How We Teach How to Teach

Posted by on Oct 20, 2008

I was teaching a blogs and wikis class to a group of teachers a few weeks back, and I stumbled into an excellent conversation about how to teach and learn technology. We were discussing the topic from an adult’s perspective, but upon further reflection, I realize this conversation holds up when considering students as well.

The discussion essentially broke down into a very congenial debate. On one side of the ring we had the firm believers in the step-by-step tutorial method of learning. These people wanted each direction of each step for working with any specific technology broken down and presented in a handout that would serve as a reference point in the future.

On the other side stood the “throw them in the boiling water and remove them slowly” crowd. I believe that’s a near-direct quote from Dave Cormier when discussing a class he was teaching over the summer. This group believed we had to present the general framework and potential purpose/use for the technology, and then let people have at it. Jump in, get soaking wet, and call for rescue should the undertow prove to be too much and threaten a drowning.

I judiciously stood in the center acting as an unbiased moderator, pretending I hadn’t already chosen a side. I was doing so well until someone commented that if I had tried the “throw them in the water” approach entirely, this person would have walked right out of the class. That got me thinking. If they had stood up and walked out, would it have mattered? That sounds terrible, but stop and think about it.

When we give people step by step directions, do we ultimately end up enabling them to be dependent rather then freeing them to be independent? It’s like driving behind someone who is leading you to a place you’ve never been before. You concentrate on following each turn, but end up losing the context of the trip. By the time you arrive at your destination, you have no idea how you really got there. The analogy isn’t perfect, but I think it holds up.

When we walk students, be them adult or adolescent, step by step through doing something, do we not disable the natural sense of learning that would have taken place had we just thrown them in the water? There are certainly some foundational skills that need to be honed, and we should always be there to throw the life preserver, but come on, let’s at least give them a shot to swim on their own. I need to write more about this soon. It’s something that I’m working through, and I think it has significance in considering how I want to teach my teachers how to teach.

Thanks to James Cridland for the Flickr image.


  1. Damian
    September 26, 2008

    I think you know I agree with the give ’em a small lesson so they don’t drown and then throw them in the pool approach. Otherwise people that you’re trying to teach cannot find a way to make the lesson meaningful to themselves. I know for example, that most of my Regular Physics students will never go into engineering or a related field…but, I want them to come out of my class knowing how to critically think about why things do what they do, and they should be able to sequentially think about problems, and problem-solve equipment related issues, and do simple research into topics they need to know about. The direct, step-by-step approach is great if you’re teaching someone on an assembly line to make widgets–there’s no choice involved with the final product there. However, in learning (and therefore teaching) everyone is going to use the gained knowledge in slightly different ways.

    It drove me crazy this summer when I was in the Advanced Excel class, and we were following the examples in a workbook. I could see that in an intro class, but in an advanced class, I’d like to see some interesting features, and think about how I can incorporate those into what I do. I thought it was funny that the department secretaries who were taking the class thought it was great that they were making pseudo-gradebooks in Excel. Step-by-step, they lauded the instructors, even though they’d never be making a gradebook again, and I’m sure the thought process about “what can I use that function for in my workflow” never even crossed their minds.

    Oh well, there’s my similar rant. And what did you mean you were sitting on the fence being an unbiased moderator?

  2. admin
    September 30, 2008


    I was pretending to be the unbiased moderator. I certainly had chosen a side, but I was trying to play the judicious teacher who lets the students duke it out for a bit before chiming in. I don’t think I did a very good job of remaining neutral.

    I agree with you about the importance of understanding the art of critical thinking. Taking things step by step forces the focus on the steps rather than the need or reason for the steps in the first place.

  3. Lee Kolbert
    October 26, 2008

    Your comment on my blog led me to your very insightful and relevant post here. I also posted about back channels after NECC because it was my first experience with them.

    I’m not sure I have a problem with numeros back channel chats going on simultaneously only because I think many people feel that’s their only option for bringing in their network. Of course they can send out a link to the current “main” back channel but for now, not sure people are thinking of that. In addition, if they are letting their network know if advance where they will be (not everyone uses a synchronous app like Twitter and Plurk) it may in fact be the only way to bring others into the conversation. Just a reminder also that the people who are doing this very thing are most capable of participating in more than once at a time. I appreciate your thoughtful post.

  4. Lee Kolbert
    October 26, 2008

    OOPS! I not only called you Demian, but I posted this comment on the wrong post. It was meant for this post:

    I’m a ditz, but appreciate you forgiving me for that. 🙂

  5. Tom Hanson
    November 10, 2008

    Your analogy regarding the provision of step-by-step directions is dead on. All too often, in the classroom, students will “concentrate on following each turn” as the instructor presents the material but in the end miss the “context of the trip” and the big picture. In fact, the more that students have been exposed to that methodology, the more they seem to concentrate on the turns.

    Tom Hanson

  6. admin
    November 11, 2008


    I agree that learning becomes so decontextualized when we walk kids through all the steps in a process. Letting out the tether and allowing students to figure out various aspects of learning on their own empowers them to transfer that learning in other situations in life. I think letting out some slack in the line is one of the most difficult things for teachers to do as they don’t know what the end result will be or where the students will end up leading themselves.



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