If You Really Want To Learn Something, Intend To Teach It

evolution-ape-teachingNot content to take traditional folk wisdom at face value, upstart researchers from Washington University, St. Louis, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Williams College in Williamstown, MA, have challenged the old saw,

“If you really want to learn something, teach it.”

Their study employed a couple of reading and recall experiments given to two groups of students. One group was told that they were to be tested on certain passages in the text while the other was told that they would have to learn the passages in order to teach them to students who would in turn be tested. Sadly, perhaps, at the end of the trial everyone was tested and no one had an opportunity to teach.

The findings? From the study:

“Participants expecting to teach produced more complete and better organized free recall of the passage (Experiment 1) and, in general, correctly answered more questions about the passage than did participants expecting a test (Experiment 1), particularly questions covering main points (Experiment 2), consistent with their having engaged in more effective learning strategies.”

That’s quite a finding. Apparently just expecting to teach confers enough benefit to learning that it’s advantageous to adopt as a study tool. If you tell students that they will have to teach they will shift into a kind of turbo mode mentally and do a better job of curating and remembering the facts and organizing the information into a comprehensible whole.

Researchers Nestojko et al. hint at motives and goals as being central to the effect.

“Students, for example, typically have the goal of maximizing their performance on a later test when learning new material. In contrast, teachers presumably have the goal of being able to effectively communicate the new material they are learning to their students.”

Teaching leads to better learning, and students who expect to teach instinctively turn to the strategies of the teacher to prepare and structure information in a more effective manner than that utilized by the test taker. The authors of the study conclude that:

“Instilling an expectation to teach thus seems to be a simple, inexpensive intervention with the potential to increase learning efficiency at home and in the classroom.”

They hope that the finding encourages others to seek similar cost-effective techniques that readily enhance learning.


John F. Nestojko, Dung C. Bui, Nate Kornell, Elizabeth Ligon Bjork. Expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge in free recall of text passages. Memory & Cognition, 2014; DOI: 10.3758/s13421-014-0416-z

Washington University in St. Louis. “Expecting to teach enhances learning, recall.” ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140808163445.htm

Gerry Everding. Expecting to teach enhances learning, recall – Student mindset has big impact on learning, study finds. Washington University in St. Louis Newsroom, 28 July 2014

Read the full study here (PDF)

Getting Out Of The Way In The Classroom

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and Inverted (or Flipped) Classrooms have been attracting a lot of attention in education and training circles, but two recent experiments performed far from the rarified heights of North American campuses and training centers, are causing many to stop and reassess what it means to learn and, more importantly, what it means to learn when we are devoid of formal structure. If you have ever spent time wondering how humans learn naturally or informally you might be obliged to spend some time musing over these findings. I refer specifically to the “Hole In The Wall” experiments of Sugata Mitra and to Nicholas Negroponte and the One Laptop Per Child’s adventure with solar-powered tablet computers in Ethiopia.

In the case if Mitra, Wikipedia provides a summary of the “Hole In The
Wall Experiments”:

“In an experiment conducted first in 1999, known as Hole in the Wall (HIW) experiments in children’s learning … a computer was placed in a kiosk created within a wall in a slum at Kalkaji, Delhi and children were allowed to use it freely. The experiment aimed at proving that kids could be taught by computers very easily without any formal training. Sugata termed this as Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). The experiment has since been repeated at many places, HIW has more than 23 kiosks in rural India. In 2004 the experiment was also carried on in Cambodia.” -Wikipedia

More to the point, perhaps:

“This work demonstrated that groups of children, irrespective of who or where they are, can learn to use computers and the Internet on their own using public computers in open spaces such as roads and playgrounds, even without knowing English.” -Wikipedia

Mitra has a couple talks at TED (see below) where he describes the experiment and some of the results. They are worthwhile viewing if for no other reason than the sidebar comments from Mitra on what the kids learned, the degree to which they took the experience and the feedback he got from them on the technology.

More recently Nicholas Negroponte and the One Laptop Per Child organization (OLPC) have published results of what they see as a promising experiment in Ethiopia where solar-powered tablet computers were delivered to remote villages, preloaded with programs, and left to uncover what kids do with them. The main point in this instance is that there is no teacher, curriculum, or syllabus, just some software and a device to run it. The goal is to see if illiterate children will/can use the device to learn to read.

The articles referenced below give background to the experiment and preliminary conclusions to what was observed. The gist of it is:

“Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. ‘I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,’ Negroponte said. ‘Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.’ ” -MIT Technology Review

The results might seem astounding to anyone steeped in the dogmatic lock-step pedagogy of the classroom. Comparing results of earlier (some say failed) experiments by OLPC, a notable variation in this case is the conspicuous absence of a “teacher” in the process, leading many to wonder whether the secret rests in preparing the environment, creating opportunities to learn, and then simply getting out of the way:

“I believe the second experiment is working because nobody is there trying hard to figure out how the new technology should fit into the old model of teaching and learning.

And nobody is trying to frame the learning experience through superficial content that the kids just don’t care about.

…It’s letting the kids discover what’s in the boxes. And how to get it out of the boxes. And why the boxes even matter in the first place.

It’s setting a goal, establishing an environment to realize the goal, and trusting in the capacity of human potential. Student potential.

And sometimes, it’s just getting out of their way.” -Ben Grey, The Edge of Tomorrow

None of this calls for the elimination of teachers per se. It does comment on the overall design of a process many in teaching and training take as a given, and the role of the “teacher” in that process.

