Didactical Reduction, Part II

In my first post on didactical reduction, I argued that reduction of learning materials to meaningslessness can be detrimental, that teachers should trust in their students’ ability to learn and rise to a challenge. In this post I want to discuss ways of reducing complexity which actually makes sense. The gist is: reduce unneccessary detail, not difficulty. Build complexity in a carefully chosen progression.

Telling the difference between unnecessary detail and challenging complexity

In my post on why programming classes fail and learning ‘algorithmic thinking’, a main example was that students starting out programmig don’t need to know about data types. I will stick with this example here because I just think it illustrates my point so well. The skill to learn I discussed in the post really wasn’t the ‘vocabulary’ of your first programming language, but ‘learning programming’ means successfully communicating with a computer and in order to do that, you need to develop the skill of algorithmic thinking. This skill is independent from your chosen programming language, so you might as well start with a visual lanuage like PocketCode’s Catrobat or Scratch. I would even encourage you to do so.

My favourite illustrative example: data types in introductory programming classes

When took my first programming class, already in the first or second lesson, I was bombarded with data types. I might add now, that since I never write programs that calculate anything, I have never really needed any more datatypes than int, char, string and complex data types to this day. Other primitive datatypes I have ever only used in ‘fake examples’ or ‘program your own calculator’ tutorials. All while you can generally get away with not very much programming in the Digital Humanities, even though I try to program as much as possible, I have never needed any of the other data types to this day. And that first programming class I took was in 2016. So maybe you see what I’m getting at: a new learner really doesn’t need to know about data types. They should maybe informed at some point – once they have mastered string and int – that there are, in fact, other data types which they might need later on and to pay attention. But that should be about enough. Especially since every book on learning a programming language features them anyway. So your students will know where to find out about data types. Once they actually need them.

In that first class, when we were told about datatypes, the only thing it did for me was turn on this destructive internal dialogue: “What? What does it mean? What do I need it for? Should I learn this by heart now? (like how many bytes an int has… the internal representation is different depending on your computer anyway, I must add years later).” And it went on like this. But the most important thought it generated in my mind is this one – I will print it in bold because it’s important: “Wow. Programming must be really difficult. Maybe I’m too stupid to understand it.” This is the common thought students have in this situation because they are fed information which don’t fit into the learning grid in their heads. Unless they have had previous programming experience and already know the content you teach them, it is plain impossible to understand this new information because there isn’t enough context. This means you have utterly failed as a teacher, congrats. So please don’t do that. Only teach things which can find a place in the student’s internal thinking grid. They will not remember information they don’t know where to put. So that’s a complete waste of time.

Children’s books don’t mention data types

I have made the effort of checking many “learn programming” books for this example and it turns out that children’s books never mention data types but books for adults always do. So if in doubt, and if you really have no previous programming experience since children’s books usually start at a low entrance barrier (which can be good but maybe won’t be challenging enough for you), just get a children’s ‘learn programming’ class. They are way more sensible. They introduce concepts only when they’re really needed. If you’re not a complete beginner anymore, some more theory would be better. Remember, I am also a big fan of ‘the bigger picture’ and argue that you should, in fact, learn more background information than strictly necessary (see my post on learning from tutorials vs. books). It is assumed that a didactical approach is essential when teaching children, yet somehow people seem to think adult learning was different.

Imagine explaining everything to a child. Then apply this to adults.

So what I really mean is that you should not reduce difficulty or complexity, but you should reduce unnecessary detail. As a teacher, it is extremely difficult to leave things out, you always want to be as thorough as possible, I know this from experience. But that isn’t good teaching. Good teaching is learning, step by step, to leave out the unnecessary. Learn to simplify. If you don’t know how to explain something in a very simple way because you think the topic to be soo complicated and you just can’timagine how you would explain it to a child or to your grandma and there you go.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

Systematically planning for effective teaching

It is interesting that we usually give this kind of advice to our students for preparing presentations yet we totally ignore it for our own teaching. Especially, if you teach at the university, you feel like it’s not your problem to simplify things. Students should just suck it up. Well, plot twist. No they shouldn’t. Maybe we should take some time and plan for effective teaching. Because from my experience, I feel that respecting a few simple things will already do the trick.

1.) Leave out unnecessary detail

To “automate” this, especially for classes where there are pratical parts, just plan the practical parts first. Note down only the information needed to complete the practicals. If you end up feeling like important concepts are missing in the end, mention those in the form of a glossary (key term + max. 1 sentence explanation you can put in a visual info block). Unnecessary detail clouds your students’ minds. Unlike you, they lack the experience to tell for themselves which bit of information is important and which one is just a nice-to-have. So they end up with tons of learning material,  large amouts of things to study in a non-brain-friendly format. It will take them ages to write up a summary and find out which parts can be left out and which can’t. For you, making this clear would probably take 5 additional minutes. If anything, always end with a “things to remember” final slide which sums up the concepts you expect them to know by the next lesson. You know how to tell the difference between signal and noise. That’s why they employed you to teach. So rise to your responsibility.

2.) Provide short survival summaries with the most important takeaways

I explain this in the tutorial post on study summaries. Force yourself to sum up all your classes’ contents in no more than one page per lesson and then, at the end, create a survival summary, which sums up the most important concepts from the 12 one-page-per-lesson summaries in one single page. All the detail you need can go into the lesson summaries, the final summary is equivalent to a pass grade in an examination: If the student knows and understands all the concepts on it, even if they know no details whatsoever that should be worth at least a pass grade.

