Thoughts on Teaching Technology
[ This article was first published in the September, 2010, issue of
Larry's Monthly Final Cut Studio Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]
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.
A lot of trainers and teachers read this newsletter, so I thought it would be interesting to start a discussion.
Anyway, I’ve been reflecting recently on the challenges in teaching technology. And I’m starting to think we may not be doing it right — or, more accurately, we may be making it harder for our students to retain the right information.
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.
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.
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 spending vastly more money to attend a class in person, when compared to 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.
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.
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,” the camera was like no studio camera I’ve ever worked with. I was lost in the details and getting farther behind. I needed help understanding the big picture before I could appreciate the details. I don’t need to create glorious art on the first take. I just want to create ANYTHING and know how I got there and how I can get back.
Take a minute and think about the software that scares you. It probably isn’t editing software, since you read this newsletter. 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.
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.
Let me know what you think. (For additional comments, I’ve also posted this to my blog.)