Wikipedia: Sugata Mitra
TED: The Child-Driven Education
TED: How Kids Teach Themselves
Wikipedia: One Laptop Per Child
Wikipedia: Massive Open Online Course
NYT: The Year of the MOOC – Massive Open Online Courses are Multiplying at a Rapid Pace
Feldstein, M., “Everybody Wants to MOOC the World
MIT Technology Review: “Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves
Doctorow, Cory, “Illiterate kids given sealed boxes with tablets figure out how to use, master, and hack them
Wikipedia: Minimally Invasive Education
OLPC News: “Who is to Blame for OLPC Peru’s Failure? An OLPC Intern Viewpoint
Grey, Ben, “We need to think very, very seriously about this

Why Is the Most Viewed Talk on TED an Education Talk?

Next time you are wrestling with the black dog of educational design loneliness, you might take comfort in the fact that TED Blog has a list of the top 20 most-watched videos on the TED web site and the #1 spot is held by Sir Ken Robinson‘s talk on how schools kill creativity.

Given how we (consciously or otherwise) use our personal educational experiences as templates for those that we create for others – and the fact that we have all been to “school” many times over – it might be helpful if we kept an eye on what we might tacitly project through our courses, materials and presentations. That is, old tired depleted wine poured into new bottles.

Why is Ken’s Robinson’s talk so popular? Probably because we have a deep-seated belief that it works. In Robinson’s words:

“I have an interest in education — actually, what I find is everybody has an interest in education … partly because it’s education that’s meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp.” – Sir Ken Robinson

Robinson’s talk is expertly delivered and provides many thoughtful points to muse over. See the full presentation at the TED web site: Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity


The 20 most-watched TED Talks to date

Witch Hunt or Reformation?

It used to be said of teachers that they are the perfect products of the system. They might have technical concerns over a fine point of a course or doubts over the administration of a program but, in general, they are the true believers. It’s no wonder then that so many are starting to paint Salman Khan (the Khan Academy) with an apple and a serpent’s body, while posing Sebastian Thrun (Udacity) at the main gate of Stanford University ready to to nail his Ninety-five Theses to the door.

Prior to the rise of protestants like Khan and Thrun educators only had to occasionally fend off irate parents, bad student evaluations, intractable administrators, myopic government programs and gnostic home-schoolers. Now it seems they have to deal with other similarly perfect products of the system – renegade graduates from schools like MIT and Harvard who work in international finance and venture capital, some married to medical doctors or lawyers, others captains of industry – who are not only willing to voice their discontent about what is going on in classrooms but also do something about it. And what makes these folks more difficult to handle than the more normal educational John the Baptists that have come before is that they are well-funded, articulate, determined to make changes, not known to easily lose interest, and they have the full attention of the Media. They are known for their grit and for winning. And they represent the desires and interests of a staggeringly large percentage of educational consumers who feel that there is something very wrong with the ways things are getting done. Is it any wonder that so many orthodox educators are having such a hard time reading the signs and separating the medium from the message? Does the name Custer mean anything to educators today?

What we are seeing among reformers at present are the beginnings of a consumer-oriented reformation of the educational system lead by some of the most notable products of the system itself.

And by “educational system” one can take anything that involves learning, training and credentialing as subject to the ensuing shift so there is probably no place to hide.

Pro-consumer trends in education are growing and emerging in curious ways. Too many people who have been through schools, colleges, degree and training programs have emerged disappointed and dissatisfied. The experience is costly, time consuming, and often without personal or professional reward. Too much of what passes for education or training is merely a ritualized data dump, designed and delivered more for the convenience of the department, institution or instructor than for the benefit of the student. No meaningful design can be discerned, no compelling delivery can be expected, and engagement is not in the least a part of the program. Result: tedium, no real change, and the assertion by some that many degrees and professional certifications have become little more than educational indulgences sold to customers who spend the requisite time miming what was in another place and another time an authentic educational practice. Adding insult to injury, costs continue to climb even while training and educational producers attempt to resell the old wine in the new information-age bottles of online learning, virtual classrooms and massive all-you-can-eat open source course buffets. Bear in mind that some of these educational advances are brought to us by the same folks who championed computer-based training in the nineties and television as an educational medium before that. No matter. We’re all here for the show. Educational theater at its best.

Compounding the problem and accentuating the disconnect between educational producers and their “consumers” is the fact that learners come from an world of media and communications that undermine many of the basic assumptions of the nineteenth century classroom. They do not come from a world where there is a shortage of information. Furthermore, information is not sequestered in specialized silos of higher knowledge. The stuff is everywhere and the job of the instructional designer and teacher is to make it easier to get at and assimilate. This one simple gesture of service might be where Salman Khan excels the most and finds his greatest success. People like his concise and casual video tutorials. Many (perhaps most) use them voluntarily, spend time on the lessons and exercises, and report progress in their learning. The customer is voting with his attention. What should we as educational producers learn from this?

Learners have immediate needs and pragmatic goals in mind. They are not looking for long-winded linear expositions of subjects that start at postulates and end atop pedantic minarets of “higher” understanding. They want the chunk that fits today – right now – into the empty pane of their mosaic understanding. And it probably can’t or shouldn’t last for more than ten minutes, as Khan would attest. What this implies is that one of the first jobs of a teacher is curation. Teachers have to know the subject well both in terms of its theoretical underpinnings and history through to its applications. They need to “own the material.” And part of that owning is knowing which parts matter, how they fit and how to adjust the presentation to the audience.

Curation is key. Know what matters. Make it relevant. Make it meaningful. Make it fit.

The pedagogical emphasis is flipped in post-reformation classrooms (if classrooms exist at all). Control is handed to the student and there is no one right way to complete a course of learning. The nature of the reversal from the focus on the master to the that of the student (“sage on the stage” vs. “guide by the side”) is hardly new. One can find allusions and references to it in sources as wide ranging as the American mythologist Joseph Campbell and the media theorist Marshall McLuhan. By way of illustration, Campbell, a life-long teacher, noted that in the tradition of the East it is the student who seeks out the teacher with his questions and problems in hand, while in the West it is the teacher (the subject matter expert) who hands down the knowledge to the passive vessel and asks all the questions. No doubt a very different undertaking in either case.

