Thoughts on Teaching Technology [u]

Posted on by Larry

[ This article was first published in the September, 2010, issue of
Larry’s Monthly Final Cut Studio Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]

[Updated June 12, 2016, about six years after I first wrote it. I believe this now more than ever.]

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 and 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 Motion.

I could not believe how angry I was at the end of the first day of training. 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 person 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.

In a word, in-class training comes down to overcoming fear. (Actually, I think almost all training revolves around this, but it is most obvious in a classroom setting, where every student feels they are being judged by their peers, as well as the 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.]

But in-class 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….

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, like 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.

As always, let me know what you think. (For additional comments, I’ve also posted this to my blog.)


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6 Responses to Thoughts on Teaching Technology [u]

  1. iJezebelle says:

    Awesome 😀 ! x

  2. Pingback: Edit Smarter! « Jeff Riegel's VIDEO VLOG

  3. David Dixon says:

    I agree. You need to let them enjoy some quick success. Let them experience how powerful the software is and what it can do for them. THEN, they will be open to the details of how to get there. I hate when FCPX training starts out with mind-numbing explanations of importing, Libraries, Projects, codecs, etc. Show them how easy editing can be, and then they won’t mind working out the details of media management. I’ve taught 6th graders the essence of editing iMovie in 15 minutes and they had a ball. Then they will start asking “OK, now how do I do so-and-so” and then you’ve hooked them 🙂

    • David:

      I agree – sorta.

      I think it is important to define terms and concepts, rather than plunging directly to the software. However, I also agree that too much detail up-front becomes, um, too much detail.

      Larry

  4. William says:

    Larry,

    Thanks for sharing again (although this is the first time I’ve read) your “Thoughts on Teaching Technology.”

    I think some of my darkest days in my broadcast journalism career came when my station stepped away from tape-to-tape editing to acquire Sony ES-7 non-linear editing systems sixteen years ago. The system came with no operating manuals. The folks from Sony who provided the training set the pace of their instruction for the fastest learners. In addition, there was a clearly stated expectation by my news director that as Chief News Photographer I had better master this technology or else.

    The more I tried to learn about and use the ES-7, the more frustrated I became. The system was neither intuitive nor it seemed designed to do the type of visual storytelling editing (incorporating short interview bites and actualities interspersed with the reporter’s voiceover) for which I had become accomplished.

    You wrote about fear: of not being smart enough, of not getting (in my case, losing) work, of knowledge out of reach. In my case, it was sheer terror. I remember walking alone on a foggy Oregon beach knowing I was being judged and that my professional commitment and twenty-one years of skills and experience counted for nothing if I couldn’t master this system and quick. Working daily in television news at the frenetic pace of competition, it seemed as if the very meaning and purpose of my life and career were in the balance.

    Eventually, I did figure out how to “get by” with the ES-7, but my struggle with learning the ES-7 was a black mark that, among other reasons, eventually forced my resignation a year later. By then, I had begun to come across posts in various professional forums discussing how badly designed the Sony system was. I felt somewhat vindicated, but still anxious about mastering non-linear editing.

    A few years later, I had to face my anxiety regarding in-class training when introduced to the Grass Valley Edius System. Fortunately, the work culture was less toxic at my new station and colleagues and supervisors were willing to help me learn quickly. However, I was still frustrated that I often had to ask others for help. Like the ES-7, the Edius came with no operating guide or reference materials for each upgrade.

    Years later, when it came to purchasing my own non-linear edit system, I opted for Final Cut Pro. On the Web, I could find forums and resources that could help me learn on my own and to figure out solutions. Apple published a training guide that allowed me to learn at my own pace. And then I discovered larryjordan.com and the wealth of expertly designed step-by-step training that has truly made me believe that I can learn new software and, in seeking to master it, will enhance my career and not jeopardize it.

    I know that I’ve written before expressing my deep appreciation for your training materials and webinars. But thanks again for your contributions to the profession and making a real difference in the successful training of so many people like me.

    Best Wishes,

    Bill Goetz

    • Larry says:

      Bill:

      These are excellent comments (and thanks for the kind words, by the way!) that are typical of many.

      We all have the skills to learn – its just that the training gets in the way.

      Larry

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