Foiled by training: Why multi-modal learning materials matter

I rarely attempt a new task without being reminded that not all people learn the same way.  I’ve written about how that plays out on the job here and here and probably other places I’ve forgotten about. This month I’ve been wrestling with a similar problem in the context of trying to master a new piece of software.

I’m in the process of trying to set up a new website to hold content from my old “you can teach writing” site.  I needed new web creation software to replace the Dreamweaver program I’d had since 2001.

I did my homework, tried CoffeeCup‘s Responsive Site Designer and decided to buy it.

I knew it would require some time to master RSD, but I’d learned Dreamweaver, I’ve had plenty of experience with grid-based design, including changing designs to fit various sized pages, so I didn’t think learning RSD would be too hard.

What I didn’t stop to consider was that Dreamweaver provided a book with text and screenshots; CoffeeCup recommended a video tutorial for RSD.

Screenshot of title page of one RSD training video.

For efficient learning, I need fixed text and still pictures.

I watched the first two RSD video segments which showed someone creating webpages.

There was no narrative to explain what trainer was doing. I could see his cursor hovered over certain places on the screen but I couldn’t tell what action, if any, he took.

I watched the videos again.

And watched them again.

And again.

screenshot of part of the RSD control panel
Section of RSD control panel.

After two days of that, I opened the program and tried to recreate what I saw on the video.

I’d watch a few seconds of video, switch to the program and try to reproduce the changes I saw in the page in the tutorial.

Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

I did the back-and-forth bit for several days and still had no clue how to use the program.

The control panel for the page creation screen has a black background with tiny light gray type. If I zoomed in to see the tiny type, I couldn’t see the page creation screen.

In the last two of the five videos in the tutorial, the action that the trainer took was masked by the Vimeo progress bar.

In frustration, I contacted CoffeeCup support and asked how to open a blank page.

Armed with that information and a rough layout I’d planned using a spreadsheet in lieu of a wire frame, I created a webpage in one afternoon.

My page isn’t great, but it’s not bad either. I’ve seen worse from people who supposedly knew what they were doing.

Take-aways

For me as a teacher and writer of instructional materials, every frustrating experience is a learning experience (after it’s over).

Some notes to myself, based on this experience:

  • Don’t make people feel stupid.
  • If you have something to show, make sure it’s visible.
  • Help people get started.
  • Provide cheat sheets.
  • Don’t assume everyone learns best the way you do.
  • Don’t assume everyone has prior experiences similar to yours.
  • Provide a menu (or other structure) to help people find the most relevant resources at various stages of the learning learning process.
  • If learners segment into distinct groups based on prior experience, consider making different menus for the different groups.

 

Summer teacher improvement programs

For teachers, summer is not just the season for vacations. It’s also the season for workshops and conferences, for reading and reflecting.

Many summer teacher activities show up in my Twitter feed.

I’ve been struck in the last couple weeks by what kinds of things teachers are learning about in their organized professional development activities.

Most of the teacher training sessions seem to fall into one of two categories. Either they focus on

  • tools (typically technology tools), or
  • on what might be termed “soft pedagogy skills.”

Soft pedagogy skills are such things as flipping a classroom, teaching mindfulness, or helping students develop grit.

I don’t see many teacher summer activities directed toward developing better

  • teaching objectives
  • teaching skills
  • teaching materials
  • teaching strategies

for specific subjects.

I find that troublesome.

From an economic standpoint, I understand it’s more sensible to offer programs that draw 150 people than programs that will draw only five when you’re hiring presenters who charge $3,000 a presentation.

From an education perspective, however, I wonder whether teachers might not have a greater impact on student learning if a few people who teach the same subjects at the same grade level were encouraged to work together on shared problems.

The small group could draw on local people as resources for such things as workplace uses of content from the teachers’ subject area.

The group could also invite teachers in training to participate, which could be good for the trainees and might also help the local school attract new teachers.

Anyone have a program such as I envision in their school or region? Please share your experience in the comments.

A response to “How-we-make-teaching too hard for mere mortals”

Robert Pondiscio’s article “How We Make Teaching Too Hard for Mere Mortals” caught my eye this week. In it, Pondiscio summarizes the Rand Corporation research showing most American elementary and secondary teachers use “materials I developed and/or selected myself.”

photo of teacher and students on cover of Rand report

Teaching is tough

I agree with Pondiscio the quality instructional materials teachers are given to work with stinks. (Pondiscio phrases that more delicately than I.)

In my teaching emphasis (secondary and post-secondary writing),  free materials available for selection are presentations for lessons or units on various topics, not aids for year-long distributed practice.

I agree, too, with Pondiscio that expecting all teachers to be expert at both instructional design and classroom teaching is expecting far too much.

I also agree with Pondiscio that American education is “making a serious mistake by not paying more attention to curriculum, classroom materials, and instructional design.”

What I do question is Pondiscio’s

  • equation of teacher-designed materials with pulling materials from the Internet
  • divorce of instructional design from instructional delivery

Developing beats downloading

Downloading worksheets and lessons from Teachers Pay Teachers is far different from teachers developing materials for their students.

The first just looks for something on a topic to fill the class time and justify accepting a paycheck.

The second recognizes the inadequacy of the existing materials to move students toward meeting standards.

Although both may be equally good/bad at enabling learning, I’d far rather have the teacher who develops his/her own materials: That person is committed to teaching.