Marshall McLuhan, a teacher and professor of literature, saw the “Orientalizing” of the West, and indeed the educational process, as a natural outgrowth of life in an electronic medium. The new learner does not enjoy the point of view and safe linearity of typography. The digital native inhabits an informational landscape more akin to an acoustic space that surrounds him isotropically, issuing updates at the speed of light. We are informational hunter-gathers roaming over expanses of data. Information overload, McLuhan observed, reverses into pattern recognition, another name for curation.

The other push coming from the educational reformation underway is the trend towards involvement. It will shortly become the new tacit standard for educational design.

This is right in step with what we know about life in the electronic world and the inclinations of the digital natives. Courses and presentations that focus on dumping disconnected facts are out. They’re old hat. The flipped or inverted classroom is in and showing signs of paying off.

Fostering involvement in the learning process means using new information while building new skills. Involvement means solving compelling problems and making things that have not existed. Doing and making are the new metrics of achievement. Knowledge and ideas are wonderful things. Knowledge and ideas transformed into a 3D object are better. We can all see it, feel it, touch it and assess its virtues (now and five or ten years later). Not so with most degrees and certifications from disparate sources.

This should come as a comfort to those who feel threatened or displaced by the likes of the Khan Academy or Udacity. The new protestants are going to move into project-based and experiential learning because they have to, but they are not there yet even if you consider the pioneering efforts of Peter Thiel and the Thiel Fellowship. It is, after all, where the highest order skills and thinking are displayed and they know it.

In the world of the academy the Ph.D. is the terminal degree in most disciplines. But in Silicon Valley and the world of the venture capitalist the terminal degree is the successful startup. Ideas, after all, are a dime a dozen. Implementation separates the great from the ordinary and is critical to success. Everything else is preparatory and sidebar to doing. This is right in line with the consumer-oriented drive towards relevance and real-world metrics. People want to do. And what’s more, in the process the consumer becomes producer in an act of complete involvement.

The Trouble with Khan Academy, by Robert Talbert.

Khan Academy: the Teachers Strike Back, Slashdot

How well does Khan Academy teach?, by Valerie Strauss

Why Corporate Training is Broken And How to Fix It, by Jay Cross

Sebastian Thrun Aims to Revolutionize University Education With Udacity, by Peter Murray

How Would You Like A Graduate Degree For $100?, by George Anders

PayPal Co-Founder Offers Students Scholarships To Leave College, by Robin Young, Here and Now

Peter Thiel Has New Initiative To Pay Kids To “Stop Out Of School”, by Robin Young

Thiel Fellowship Pays 24 Talented Students $100,000 Not to Attend College, by Ben Wieder

The Trouble With Online Education, by Mark Edmundsen

The Flipped Classroom Infographic
A new method of teaching is turning the traditional classroom on its head.

Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

Academically Adrift, review by Scott Jaschik

Academically Adrift, review by University of Chicago Press Books

Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids–and What We Can Do About It, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

Contingent Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, review by Scientific American

How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It, review at Education News by Jimmy Kilpatrick

From MIT to Stanford, college classes where a startup is the final exam, by Christina Farr

A Core Curriculum To Create Engaged Entrepreneurs, by Cathy Davidson

The Curvilinear Classroom – Is Linearity Optional?

AllThingsD Early Adopters ran a quote in their Voices section from an article at PCPro that reads like a page right out of Marshall McLuhan. Echoing McLuhan’s return of acoustic space and the role of the mosaic in everyday life, Dr Rosie Flewitt of the Open University comments on how the modern learner might be shifting from sequential linearity toward a simultaneous gestalt:

“E-learning experts argue that withholding computers at a young age could actually deprive children of modern communications skills. ‘One area of literacy that’s changing is the order in which things are presented – it isn’t linear, it’s organised spatially, and often some meaning is carried in the design, layout, images, sounds, movement, subtle changes in colour in a game – it’s all part of what literacy is in today’s world,’ says Flewitt. ‘These are fundamental changes to operational literacy, the biggest since the printing press.‘ ”

Naturally some question is left as to whether this effect is limited to young children as a group or if one can detect a tendency toward acoustic involvement among younger participants in college classrooms and corporate training centers. The main point, however, is that linearity might already be optional in the classroom, where new and different styles of presentation and involvement might be called for in order to better reach the audience.

To contrast Dr Flewitt’s comment on linear versus spatial literacy, consider this synopsis of McLuhan’s acoustic space by Library and Archives Canada:

“The key characteristic of acoustic space is that it engages multiple senses at the same time. It does not demand that objects be dissected to be understood; rather, the multiple parts co-exist simultaneously. To understand acoustic space, you must perceive all of it, not focus on one part. In other words, acoustic space demands that you apprehend figure and ground simultaneously, that the senses work together. McLuhan believed that oral cultures existed in acoustic space since their primary mode of communicating was speech.”

In this interview with Nina Sutton, Mcluhan explains the rise and dominance of visual space from the phonetic alphabet forward: McLuhan on Acoustic Space.

As a sidebar it is interesting to note that McLuhan eventually dropped the use of the term Global Village from his work preferring the term Global Theatre instead. Apparently Global Village goes back to the advent of radio while the notion of the Global Theatre is more a part of Sputnik, television and modern global communications.


AllThingsD: Early Adopters

PCPro: How Much Tech Can Children Take?

Library and Archives Canada: Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhanPlayboy Magazine (©1969, 1994) by Playboy. Download here in PDF: (mcluhan-playboy).


