Thoughts on Teaching Technology [u]

[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.


16 Responses to Thoughts on Teaching Technology [u]

  1. I empathize with you on the Motion 3D, sheesh! Its 3D on a 2D screen. Where am I? What am I? I remember attaching pieces of tape to the edit desk and the monitor frame to try and orientate myself. I always thought this was something initially better taught with a model, of the Solar system perhaps, rather than in a book or on a blackboard.

    I think everyone is a little different though, for various reasons I use books and the internet. My cinematographer’s schedule is too irregular for me to enrol weeks ahead in class. I prefer books, but the books that come with DVD’s of material that I can work with, hands on. I like the Apple Pro Training series or your own downloadable tutorials which I’ve found the best for Soundtrack. It doesn’t matter if I make mistakes, in fact these mistakes often teach me more than getting it right first time. Nothing worse than getting 100% in class, going out into the real world and trying to figure out what went wrong in front of the client.

    What I find difficult are the style Apple’s own manuals which often spend more time telling what can be done rather than how to do it. I find Peachpit’s Visual Quickstart Guides useful only for later reference to a particular problem or process, but they do that well, everything is easy to find in the index, but they’re not that good to learn from, nothing to play with.

    What I find annoying is the type of guide that assumes you’ve read and understood the whole manual before starting a lesson and often I can’t get past step one. Maybe the person that develops a program isn’t the best person to teach it, they have such a highly developed knowledge of the app that they have lost empathy for the student and their struggle with the elementary stuff. Like teaching someone to walk, “just put one foot in front of the other”, not so easy for the student if they didn’t realise you needed to stand up first.

    I teach a lot of Steadicam Workshops, these are mostly practical work and small groups. As an instructor I can observe each individual student’s performance and correct them and encourage them to try new things as they progress. Other students have to act and spot for the operator so they observe each other as they progress as a group and learn from the others mistakes. I’ll often get them do something the wrong way and we all smile when they see the difficulty its a fun process. Student and teacher both get a buzz from this kind of progress.

    My children went to Steiner Schools, I think you call them Waldorf. They learn in more practical way. For instance they have daily intensive main lessons that follow a topic, sometimes for weeks, say about Ancient Egypt, its fun, with interesting stories like how they built the pyramids all the dimensions etc, what they’re actually getting is a maths lesson but they don’t realize it (they learn all the Egyptian measurements as well as modern metric and they’re only 8 or 9 years old), they play with the numbers and are encouraged to be curious, its fun and they a far better understanding of the topic.

    Generally when the children leave the Steiner system for their high school years they are not only brighter than the traditionally educated students they have a love of learning and lack the cynicism so common in the graduates of the sit down, be quiet and listen method.

    • Larry says:

      Yes, I agree. The hardest part of any manual to write is the first step. Trying to figure out how much the student doesn’t know is really, really hard.

      Larry

  2. Charles Debrah says:

    Larry Writes: “Get them oriented, comfortable, and successful and they become excited… 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.”

    Several years ago, I was on the verge of dropping out of my ‘Electronic Media’ class, until I bumped into Larry Jordan via Lynda.com. No, like several of my classmates then, I wasn’t thick. It’s just that my studio/editing instructors didn’t get it. Today, I’m a big fan of Larry because he does exactly what he’s whining on about here—he builds you up from the orientation level, the best he can and it’s always great!

    So yes: “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….” Cool indeed! 🙂

    Larry you are the best!

    Cheers!
    Charles (UK).

  3. YAY for this! YES! I have taught FCP in the classroom now for 10 years and have attended numerous training sessions for Apple and Adobe products and while I feel it can work for some types of learners, the best workshops I have attended were those for software I ALREADY knew.

    I just started teaching Motion last year. I teach around 100 students a year on this software. The first quarter teaching it was a disaster because I stuck to the approved manual. It wasn’t until I created small projects and started breaking down the tools and then having the students watch what other students have done in other classes (that and try to copy AfterEffects projects from other Adobe classes) that I feel like the students were not angry and hating me and the software.

    As teachers we have to commit to our students that we will help them get over the initial fear of the interface, the frustration of the tools, and encourage them to learn like we do…having a project due in two days and needing to learn the frickin software to achieve the “neat” effect that got us the job.

    That is why I think it is so important to show simple examples, go over the tools, work to copy the example and then have the students do something for themselves and have the other students see that. In a classroom with 25 students it is often hard to do this, but I am trying to get that aspect perfected.

