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The Art of Explanation … or is there some Science in there? January 1, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Inspiration, Reading, Teaching Idea.
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the art of explanation

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by ianguest: http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/8335216680/

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently acquired the book “The Art of Explanation” by Lee LeFever. Impressed by the clarity and economy of explanation in CommonCraft videos, I wondered what lessons there might be for those of us who work in the classroom. I guess the first step is to isolate that part of our teaching and learning environments to which ‘The Art …’ applies and here the early chapters provide a signpost. Specifically the book is about explanations, so defining the term makes sense and for Lee explanation is about making facts more understandable; about ‘lowering the cost of figuring out an idea and inviting people to become customers of it in the future.’ Explanations help people beyond the ‘how’ questions through to the ‘why’ to the point where they are sufficiently confident and care enough to want to find out more for themselves. With teachers I’m sure that will have a certain resonance.

And some fell on stony ground

We’ve all at some time or another looked out over a sea of blank stares, a time when our attempt at explanation was … less than optimal! Lee provides some pointers here and argues that it all begins with confidence; when someone loses confidence that they can grasp the idea that you’re communicating, you’ve lost them. One problem which might lead to this is making assumptions about that level of confidence when working with a group. One-on-one, it’s easier to spot the tell-tale signs when you’re losing someone; with thirty (or more), that’s much tougher and can lead to false assumptions. One cause is the curse of knowledge, that we as ‘experts’ in our fields sometimes suffer from, where we misplace our ability to see the world from another person’s perspective. Again as experts, we’re sometimes guilty of using terminology to which our audience (or some within it) may not be party and as a consequence they lose confidence. One more factor of crucial importance in helping someone to understanding is in setting a context with which they can relate; if an explanation is provided in splendid isolation, people are far less likely to care.

Put a bow on it

To make your ideas easier for other people to understand, they need to be packaged in such a way that they address the audience’s needs. There are six important elements:

  • Agreement – build confidence from the outset by using big-picture statements which will have resonance for all.
  • Context – takes the points on which we can agree, to a new place; one which also lets the audience know why it should matter to them.
  • Story – a narrative woven around a character which experiences the aforementioned journey and resulting benefits.
    • Connections – analogies and metaphors used to support the story by connecting new ideas with something people already understand. The spices added to accentuate the flavour of a dish!
    • Descriptions – provide concrete examples of the desirable outcomes for the character and how they have been achieved
  • Conclusion – summarises what has been learned and provides a ‘call to action’ for the audience to put that into practice.

But at the moment, much of that is abstract. In order to better understand the degree to which ‘The Art…’ can inform our teaching, I perhaps need to consider a more concrete example. Can I apply these observations to a teaching/learning situation? And that’s for the next post …

No, I’ve not had a good Xmas … and it’s John McLear’s fault! December 29, 2011

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings, Reading, research.
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Punished by rewards
It’s John McLear’s fault for unsettling me over the Christmas break. It was he who suggested I ought to read Alfie Kohn’s book “Punished by Rewards” as he felt it might inform the work I was doing towards ICT Quests. The subtitle gives you a clue as to the basic premise of Kohn’s thesis – “The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.” In essence that much of what we do to reward, incentivise, celebrate and acknowledge the achievements of our students, actually has a detrimental effect in terms of student learning and their commitment to good values. A rewards-based system promotes extrinsic motivation or ‘Do this and you’ll get that’, the result being that much of what students do is geared towards and directed by those rewards. The question then arises’ what happens when those rewards are no longer available for whatever reason? Maybe they move into a higher year group where gold stickers are no longer appropriate, maybe they have a new teacher from whom praise is less forthcoming or they leave formal education and no longer have grade’s to strive for. Furthermore, that providing rewards has been shown to stifle creativity and problem solving capacity and discourage risk-taking.

The key is doing all we can to nurture intrinsic motivation where students have a genuine interest in their endeavours, relish challenges and display greater innovativeness. We want students to want to learn, rather than wanting to be rewarded for their learning. A student choosing to produce a piece of artwork and work at it out of class of his own volition or solving a maths problem she read in a newspaper because it’s challenged her thinking, is far more important than a student aiming to get an ‘A’ for a piece of coursework … or avoid getting an ‘F.’ When the grade becomes the significant element, then shortcuts are taken to achieve that grade, paths of least resistance (and lower challenge) become preferable and interesting diversions will be ignored – “Will this be on the test miss?” To get students engrossed in their learning, it is far more effective to encourage them to think about what they are doing, rather than how wellthey are doing compared with everyone else.

bling my grade

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by DavidDMuir: http://flickr.com/photos/daviddmuir/583377693/

Oh dear! Not only have several of the behaviours I exhibited as a teacher been shown to be rather less than beneficial, but the ICT Quests model I’m working on might be fatally flawed, linked as it is to a badge-based ‘rewards’ system (Thanks for pointing that out John!). So have I dropped a clanger by devising a system in which completing each step in a sequence of tasks results in the ‘reward’ of a badge. Well, maybe; I’d certainly be interested to hear what Alfie thinks! But I’m going to say no for four reasons:

  • Students will be undertaking the ICT Quests as a result of their own interest or desire, not through any element of compulsion. They will be in control; they will make the choice to opt in.
  • They will also have choice of the level to which they wish to progress and to some degree, choice in what they produce for the output from the tasks.
  • The intention is that the badges needn’t be perceived as rewards. They are more correctly seen as markers; indicators to other people of the range of skills possessed by the student displaying those badges – a ‘can-do profile’ if you will.
  • Badges won’t be awarded with a ‘well done’ pat on the back. They are merely indicators showing that a set of criteria have been met.

Well they’re the intentions at any rate, though there will clearly need to be some work done as the project is rolled out to achieve a common understanding with participants … given the rewards and achievement based culture within which we come together. (And I’m now going to be looking in far more detail at the positive AND negative effects of leaderboards before I include them)

I think Mark Twain pretty much had it nailed when he had Tom whitewashing the fence.

[If you want a brief overview, here’s a PDF of an interview in which Alfie Kohn discusses the underlying themes in ‘Punished…’]

purpos/ed book May 1, 2011

Posted by IaninSheffield in Inspiration, Resources.
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purpos/ed book

purpos/ed book

Being given a copy of the purpos/ed book at the #PurposedPSI event yesterday was a nice gesture and a most welcome surprise.

Great to have all the wonderful posts from all contributors to 500 words in one easily accessible place. In addition to thanking Doug and Andy for this smart idea, thanks go to Chris Ratcliffe at Scholastic for funding the production.

Whilst it would be nice to keep the book and refer back to the posts from time to time (a bit quicker than trawling back through all the individual posts), I’m wondering whether I can make my copy work a bit harder?

Think I’m going to be putting mine in the staffroom and pointing staff at it. Perhaps those who’d never think of reading a blog post might have a mooch as they’re munching through their bean salad. Maybe I can even entice them into giving some feedback or making a comment; who knows, they might even let me record it and post it online! Small steps Ian. Small steps.

Follow up:

purpos/ed book in staffroomAnd here it is

I’m going to be needing another copy just for me now. Maybe you’d like to do something similar? If so, there are more details how you can set about ordering yours here.