At a Loss for Words – The Future of the Lecture Might Be in Less Talk

Silentium - Latin for "Shut Up & Pay Attention"

A recent study from researchers Louis Deslauriers, Ellen Schelew and Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman suggests that the Methuselah of instructional technologies, the venerable broadcast lecture, might finally be showing signs of going the way of geocentricity and the four humors. Applying methods taken from the theory of “deliberate practice” by psychologist Anders Ericsson, the research team introduced a more interactive, discussion-based and assessment-oriented approach to a physics class that strongly implies major improvements to science and engineering instruction in general.

The setting for the study involves two groups of electromagnetics students (control: 267; test: 271) wherein both were given the same learning objectives and enjoyed the same pedagogical approach (but not the same instructors) for the first 11 weeks of instruction. On week 12, Deslauriers and Schelew (both of whom have limited teaching experience) jumped into the fray and according to the BPS Research Digest lead the test group utilizing “…discussions in small groups, group tasks, quizzes on pre-class reading, clicker questions (each student answers questions using an electronic device that feeds their answers back to the teacher), and instructor feedback.” And, what is especially important to note here: there was no formal lecturing. According to the researchers the object of the game was:

“…to have the students spend all their time in class engaged in deliberate practice at ‘thinking scientifically’ in the form of making and testing predictions and arguments about the relevant topics, solving problems, and critiquing their own reasoning and that of others.”

In contrast to the test group, the control group went on learning the same material in the normal (typically passive) fashion epitomized by classroom lectures for probably the last 900 years. The students, however, apparently noticed a difference. As quoted in the BPS review:

“Student engagement (measured by trained observers) and attendance in the control group was unchanged in week 12 compared with earlier weeks. In the intervention group, attendance rose by 20 per cent and engagement nearly doubled.

The critic or cynic might assert that the presenters were putting on a better show in the test case. What about student performance? On the first day of class after week 12 both groups were tested on what they had learned the previous week. In addition, as part of the preparation for the test, both groups were given all the materials used by the intervention group, i.e., the clicker questions, group activities and problem sets, and exercise solutions. The results are as striking as the jump in student engagement:

The non-lecture intervention group averaged 74 percent correct while the control group averaged 41 percent. Factoring out random guessing, the intervention group did twice as well as the traditional lecture students (the effect size being on the order of 2.5 standard deviations!). Not to be downplayed, student reviews rated the non-lecture approach very positively. Ninety percent said they enjoyed the process.

Jeffrey Mervis writing for the AAAS ScienceNow magazine quotes Wieman as saying:

‘It’s almost certainly the case that lectures have been ineffective for centuries. But now we’ve figured out a better way to teach’ that makes students an active participant in the process, Wieman says. Cognitive scientists have found that ‘learning only happens when you have this intense engagement,’ he adds. ‘It seems to be a property of the human brain.’ ” – Jeffrey Mervis, A Better Way to Teach?

Given the novelty of the technique and the overt nature of the study there has been some criticism of the results based on the Hawthorne Effect. The research team discounts this criticism on the basis that the intervention only occupied a small percentage of the students’ overall daily learning activities. Drilling a little deeper, psychology professor Daniel Willingham (as recounted in Carey below) cautioned that the study might not have been designed well enough to discern which of the factors introduced in the new classroom style account for the gains in student performance and to what degree.

In what might be one of the clearest victories for proponents of the Inverted Classroom the research team is optimistic of the result and reckons it can be generalized to a wide range of post-secondary courses. No doubt further studies can be expected. The study in question is supported by a $12 million dollar program to investigate new methods to enhance science instruction using research-backed methods.


Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., and Wieman, C. (2011). Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 332 (6031), 862-864 DOI: 10.1126/science.1201783

Carey, Benedict (2011). Less Talk, More Action: Improving Science Learning

Mervis, Jeffrey (2011). A Better Way to Teach?

Dwyer, Liz (2011). Research Proves College Lectures Need to Go the Way of the Dinosaur

Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice

The Inverted Classroom

Learning from the Khan Academy

At first glance Salman Khan appears a most unlikely revolutionary. Although well educated (note: he is neither an educator nor a psychologist) he has nonetheless, and from most accounts, single-handedly ignited a revolution in teaching that any “real” educator, government administrator or instructional designer would be proud to lay claim to.

What started as simple private tutorials in math for his cousins – utilizing what he describes as about $200.00 in computer accessories and shareware – Khan drew upon his innate interest in education (along with perhaps his own personal frustrations as a student) to craft a series of screen capture how-to guides for solving high school math problems. As word spread among friends and family members, viral interest forced Khan to move his homespun videos to YouTube to service his burgeoning audience, completely for free. The rest, as they say, is history.

At present the Khan Academy (a not-for-profit educational organization founded in 2006) has served over 51 million views from a library of over 2200 videos. In addition to math and physics, topics now embrace history and biology. School districts and major corporations are attempting to use and develop his methods for their own internal applications. Donations from private sources and the likes of Google and the Gates Foundation have subsequently allowed Salman Khan to quit his day job and devote his energies full-time to the development of his Academy and the distribution of educational programs worldwide (“providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere”).

Looking over Khan’s presentations on his methods you begin to wonder what makes the Khan Academy so successful. After all, this isn’t the result of a major educational research program, a sweeping government initiative, or a mass popular movement in educational reform. Further, what makes the Khan Academy even more interesting is that Khan’s tutorial method is not so much ingenious as it is ingenuous.

In several of his talks Khan is fairly straightforward in his assessment of what makes his method work. First and foremost, as Khan attests, each of the videos offers a lesson on a single concise topic (a “concept”) for no more than about 10 minutes. One key idea, cut in a bite-sized chunk, for a period not to exceed the boredom threshold of the average viewer. Given that the videos are recorded and stored online, the presentations can be played any time and repeated as needed by the student until he or she feels comfortable to move forward.

