Category Archives: Musings

Teaching and Coaching 101

Coaching 5th-graders on giving presentations got me thinking about the essential practices of a good teacher and coach.

From personal experience as both a student and a teacher in different settings – experiential, traditional school, online, peer group, private coaching  – here is my take on Teaching 101 in 3 minutes.

1. Don’t overload – focus on a single skill or concept at a time (or as few as possible). Trying to cover too much at once may overwhelm students and result in lack of perceived progress, reducing their motivation to continue with the activity or class.

2. Keep it highly interactive. Learning is an active process. We learn by doing. Actively engage students with the material by getting them to answer questions, practice problems, play games, write, present, run experiments, role play, give feedback to each each,  and create – a  design, a tool, a website, an art or multi-media project – as appropriate to your subject.

Focus on learning, not teaching. Avoid long lectures. Have a short lecture, or better yet, have students experience something and then ask them questions about it.
“If you teach a man anything, he will never learn.” – George Bernard Shaw

Some suggestions:

  • variety in activities helps maintain learners’ attention
  •  icebreakers and warm-up at the beginning of the session get students into an active mode -speaking up, participating and getting to know their classmates
  • go for quick wins. Is there a simple project or assignment students can complete early on that will give them a sense of progress and accomplishment?

3. Balance encouragement and support with constructive criticism, based on the needs of the student.
One of my ballroom dancing coaches was a master at this. When I was happy and energetic, he would challenge me and provide a lot of constructive criticism. But on occasions when I showed up for class feeling down or frustrated, he would verbally encourage and physically support me by dancing alongside, until I got immersed in the activity, relaxed and became receptive to feedback. He provided whatever I needed the most to make progress at any point in time – sometimes a challenge, sometimes a confidence boost.

For older learners, it is also important to
4. Demonstrate the gap of knowledge and clearly communicate the goals and benefits of the activity or class.
This could be an interesting question students are not able to answer now, but will by the end of the class. Or it could be a demonstration of their current in/ability to do something versus where they’ll be after completing the course. Understanding what they will learn and how it is relevant is critical for motivating and engaging adults.

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How to Have a Rewarding MOOC Experience: Four Tips for Students

During the past year I had a great time participating in several Massive Open Online Courses, aka MOOCs, offered by Coursera and Udacity. From that experience, combined with thoughts of other students and instructors, I’d like to offer several tips on how to have a rewarding experience as MOOC student.

1. Shop around.

Not all courses are created equal, even if they are from the same university and offered through the same platform! Similar to courses in traditional university setting, MOOCs vary tremendously in teaching styles, amount of work assigned, type of feedback provided, and time instructor dedicates to the course and interaction with students.  So shop around.  Sample a course before committing. Listen to the first couple lectures, try out an assignment, and visit the discussion forums to get a feel for the course, the instructor and the platform.

If you find yourself unhappy with a course, by all means, drop it. There are no penalties. And with more and more MOOCs coming online every month, it’s likely that better alternatives will become available soon if they are not there already. On the other hand, if you try a single course and do not like it, don’t form your opinion of all MOOCs based on just this single experience – the courses vary quite a bit.

If a MOOC you are considering has been offered before – you can try searching for reviews and articles about it. But keep in mind that instructors often significantly change their courses from session to session to improve them.

Finally, on Coursera, if you are interested in a course but unable to take it when it’s offered, register for it anyway. This will give you access to the course materials, so you can peek in and decide whether it’s a good fit if it is offered again in the future.

2. Expect and forgive bumps in the road.

Teaching MOOCs is not the same as teaching in a regular classroom – it requires a different set of tools and techniques. Instructors are learning and experimenting with these as they go. In addition, MOOC platforms are constantly being upgraded to expand capabilities, even as the courses are being run. So there are bound to be some bumps in the road. Expect and forgive them.

It can take a tremendous amount of work – hundreds of hours – to create an online course! In many cases, instructors are doing this in addition to their regular workload and without being paid extra. Please show respect and appreciation for their efforts. If something needs improvement, post constructive feedback on class forums.

