The Critical Inch of Learning

Demographics lab for The Habitable Planet online course

What if you can’t really teach anybody anything? Oh, sure, you can try. But what if, to be effective in teaching, what you really do is provide the background and context, bring the student to that critical inch of learning – and stop.

And let the student cross that last critical inch, and learn.

Just as a ball is thrown and caught, there’s great skill in the throwing. But the ball isn’t delivered until the receiver reaches out to catch it. You could throw the ball harder and hit the student, but it would simply bounce off. That’s the give and take of teaching and learning. You throw. But they have to catch.

In a way, all teaching, including eTeaching, boils down to a strategy as to how to get the students to catch the ball – to learn.

My CourseWare initiative at Yale started in the earliest days of the Web. We’d never even heard the term eLearning yet. The technologies have improved dramatically, but the strategic problem remains the same. Step one – engage the student and present the context and the lesson to be mastered. Step two – step back and let the student fire his own neurons. There are many ways to go about this.

CourseWare started with teaching environmental science and the mathematical models of ecology. These are motivated, enthusiastic students, eager and able to master the material. But they’re not really math types. They’re turned on by their love of nature, or social causes. On the other side, the professors are deeply excited by their subject matter and research, but somewhat less enthralled with teaching students math. They knew what topics their students failed to grasp, in droves. Those topics filled their office hours, and gave dismal results on exams. Refining the lecture presentation didn’t help. The students Just Didn’t Get It.

My CourseWare strategy provides the students something interesting to look at – a simulator generating visuals. There is reading material – help files packaged on board, or web page discussion leading to a launch-the-simulator button. Very few read any of that, and that’s fine. The simulator has a collection of “scenarios” – pre-set parameters that exercise the simulator, as a starting off point. The scenarios demonstrate a range of interesting things the simulator can do.

And there the canned entertainment ends. The student has to select a scenario, manipulate its parameters, try things, and create results. Generally with a homework assignment to hand in based on their experiments.

These simulators range in complexity from simple math plotters, to a simulation of the rise and fall of ancient Subir. But they all follow the same basic strategy – passive help files, a few canned scenarios, and most importantly, the point where the student has to take the steering wheel and drive the simulator himself.

Here’s an example, one of the Just Don’t Get It topics in environmental studies. Why is it, that after human reproduction falls to 2 children per woman, the population keeps growing?

In fact, population growth doesn’t flatten out for decades. China’s stringent birth control measures began in the 1970’s. Its birthrate is down to about 1.7 children per woman. And its population is expected to crest around 2035, about 60 years later, with a population about 400 million people higher than in 1975.

If you’re game, try playing with Demographics Lab. I won’t bore you with the explanation first. The explanation has failed to stick with generations of bright students. But after playing with the CourseWare simulator, they get it. Exams scores prove it. And they won’t forget.

Are there other ways to throw the ball and get the student to catch it? Of course. And the CourseWare scenarios + parameters model only works if you can build a parameter-driven simulator of interest. But for those situations, it works very well.

If you have a teaching or presentation problem that might benefit from the CourseWare approach, please email Ginger Booth - I’d love to hear from you!

  • Dec 3 2013
  • Education
  • courseware
    adult education