Another feature of the tutorials is the general tone they are given in. As Khan describes it, they feel like they are coming more from a friend than a teacher. You have a sense that Khan is there with you, sitting by your side, leading you through the problems with a pencil and paper. They are down-to-earth, enthusiastic and rigorous without a trace of giddiness, pomposity or pedantry. The student feels like “…there is an individual who cares about you,” Khan says. The student comes away with a sense that the instructor wants to help him or her over the obstacles in the landscape because he has been in the student’s place himself and sympathizes with the struggles that lay ahead.

Drilling down a layer into the Khan Academy’s unique style reveals even more about what makes the “secret sauce” special. Each of the bite-sized topics that are referred to previously are in fact carefully culled and curated learning objects. The trick, of course, is to first know the subject well enough to select which topics to present and in what order. Following that, the teacher must distill the concepts to their absolute essence.

This distillation process is, to all who have tried it, much harder than it looks. In fact, the ability to select and summarize complex material and ideas, rather than resorting to the indiscriminate slathering of a PowerPoint slide with bullets, might be one of the hallmarks of an educated mind. Clearly, Khan groks it.

Despite the thought and planning that goes into Khan’s presentations they can hardly be accused of being over produced. This is not Pixar doing technical training. If anything, the digital blackboard and colored chalk renderings show the human side of learning and mastery. The notes and diagrams often appear rough and awkward, but they are at the same time quite genuine, funny and sometimes – to the advantage of the learner – mistaken. As Khan explains it, he is often in the place of the learner and, in contrast to many schools and universities, has not rehearsed the solution beforehand, offering the student the patented procedure. Instead he lets the students witness his own thought processes as he wrestles with the problems and sometimes wanders down the wrong path from which he has to back out and start again – just like a real student.

Nowhere in Khan’s methods can be found any of the bells or whistles of modern post-industrial pedagogy. No Flash animation, interactivity, games, social networking tools, 3D graphics or monolithic learning management systems are to be found. In fact there is little beyond a virtual blackboard and some equally virtual colored chalk. You don’t even see Khan’s face.

The faceless almost tactile sketches and equations provide little distraction and promote focus on the material. This decidedly low-tech solution to training might harken back to ancient watch-me-do-it tribal methods but its effectiveness is not lost on Khan’s students, many of whom write to express thanks that they are not only mastering their classes for the first time but excited about the subjects as well.

Khan’s approach is to teach for academic competency. That is, he instructs in the methods and procedures that assist the student in passing standardized tests and formal exams. After the student completes a module, test problems are offered through a program that Khan designed himself that acts to monitor student progress and flag trouble areas for the teacher. The student is asked to correctly answer 10 problems in a row before moving to the next module. This final process closes the instruction, feedback and assessment loop in Khan’s method and further acts to eliminate the small voids in understanding that can multiply as the student moves forward. Interestingly YouTube assists in the process as well, offering statistics on usage and attention.

One of Khan’s own revelations about his method is telling: it’s so simple and effective that he does not see why anyone needs to give live lectures anymore.

Although he does not refer to it by name, Khan points to (and his method directly parallels) the use of what is commonly called the Inverted Classroom. In an inverted classroom recorded presentations impart new information prior to class while class time is taken up with teachers and peers solving problems (or “doing homework”) quite in reverse to what is traditionally done in schools and training centers.

The results of this method have so far been compelling. Both teachers and students benefit. Teachers benefit because more of their time is spent in directed remediation (particularly if they use Khan’s monitoring software), problem solving and exploration of the material. Students like the inverted classroom because it potentially transforms class time into something useful and interesting. In Khan’s case the testimonials from parents, teachers and students are hard to ignore. His academy and tutorials do work.

More needs to be seen to ascertain whether the Khan Academy represents the future of education as some claim. But what is clear is that it stands as a forceful reminder of what can be done to improve the instruction of certain skills and particular subjects while simultaneously improving the classroom experience for everyone.


Bill Gates’ Favorite Teacher

Salman Khan on Future Talk

YouTube Teaching as Guerrilla Public Service

Yes, the Khan Academy IS the Future of Education (video; singularityhub.com)

Yes, the Khan Academy is the Future of Education

Khan Academy Exercise Software

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos

The Khan academy is Not that Good

We are Khan Academy, You Will Be Assimilated!

Can the Khan Academy flip a classroom?

Boning Up on Online Instruction

(c) Peter Steiner, The New Yorker, 69(20).

Although online instruction has grown to be far from a fad, I’ve noticed something peculiar about it. Online courses are nobody’s favorite. Well, that might be going too far. They are clearly among the favorites of administrators and managers hoping to distribute “virtual classroom environments” far and wide without the encumbrances of airplanes, hotels and school buildings, but I’ve never heard of a teacher coming specifically to the profession with a burning desire to teach online.

So far – and it might be too early to see this – the online experience has not produced a teacher, instructor or (God forbid!) an instructional designer who has had a Road-to-Damascus experience online, where one minute there is an ardent but resistant learner and the next a flaming would-be pedagogue anxious to commandeer the reins of a class in order to lead others to a similar experience. Interestingly, two professions that always seem to have an element of mission in them are the clergy (naturally enough) and teaching.

On the flip side students don’t (yet) choose online courses above face-to-face instructor-lead classes – fancy hotels and travel per diems notwithstanding. The reason this is important is that on the one hand it’s unlikely that anyone in the education professions today is going to be able to avoid teaching through or writing for the online environment; and on the other, it might not be a preferred medium, leading one to feel a bit out of place, awkward or even bungling as an online instructor.