Teachers aren’t waiters

Pondiscio says expecting a teacher to design instructional materials and teach is ” like expecting the waiter at your favorite restaurant to serve your meal attentively while simultaneously cooking for twenty-five other people—and doing all the shopping and prepping the night before.”

That analogy has one problem: The public doesn’t regard waiters as professionals.

The public does expect the restaurant professional—the chef—to produce meals for 25 people at a time and to do all the planning, shopping, prepping, and kitchen management.

The public also expects the chef to be fully prepared to do all that from day one: That’s how the public defines a professional.

(That the public may be wrong is a topic for another day.)

Mere mortals do instructional design

Instructional design is not difficult conceptually: It is difficult operationally.

It requires enough understanding of subject matter so that the instructor can reverse engineer instruction from the goals/outcomes, such as those specified in the Common Core State Standards.

Instructional design requires enough knowledge of the subject and enough observation of learners to determine:

  • what’s hard to understand
  • what’s hard to learn to use appropriately
  • how to help individual learners relate something in their experience to the subject matter material to be learned

Instructional design often comes down to figuring out what can be omitted from instruction so that more time can be devoted to learning.

I learned instructional design conceptually as an undergraduate psychology major; I did more study in instructional design as part of a master’s program designed to prepare school public relations staff.

I learned instructional design operationally by designing materials for teaching writing, observing how well they worked, and tweaking them to work a bit better the next time.

Is off-the-shelf  best?

I see the attraction of having curricular materials ready-made for teachers. (And I’d love to get in on the money that’s going to be made doing that.)

I do not, however, see how developing materials that meet standards will produce better results faster than teaching teachers how to design their own materials so they don’t need to select lessons from Pinterest.

If it were necessary to be a polymath to do instructional design, I would not have been able to do instructional design in fields ranging from education to engineering.

Simply being competent is good enough because, as  Pondiscio’s instructional design expert Marcy Stein says, instructional design is iterative: Teachers get more than one chance to improve their curricular products.

 

A response to "How-we-make-teaching too hard for mere mortals"

Robert Pondiscio’s article "How We Make Teaching Too Hard for Mere Mortals" caught my eye this week. In it, Pondiscio summarizes the Rand Corporation research showing most American elementary and secondary teachers use “materials I developed and/or selected myself.” photo of teacher and students on cover of Rand report

Teaching is tough

I agree with Pondiscio the quality instructional materials teachers are given to work with stinks. (Pondiscio phrases that more delicately than I.) In my teaching emphasis (secondary and post-secondary writing),  free materials available for selection are presentations for lessons or units on various topics, not aids for year-long distributed practice. I agree, too, with Pondiscio that expecting all teachers to be expert at both instructional design and classroom teaching is expecting far too much. I also agree with Pondiscio that American education is "making a serious mistake by not paying more attention to curriculum, classroom materials, and instructional design." What I do question is Pondiscio’s

  • equation of teacher-designed materials with pulling materials from the Internet
  • divorce of instructional design from instructional delivery

Developing beats downloading

Downloading worksheets and lessons from Teachers Pay Teachers is far different from teachers developing materials for their students. The first just looks for something on a topic to fill the class time and justify accepting a paycheck. The second recognizes the inadequacy of the existing materials to move students toward meeting standards. Although both may be equally good/bad at enabling learning, I’d far rather have the teacher who develops his/her own materials: That person is committed to teaching.

Teachers aren’t waiters

Pondiscio says expecting a teacher to design instructional materials and teach is " like expecting the waiter at your favorite restaurant to serve your meal attentively while simultaneously cooking for twenty-five other people—and doing all the shopping and prepping the night before." That analogy has one problem: The public doesn’t regard waiters as professionals. The public does expect the restaurant professional—the chef—to produce meals for 25 people at a time and to do all the planning, shopping, prepping, and kitchen management. The public also expects the chef to be fully prepared to do all that from day one: That’s how the public defines a professional. (That the public may be wrong is a topic for another day.)

Mere mortals do instructional design

Instructional design is not difficult conceptually: It is difficult operationally. It requires enough understanding of subject matter so that the instructor can reverse engineer instruction from the goals/outcomes, such as those specified in the Common Core State Standards. Instructional design requires enough knowledge of the subject and enough observation of learners to determine:

  • what’s hard to understand
  • what’s hard to learn to use appropriately
  • how to help individual learners relate something in their experience to the subject matter material to be learned

Instructional design often comes down to figuring out what can be omitted from instruction so that more time can be devoted to learning. I learned instructional design conceptually as an undergraduate psychology major; I did more study in instructional design as part of a master’s program designed to prepare school public relations staff. I learned instructional design operationally by designing materials for teaching writing, observing how well they worked, and tweaking them to work a bit better the next time.

Is off-the-shelf  best?

I see the attraction of having curricular materials ready-made for teachers. (And I’d love to get in on the money that’s going to be made doing that.) I do not, however, see how developing materials that meet standards will produce better results faster than teaching teachers how to design their own materials so they don’t need to select lessons from Pinterest. If it were necessary to be a polymath to do instructional design, I would not have been able to do instructional design in fields ranging from education to engineering. Simply being competent is good enough because, as  Pondiscio’s instructional design expert Marcy Stein says, instructional design is iterative: Teachers get more than one chance to improve their curricular products.