3.) Choose handouts over ‘the slides culture’

Over the last years, I noticed that hardly anybody does handouts anymore. People think that their students have the PowerPoint (or LaTeX!) slides  anyway and can learn from them. But there is an important difference: Slides often contain illustrative examples or unimportant details and mostly, there are way too many slides. Students end up completely lost for which information is important. Provide a one-page handout. This forces you to stick to the key takeaways and leave away unimportant detail. You can still have details in your personal notes and mention them. But please do take the time to hand students a more didactical document than your personal notes. If your notes are sometimes confusing to yourself, the master and producer of that chaos, how do you expect non-experts to understand them?

4.) Mastery comes from mastering the deconstructed minimal building blocks of a skill

I explained this in the post on deliberate practice. For teaching purposes this means: people don’t pay enough attention to the basics! They are often presented in a way which makes students think they already understand everything anyway. This is, probably, the biggest hybris ever. In my experience, hardly anybody – except for real masters of their craft – actually get the basics and understand their vital importance. Don’t teach your students to sweat the small stuff. Rater spend some extra time on the basics. Often, the basics are crammed into the first 10 minutes of a class. This is a big mistake! It’s actually the advanced stuff which is easy, not the other way round. Once you’ve understood the basics. Never assume your students understand the basics, even if they think they do. They lack the experience to judge their own proficiency. The greatest waste of time I have observed in classes is when students don’t have a firm grasp on the basics but don’t dare ask. In the later stages, they are at a complete loss for what to do. It’s your job as a teacher to stress the basics so many times that students really understand them. This will also teach them that it’s ok to ask. If you skip over basics they didn’t understand, you make them afraid to ask for fear of looking like an idiot. There are no studid questions – live this and your students will start asking! Consequently, measure their mastery of the basics with some sort of testing and only move on once they really understood them. Even if it takes 6 out of your 13 lessons. It will be worth it in the end. Give more advanced students a challenging task in the meantime.

5.) Don’t forget the generic “How to approach this type of problem” summary

Even if this is mentioned implicitly in your teaching methodology, don’t assume students can abstract the general methodology from your practical example. That’s how they end up not knowing how to Google scientific literature on their chosen topic. You have to make everything explicit, even if it seems trivial. Especially if it’s trivial because everything which seems trivial to you is likely a vital underlying key concept and exactly the sort of basic knowledge you would be supposed to teach. Even if you think you already did it in your class, please just do provide a little written out step-by-step tutorial so people can go back to that if they don’t remember how to do it. Maybe they forgot to note down one simple step but that missing step will mess up the whole process. I tend to formulate this while explaining to students what they are supposed to do (i.e. explaining the homework, current task, etc.). I always feel like an iditot doing this but this is the moment where you still have feedback for what your students need. You can add additional problems as they come up. Make the list as extensive and detailed as possible. Often teachers have really bad assessment skills when it comes to predicting  what will be a difficult obstacle for a student in a task. Often it is not even the task they can’t manage but, for example, the forgot where to find the data needed for it, etc.

Like I talked about in the “learn programming” post, the “how to approach this problem” part for starting out programming is not the “vocabulary” of a programming language but algorithmic thinking. Where do I start when I am faced with a task like this? That is actually what you should be teaching. It’s called getting people actionable skills. Teach them to teach themselves, the tricks to make things easier, where they can find information, etc. Take the time to write this out even if you feel like your students should already know this because it came up in a prerequisiste class. Don’t play strict here. You’re only hurting your own class if you insist that people should already know this by now. If they don’t (which is likely to be the case), make it your priority to fill the gaps in their knowledge in the most effective way. Make sure they don’t end up in your colleagues class with an even bigger pile of “stuff they would have already be supposed to know”. Don’t cry over spilt milk. Wipe it up before it starts to stink.

6.) Don’t bore the pants off your advanced students

They don’t know everything and still have things to learn, else they probably wouldn’t be in your class. Prepare something to do for advanced students. I mean, honestly, even as an unexperienced teacher, deep down you can tell before you’ve even met your students that their skill level will not be homogenous. So why didn’t you prepare for it in advance? Offering a cool project for advanced students isn’t so difficult. Prepare it once and reuse it forever. Take this one hour it will take to come up with a more complicated problem (you probably already have one in mind anyway) and spell it out in a way that students can work independently. Give them book suggestions or links where they can learn what they need so they don’t need to interrupt your class.

Your class will (and should) move at the pace of the slowest student. If you don’t prepare for imhomogenous classes, more advanced students will be bored drift off quickly. Have advanced mini projects on hand to keep them busy, motivated and interested. Espeically your good students are actually the ones you want to keep happy. They are the ones who might come to the follow-up class. Unless you bore them away. Counterintuitively, advanced students often tend to get ignored by teachers because they are “difficult”. Yes, advanced students are challenging to teach. Give them something task from a real-life project you wanted to delegate to save time anyway. The responsibilty will ensure they know you value their advanced skill, even though you might not have the time for a 1:1 master class right now. Then, think about actually offering 1:1 master classes for motivated students. They will appreciate it because usually, advanced students really love to learn but hardly get the opportunity during classic teaching. If you have the time, challenge and mentor them outside class. They can become great allies and future co-workers in the long term. Also, the more advanced a student, the more they need non-generic help but challenges tailored to their current needs and skill level.

The “mini-project method” also allows you to take extra care of slow students without guilt – you can let everybody else start on the mini-project (which took you one hour to prepare one single time and can be reused indefinitely if it was a good project), so it won’t be at the expense of their learning experience.

Writing this down, I realized I really have a lot of thoughts on this, so expect another follow up at some point 😉

Bye for now,

the LaTeX Ninja

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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