Fortunately help is at hand. There are many good references and guides for online training that can assist the new-comer in getting started or serve as a refresher for those returning to the virtual classroom after a hiatus. One resource worth noting is Dr Curt Bonk‘s collection of online video primers for e-Teaching and Learning. The 27 videos focus on planning and delivery of online instruction. The presentations are directed at the college instructor but most are equally of interest to corporate and government trainers. Each video is about 10 minutes in length. Topics include:

  • Planning Online Courses
  • Managing Online Courses
  • Providing Feedback
  • Online Interaction
  • Quality Supplemental Materials
  • Blended Learning Implementation
  • Online Visual Learning
  • Webinars and Webcasts
  • Podcasting Uses and Applications
  • Wiki Uses and Applications
  • Blog Uses and Applications
  • Hands-on Experiential Learning
  • Assessing Student Online Learning
  • Trends on the Horizon

The video primers on e-Teaching and Learning can be viewed here at the Indiana University School of Education Instructional Consulting web site.

Related Links.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

Video Primers in an Online Repository for e-Teaching & Learning

Curt Bonk’s e-Learning World

The World is Open

Teaching Math – Abstract (Not Concrete) Understanding Adds Up

What’s the best way to teach math? It’s a big question, but research at Ohio State University’s Center for Cognitive Science challenges a commonly held (though perhaps informal) notion in instructional design that concrete examples aid the learning and application of mathematics more than abstract proofs and representations. The idea that mastery of abstract quantities and concepts actually provides the learner with a better, i.e., more practical, set of tools for problem solving seems counter-intuitive, but researcher Jennifer Kaminski and her team believe they have proof. Kaminski et al. looked at whether students who received instruction using concrete examples performed differently from those who were encouraged to master the concepts abstractly. What they found was that the group who were instructed in more concrete terms and examples were less able to apply the knowledge to new situations.

“These findings cast doubt on a long-standing belief in education…. The belief in using concrete examples is very deeply ingrained, and hasn’t been questioned or tested.” – Vladimir Sloutsky, co-author

Ohio State’s Research Communications quotes Kaminski as saying:

“Teachers often use real-world examples in math class, the researchers said.  In some classrooms, for example, teachers may explain probability by pulling a marble out of a bag of red and blue marbles and determining how likely it will be one color or the other.

But students may learn better if teachers explain the concept as the probability of choosing one of n things from a larger set of m things.”

This research might help explain why so many people find word problems (and the semantic or linguistic use of mathematics) so daunting in mathematics and physics. In Kaminski’s words:

“The issue can also be seen in the story problems that math students are often given. For example, there is the classic problem of two trains that leave different cities heading toward each other at different speeds.  Students are asked to figure out when the two trains will meet.

The danger with teaching using this example is that many students only learn how to solve the problem with the trains.

If students are later given a problem using the same mathematical principles, but about rising water levels instead of trains, that knowledge just doesn’t seem to transfer.”

Sloutsky sees a role for word problems, however, just not as an instructional aid:

“It is very difficult to extract mathematical principles from story problems. Story problems could be an incredible instrument for testing what was learned.  But they are bad instruments for teaching.”

Kaminski’s and Sloutsky’s study should provide useful insight for those looking at ways to better teach subjects like mathematics, physics, signal analysis, algorithm design, dynamics, logic or economics. It should be noted that Kaminski and Sloutsky worked with Andrew Heckler of Ohio State’s Physics Department on parts of the study.

Concrete Examples Don’t Help Students Learn Math, Study Finds
Students Learn Better When the Numbers Don’t Talk and Dance
Kaminski et al., LEARNING THEORY: The Advantage of Abstract Examples in Learning Math, Science 25 April 2008: 454-455, DOI: 10.1126/science.1154659.

Teaching that Sticks

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the popular book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, have applied key principles of their stickiness theory to teaching. The resultant 13 page e-book is available in PDF format at their web site or on scribd.com as a free download.

Borrowed from their research, the brothers Heath apply six traits that make ideas (and teaching) stickier. Sticky ideas are:


“This process of prioritization is the heart of simplicity. It’s what we call ‘finding the core.’ Simplicity doesn’t mean dumbing down, it means choosing. Some concepts are more critical than others. And as the teacher, you’re the only one who can make that determination.”


“Piquing curiosity is the holy grail of teaching.” Cialdini said, “You’ve heard of the famous Ah ha! experience, right? Well, the Ah ha! experience is much more satisfying when it’s preceded by the Huh? experience.

So how do you create the ‘Huh?’ experience with your students? George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist, says that curiosity arises when we feel a gap in our knowledge. Loewenstein argues that gaps cause pain. When we want to know something but don’t, it’s like having an itch we need to scratch. To take away the pain, we need to fill the knowledge gap. We sit patiently through bad movies, even though they may be painful to watch, because it’s too painful not to know how they end.

Movies cause us to ask, What will happen? Mystery novels cause us to ask, Who did it? Sports contests cause us to ask, Who will win? Crossword puzzles cause us to ask, What is a 6-letter word for psychiatrist? Pokemon cards cause kids to wonder, Which characters am I missing?

One important implication of the ‘gap theory’ is that we need to open gaps before we close them. Our tendency is to tell students the facts. First, though, they must realize they need them.”


“Concreteness etches ideas into our brain—think of how much easier it is to remember a song than a credit card number—even though a song contains much more data!”


“For an idea to stick, it needs to be credible. YouTube-era students don’t find it credible that hanging out outside, for a long period of time, alone, could be conducive to great thinking. So how do you combat their skepticism? You let them see for themselves. It’s like a taste test for ideas.”