    If you think about it, our business as video makers is to create metaphors using story, sound, picture and editing to “sell” our ideas. It is the exact same thing we need to do as teachers…create the metaphor for the interface and for the tools. You can’t figure out a tool if you don’t even know why or what you would use it for.

    Another complication is our whole expectation for learning. We tend to think that learning is instantaneous…we dismiss the hours of failure we put into learning something before we get it. Like riding a bike, we think “oh, now I get it!” We don’t think we spent several attempts, with several skinned knees, to get to that “Ah-Ha!”

    Then, as teachers it is so difficult to remember what it was like to not know the program. Our brain wiring wraps around the entire subject and it seems perfectly logical to us (like trying to TELL someone how to ride a bike). We need to unlearn in our minds, the understanding, to build the steps for our students to understand.

    I think it is also important for us, as instructors, to have our lessons available online so students that just can’t keep up can reference later. The hardest part of this is the work it takes to make a video vs the need to be improvisational in class. When a lesson just doesn’t work it means that you need to kill 40+ hours of prep time for that lesson.

    I am so glad you brought this whole subject up. I think about this topic every time I go to any certification class for any software…I can’t tell you the number of certifications I have gotten when in fact I STILL didn’t really know the software. I only knew the software from reading on-line forums, newsletters like yours and hours banging my head on my keyboard until the Ah-Ha! moment hit. I would like to understand as a teacher how I can quickly get to the Ah-Ha moment.

    Great question, thank you!

  4. Connie Lantz says:

    Brilliant, Larry! I couldn’t agree more! I teach a Mac Basics class, and my students often are very uncomfortable learning this “new” OS. I try to give them lots of leeway to get the basics down before we launch into the final project. Often experts seem to have a sort of what I call, “expert blindness”, they will gloss over complicate steps while describing a procedure just because they have done it so many times that they don’t think about the steps anymore. The lynda.com tutorials are really great for training for just this reason. They never skip info that is important for beginners.

  5. Amazing words Larry – this goes both ways in reverse to the presenter!

    After reading this – I now want to attend one of your sessions even more.

    Rock on!
    Hydle

  6. Francois-Xavier says:

    As an Apple Motion Certified instructor I agree with you on that methodological approach

    Aside… regarding those 4 days training for instructors, let’s bear in mind that it is not a “training”. It’s a “preparing-for-certification-test” session oriented towards people that already know the software.

    People already certified level one if not… Certified trainer previous version.

    • Larry says:

      Francois-Xavier:

      You are correct, it was a “train-the-trainer” class. However, while we needed to pass the certification test in order to teach the software, the true purpose of the course – which Apple stressed – was to teach us how to teach the software. Which, to me, make these comments even more relevant,

      Larry

  7. Years ago, at the dawn of the personal computer era, I wrote a set of manuals about programming an industrial computer. The “breakthrough” thing we did in that manual set was to have the first book be “Concepts.” It had a very small amount of actual step by step, but it spelled out all the concepts you would need to have in your head to make sense of the rest of the manual set.

    I also used to teach photography and eventually developed this mantra, similar to what your are saying about teaching a live class: “the job of the teacher for a beginning student is to protect them from too much information.”

  8. gloria messer says:

    Hi Larry
    I like your article on teaching. However, the classes taught at our studio
    do not allow students to take any notes. Most of us are used to taking notes.
    I understand not taking notes at the beginning. However, your article may serve to justify, not allowing students to take any notes in our classes.
    I would appreciate a note confirming that it is alright to take notes during a class. (only if you agree). Thank you.
    glovideo

    • Larry says:

      OF COURSE you should be able to take notes!!

      Very few of us have photographic memories and notes are essential. My only concern is that, sometimes, taking notes interferes with learning. You become so busy writing that you forget to listen. So, for very brief periods, I will ask students to listen without taking notes. However, there is way too much to cover to expect people will remember everything without making notes.

      Larry

  9. I noticed no one mentioned (at least I think not, after a quick scan of the comments) that some people are more audio than others, and go to sessions precisely because hearing the information is a faster learning experience than seeing it through words. But that only works if the teaching is good. Your FCPX lessons on Quicktime are an excellent example of the best kind of audio AND visual instructions. Thank you for them.

    • Larry says:

      Shari:

      Thanks for the kind words – they mean a lot.

      And, I’ve discovered that all of us learn differently. Which is why I do audio, video, and written training.

      Larrry

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