3. Engage with your peers.

Participate in class forums, hangouts, local meetups, and any other groups that form around your MOOC. Connecting with others who share your interests and goals will greatly enrich everybody’s experience. Students in MOOCs represent all ages, backgrounds and corners of the world: from teens in Africa to professors in the United States. You might make an interesting connection. You might get a better understanding of the material by helping another student with it. You might learn something new from your peers. You might get an interesting opportunity by establishing your passion and skill for the material in class forums…

Get-together with Scott Klemmer and his HCI MOOC students.

Get-together with Scott Klemmer and his HCI MOOC students.

4. Don’t worry about the grades but expect to work hard.

Commit the time necessary to do the assignments. We learn by doing, not by listening to lectures. What you get out from the course will be proportional to the effort invested. But don’t worry about the grades. In the current state of MOOCs the real value is in knowledge acquired, artifacts produced, and connections made.

Happy learning, doing, and connecting!

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Three Habits for Being More Creative

#1. Spend more time doing the activity you want to be creative in.
And don’t wait for an inspiration to start doing!

There is an illusion that people who create great things do so effortlessly. But in reality, most put in a tremendous amount of time, and go through a lot of iterations. From each they learn something that works and something that doesn’t, something they like and something they don’t. Thomas Edison tried 10,000 ways to make a light bulb before finding one that worked.

Have trouble starting – no inspiration, no ideas? No problem! Start mechanically – put your hands on the keyboard or your pencil to the paper, and start thinking, writing, drawing … No inspiration necessary. Most of the time the ideas will start flowing, even where there were none before. And often, once you get going, the inspiration will make an appearance as well. It’s the same experience as with many regular ‘non-creative’ activities, for example, exercise. Can be hard to get started, but feels good once you get going.

I heard many successful authors say that they write on a regular schedule, whether they feel like it or not. If they waited for the spirit to move them – they’d never get a book finished.

Woody Allen aptly said “eighty percent of success is showing up”. In this case, eighty percent of success is simply starting and doing.

#2. Brainstorm a long list of ideas, then flesh several of them out.

If you have an opportunity to brainstorm with a group, it is both more fun and yields more ideas. Not only do other people’s ideas directly expand the list of options. They also contribute indirectly, setting off our own minds in new directions and resulting in additional ideas we wouldn’t have had on our own.

Once we have a list of ideas, we often pick a single favorite and run with it. But the value of (rapidly) fleshing out several of the alternatives is one of the first principles that gets pounded into students in design classes. Consider results of this pottery class experiment, described in Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Doing – be it writing, drawing, coding, or anything else – produces more information and knowledge than simply thinking the activity through. Various details or situations we haven’t considered pop up. So, thinking through a brainstormed option isn’t the same as fleshing it out, even if only roughly.

#3. Learn to shut off self-censorship.

Key to productive brainstorming is letting all ideas through. This is not the time to assess their merit. Yet we often apply strong censorship filters to the ideas we express. Sometimes they are of the “What would people think if I say that” variety. Other times, it may be about being stuck with the expert’s point of view, unable to adopt beginner’s mind and to question existing wisdom and assumptions.

One activity I found especially effective for learning to shut off self-censorship is improvisational theater, aka improv. In improv, since the dialogue is made up on the spot, there is no time to say anything other than the first thing that comes to mind. And after you do it for a while, you realize that, at least some of the time, ideas that didn’t seem good at the beginning,  lead to some fantastic places.  The result is a lot of fun and laughter.  It’s true – some of the time, the ideas that didn’t seem good at the beginning, well, turn out to be not so good. But not much is lost in the experiment.

Playing improv theater games

Playing improv theater games.

And this is it! To be more creative:

  1. Spend more time doing the activity you want to be creative in.  And don’t wait for an inspiration to start doing!
  2. Brainstorm a long list of ideas, then flesh several of them out. 
  3. Learn to shut off self-censorship.

You might be thinking: 

Ok. More time invested potentially equals more stuff produced. And censorship off potentially equals more unusual/uncommon approach. But how does this help me in creating something truly unique – something that nobody else has ever done before?

If you are thinking that, and even if you don’t – check out “Embrace the remix“, a great TED talk by Kirby Ferguson (video below), which provides a refreshing view on the nature of creativity.

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