“That’s what Emotion does for an idea—it makes people care. It makes people feel something. In some science departments, during the lesson on ‘lab safety,’ the instructor will do something shocking: They’ll take some of the acid that the students will be handling and use it to dissolve a cow eyeball. A lot of students shudder when they see the demonstration. They feel something. Lab safety ‘dos and don’ts’ don’t grab you in the gut, but a dissolving eyeball sure does.”


“The second surprise about stories is why stories, even boring stories, are so sticky. The answer starts with some fascinating research done on ‘mental simulation.’ Brain scans show that when people imagine a flashing light they activate the visual area of the brain; when they imagine someone tapping on their skin they activate tactile areas of the brain. The activity of mental simulation is not limited to the insides of our heads. People who imagine words that start with “b” or “p” can’t resist subtle lip movements, and people who imagine looking at the Eiffel Tower can’t resist moving their eyes upward. Mental simulation can even alter visceral physical responses: When people drink water but imagine it is lemon juice, they salivate more. Even more surprisingly, when people drink lemon juice but imagine it is water, they salivate less. … The takeaway is simple: Mental simulation is not as good as actually doing something—but it’s the next best thing. And, to circle back to the world of sticky ideas, what we’re suggesting is that the right kind of story is, effectively, a simulation. Stories are like flight simulators for the brain.

The free booklet gives practical suggestions and examples of how to use “stickiness” to improve lessons and teaching. The authors are quick to remind readers that the principles are pragmatic design guidelines for better teaching not just theories for the way instructional design works. “Teaching that Sticks” is an entertaining and informative read for anyone who designs, writes or presents classes or educational material. A companion booklet “Making Presentations that Stick” is also available.



Do We Really Know How to Teach This Stuff?

I can’t say whether the only course I’ve taken in programming was taught well. This is partially the case because it was so long ago and looking back on it it’s doubtful that anyone had an idea about how to teach such a new subject. It seems in retrospect that the professors and graduate students of that era were trying to figure out how to program themselves, let alone teach programming to undergraduates. To give you an idea, the language I learned in class was something called FORTRAN.

Since then I have had to learn (to some degree) about a dozen programming and scripting languages. Some were for application development, some were for web development, others were for database systems, but all were a hard-fought climb up a learning curve of an unnatural new literacy. Since I am not a real “computer person” I have had to learn to program for practical reasons such as building new tools or to complete a project. This is to say, I have had to start learning new languages from the position of a neophyte – someone without much formal knowledge or skill – who nonetheless had a practical goal or objective in mind.

Often when working around computer scientists and engineers who program for a living, I would ask how to best go about learning programming. Invariably I was told that the best (and only) way to learn to program was to program. I think this was the result of my colleagues early experience and education. They read books on the syntax and rudiments of the language in question and started in on cobbling together simple lines of code that eventually grew to more and complex routines until they achieved a modest proficiency in the language and it quirks. And so did I.

As things progressed, and I added more computer languages to my list of things to learn, I started to suspect that I could climb the learning curve a little faster if I read lots of programming examples to get a good sense of the everyday grammar of the language and learn some of the colloquial shortcuts employed by experienced users. In a sense I began to suspect that learning a programming language was much like any other foreign language.

It seems professionals in the field of computer science are having some of the same concerns. Professor Mark Guzdial, of the Georgia Institute of Technology, writing in the blog of the Communications of the ACM, lays it on the line in the title of his post:

“How We Teach Introductory Computer Science Is Wrong.”

Basing this conclusion not only on his own experience but also on results from several researchers, Guzdial questions whether extensive use of programming exercises are the best path to teaching programming to introductory learners. That is, is it best to teach problem solving by problem solving?

Guzdial starts his critique of computer science instruction by citing research in mathematics education by Sweller and Cooper (1985). In it, Sweller and Cooper compare two groups of students both of which are shown two worked examples in algebra. An experimental group is given eight more completely worked out examples in algebra. The control group gets the same eight problems to work out themselves. Not surprisingly the control group takes five times longer to complete their assignment. Next, both groups get a new set of problems to solve. Ready for the ta-da? Drum roll please….

“The experimental group solves the problems in half the time and with fewer errors than the control group.” – Guzdial, 2009

In other words, the work-it-out-for-yourself problem solving approach was less effective by a long shot. And, as an aside, it should be said that this approach to instruction is common not only in computer science courses but also in subjects like mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering.

Other work by researchers Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) and Kalyuga, Chandler, Tuovinen and Sweller (2001) comment on this effect and help explain where and when problem solving is superior to worked examples. Guzdial quotes Kirschner (1992) in summarizing the state of the problem:

“After a half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners.”

Does this mean, as Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, that “the whole fallacy is wrong?” Have we been sold down the river educationally where training in computer science, physical sciences, mathematics and engineering are concerned? Perhaps not. What the studies do suggest is that relying primarily on learn-programming-by-programming, work-it-out-for-yourself, minimal guidance methods are not well suited to introductory learners. These methods are, however, better suited to learners who have already acquired some background knowledge and are therefore a better fit to intermediate and advanced courses.

“What’s striking is that no one challenges [Kirschner, Sweller and Clark] on the basic premise, that putting introductory students in the position of discovering information for themselves is a bad idea!”  – Guzdial, 2009

That is not to say “never” of course. What the data are saying is that it’s not the best principal approach for beginners.

In hindsight the findings make perfect sense. My original intuition that learning a computer language is like learning a foreign language was not far off the mark.

The data suggest that for a beginner, learning to read before learning to write is a more effective approach.


Kalyuga, S., Chandler, P., Tuovinen, J., Sweller, J. (2001), “When Problem Solving Is Superior to Studying Worked Examples,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(3), 579-588.

