potential once you dare to challenge them. Real learning can’t happen within the boundaries of absolute safety. Yes, it’s safe in your comfort zone, but there is this popular quote from the internet:

A comfort zone is a beautiful place but nothing ever grows there.

You can’t learn without leaving your comfort zone. Didactic reduction often leads teachers to make everything safe for their students. So safe that they actually prevent them from learning. And mind you, teachers: Students have a natural instinct to dumb themselves down hoping they will get less challenging work. Challenging work promotes personal growth, personal growth is change and people fear change. Also they avoid hard work. They will not appear compentent for a big challenge because they don’t want to be challenged. This is why you need to believe in their ability to tackle a challenge. Because they won’t do it if you don’t make them. Laziness kills, believe me.

Learning = Commitment to personal transformation

When I – as a student – take a class, on the one hand I want to obtain some quick and easy ECTS. But on the other hand, I don’t really want a class where I don’t ever learn anything. In the long term, the class will have been a waste of time if it doesn’t transform the way I think, at least in some aspect. A mere introduction, a listing or overview of the topic is nothing I need to take a class for. I can find this on Wikipedia. It doesn’t require any commitment. But if you want to learn, you won’t get very far without commitment.

A definition of learning in the field of Knowledge Technologies / Machine Learning / Artificial Intelligence is that it is a processes by which we achieve long-term changes in knowledge, perception and behaviour through experience. This results in in changes in brain structure in human learning and in changes in parameters of computationally represented knowledge and reasoning algorithms in machines.

This is a helpful working definition for the blog post at hand because according to this definition, no learning can happen without change. Which means it is a teacher’s job to induce change. This cannot be done by feeding students information they already know or making it appear like they already understand something because it is so drastically simplified. Students need to be made aware that there are things they don’t already know but at the same time assured that with the teacher’s help, they will be able to fill the void, one gap at a time.

Winging it

This all sounds great in theory but how do I make this work in practice, you might ask. Well, I’m not an expert and this sure isn’t the theory of the century but I have some ideas. Indulge me for a moment.

First of all, I obviously see that there is a difference between adolescents being forced to attend school and university students who, at least somewhere deep down, signed up for it freewillingly and came of their own accord. My tips work best for people who want to learn, at least somehow. But I don’t see why one shouldn’t be able to make it work for enslaved adolescents as well. It will probably be more difficult, but still.

Always make it actionable

If you have to do tons of theory, don’t forget to always make it actionable at some point. Theory can always be put into an actionable skill or “practised” on an example. This will be the one thing students will remember a year after your class is over. So make sure there is an actionable skill or general take-away or they might just remember nothing from the class in a year’s time.

Here, I would suggest you treat less topics but make room for some in-depth practical example for every topic covered where students can take action themselves. They should feel like they have mastered a task big enough that they can acutally use the skill they are supposed to have learned. Of course they still won’t be good. But I think they should end up feeling confident enough to do some paid work using the skill (taking into account that you go on learning as you work and usually can pull off, say a first week of slower, less good work, where you work yourself up to get a little more confident).

The size of the tasks I’m talking about could be doing XML annotation in a project, not “full mastery of Python” or something this big. If the class is, say, an introduction to Python, a student should be able to take a (not well paid) job where they do some small tasks with Python, in my opinion. So I would expect the student to have been taught some basic problem solving skills, some “algorithmic thinking”, Python basics and the knowledge of where to find what he or she doesn’t know yet. Or for another topic, the student should be confident enough to give supplementary classes or tutoring for someone who is new to the topic.

Do less but do it better.

I would go as far as to say that, for example, leave out the data types theory and just show that there are different data types with the examples of string and integer and how they work. Make the student understand what a data type is fairly clearly using these two examples and make sure he or she is able to practically apply that knowledge. They can learn about the other data types as they go.

Dare to do didactical reduction in the way that you leave things out so you can go into detail with the most important, most actionable basics. Cut the last topic you had planned for the semester, if you have to. It will be worth it if you really achieved good results on the basics.

A student with a sound understanding of the basics and the ability to apply this understanding to small (but not too small / banally small) tasks will be able to teach him- or herself the more advanced stuff somehow. Your job as a teacher is to provide the information the student couldn’t easily get on their own (like insider tips, thing you only learn with tons of experience, the understanding why XY is important or why attention to detail is important with a particular task, etc.).

But I don’t teach topics which can be made ‘actionable’

I don’t believe you. Anything can be made actionable. And if the action is just passing your exam. Think about what you will let the students do for the exam and practise it. Students often have difficulty applying something they were supposedly taught. Because applying it is part of what you (yes, I’m pointing fingers) would have been supposed to teach them. Teachers often expect students to have the so-called “transfer” skill of applying knowledge but most often: they don’t. Just assume they don’t. Teaching this is part of your job! Also, let them do it with help first but be sure to include an example where they have to apply the skill completely on their own. Students usually don’t think for themselves as long as you help them with everything and so, neither you nor the student ever realize they actually haven’t learnt the skill yet. Do check if they have actually learnt the skill you were trying to teach.

What gets measured, gets managed. (Peter Drucker)

If the desired output is to write a seminar paper, think about what real life application that skill could have. Write a well-researched article in a (non-scientific) journal? If you get your students to be ready to publish for a scientific journal, all the better. Don’t be content with some half-baked output. (unless it’s Ben & Jerry’s). Also think about potential fields your students might work in once they’re done with their studies. Come up with a real life output. Don’t stop until you have found at least one. Then hold yourself  (and your students) accountable to really achieve this.

Information is certain to be lost, skills remain

But remember, if your class doesn’t teach anything students would be able to put down in their CV as a skill, they might just look back to the class afterwards and wonder what the hell they’d even learned there. At least that’s how I think back to classes where I feel I didn’t really learn anything. These classes all had topics, but only some of them had actual outputs. Digital Humanities teacher’s have absolutely no excuses here but I do see that this is easier said than done for some other Humanities topics. But nevertheless, you should always be able to come up with some real desired output of the class. If you can’t try harder. Revise your class. Challenge your students, but also challenge yourself.

I insist so much on teaching skills alongside “information” because information is certain to get lost over time. If you don’t teach any skill, your class will have no lasting impact on your students whatsoever. All the “good classes” I myself have ever attended have taught me a new skill in one way or another. The only classes I remember now are the ones where I actually learned a new skill.

Undergraduate level vs. Master’s level: Knowing about a topic vs. knowing a topic

For undergraduate, so Bachelor’s level classes, I reckon some drastically reduced content and even the ominous “listings” of information might be ok if they can’t be avoided. You have to start somewhere. Though I firmly believe that there is always a way to include at least some actionable skill where you can go into detail. If it’s just doing a mini hands-on tutorial online where they get to do something they might, at least theoretically, use in real life.

Teach the class so well that your students can confidently write that skill in their CV

But for the graduate level, so anything Master’s curriculum or above, you absolutely have to make it actionable. Merely absorbing information is not enough anymore. A students needs to walk out of your study programme with a specialization and enough skills to get a first job. So this means either specializing on some topics with the result that the student is able to “make sound decisions”, “think for him- or herself” in this topic. Or enough applied knowledge which translates to a skill students can put into their CVs. If you teach a “practical” class, what is the skill you would trust your students to put into their CVs once they have completed your class? If you can’t come up with one, maybe you should rethink your class. Having heard about the topic and knowing it exists is enough for a Bachelor’s level introduction at best. At the master’s level, it is my firm belief that you should teach an actual skill for the student to master, a specialization where they feel “firm” and confident enough to do paid work in.

 

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