Kirschner, P. A. (1992), “Epistemology, practical work and academic skills in science education.” Science and Education, 1, 273-299.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., Clark, R. E. (2006), “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-based, Experiential, and Inquiry-based Teaching,” Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

Sweller, J., Cooper, G. A., (1985). “The use of worked examples as a substitute for problem solving in learning algebra.” Cognition and Instruction, 2, 59-89.

Pygmalion Meets the Training Manager


Measured “return on investment” and “training effectiveness” are two of the business metrics commonly used to yoke trainers and developers in business and government training centers around the globe. “Is the training effective?” and “Is it worth the cost?” are standard queries at development meetings and design reviews. Knowledgeable designers and managers invoke Bloom, Kirkpatrick and things like ADDIE to promote development of effective training, little knowing that Pygmalion might provide the help they need.

A little over 40 years ago, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson performed a simple and ingenious experiment in a California school that jolted educational psychology. Dubbed the Pygmalion Effect (after the play by George Bernard Shaw; later the musical and movie My Fair Lady) the experiment showed that the effectiveness of teaching was largely determined by the belief of the teacher in the students. That is, all things being equal, if a teacher believes the students are exceptional, they will tend to match the expectation. Surprisingly perhaps, this “effect” has been replicated many times since its inception and has garnered support from similar studies done in colleges, industry and the military. What Pygmalion describes might be taken as the equivalent of the Placebo Effect in education, but it might just as well be a re-coining of the psychotherapeutic expression “you have to believe in the Process” directed toward the classroom.

What Rosenthal and Jacobson did in their study was give teachers false information about their students based on what they said was an advanced test to determine future performance and achievement. In reality they administered a standard IQ test, randomly selected a group of students without regard to the test results, told the teachers these students were going to bloom in achievement and sat back and noted the results. At the end of the school year the students were tested and the results showed that a significant number of the “bloomers” had in fact made unexpected gains in academic performance and behavior. In fact, tests of the same students two years later showed that they carried and maintained this advantage over that time.

Interestingly, while accounts of the first study did not include details of what went on in the classroom while the study was underway, written reports by the teachers themselves indicate that no special measures, programs or materials were provided to assist the “bloomers” in learning or to enhance the classroom experience. What Rosenthal and Jacobson concluded the “bloomers” got that the control group missed were clear signs of approval, more chances to interact with the teacher and patient acceptance, all moderated unconsciously by of the beliefs of the teacher.

Over the years the Pygmalion Effect has come under scrutiny by many researchers and has been criticized for its original experimental design and the general meaning of its results. But, all in all, it remains steadfastly rooted in the literature of educational psychology and provides a lasting contribution to the field.


Rosenthal, R., and Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development’. New York: Rinehart and Winston. (Newly updated edition, 2003)

Rosenthal, R., and Jacobson, L. (1966). Teachers’ expectancies: Determinates of pupils’ IQ gains. Psychological Reports, 19, 115-118.

Rosenthal, R. (1965). Clever Hans: A case study of scientific method. Introduction to Oskar Pfungst, Clever Hans (translated by Rahn, C. L., 1911). New York: Bolt, Rinehart and Winston, pp. ix-xiii.

Teaching Naked – ‘First, We Kill All the PowerPoint’


Dean José Bowen of Southern Methodist University is not only advocating an outrageous pedagogical overhaul that many see as dangerous and ill-conceived, he is in the throes of implementing it as well. His professors at the Meadows School of the Arts are now required to teach primarily without computers or, more precisely, without PowerPoint slides. An short interview with Professor Bowen can be viewed here.

As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Bowen’s technological denuding of the classroom is motivated by several forces he sees eroding the quality of education in American classrooms:

  • Lectures are boring and are usually done badly.
  • PowerPoint is a terrible educational tool.
  • Lectures are not interactive and can be done just as well online.

In Bowen’s impassioned view there is little reason for students to pay extra for the privilege of residential college tuition given the deplorable state of the antiquated lecture system. Bowen suggests that it can be done cheaper and perhaps better by the online colleges.  Secondly, students have the option of going to open courseware educational sites (like MIT and Stanford) to see lectures delivered in a way that are “really top notch.” In essence, as Bowen sees it, students will vote with their fingers as it were and take their lectures at a cheaper and better online resource if things do not change. “They will pay less for better.”

Bowen’s call to reform the lecture hall starts by asking what role the class meeting serves in light of modern media like podcasts and online presentations? His answer, make the lecture worth attending by using it as a venue for exploration of ideas, spontaneous questions and answers, group projects and debates. Use technology outside the classroom to prepare for the classroom.

Not surprisingly the Chronicle sites problems from both sides of the lecture hall:

“The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen’s ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods. The lecture model is pretty comfortable for both students and professors, after all, and so fundamental change may be even harder than it initially seems, whether or not laptops, iPods, or other cool gadgets are thrown into the mix.”

A previous foray into “inverting the classroom” at Miami University in Ohio evoked similar reactions from the students:

“‘Initial response is generally negative until students start to understand and see how they learn under this new system,’ says Glenn Platt, a professor of marketing at Miami who has published academic papers about the approach, which he calls the ‘inverted classroom.”’The first response from students is typically, ‘I paid for a college education and you’re not going to lecture?””

Both Bowen’s and Platt’s views converge on one nagging conclusion: We have to create good reasons for students to come to lectures. If not they will tune out, turn off, and probably go elsewhere. It seems ironic that in an age of mobile computing, electronic media and information at the speed of light that the lecture hall may only survive if it returns as a low-tech 21st Century edition of the classical academy. Time will tell which particular approaches favor this revitalization of the classroom but it is hard to deny that it is desperately needed.

Further Information.

Teach Naked: Dean Urges Tech-Free Classes (NPR)

Teaching Naked: Why Removing Technology from your Classroom Will Improve Student Learning