Archive for January 17, 2011

A Humiliation, er, Teachable Moment

I’ve been taking a piece of advice from Seymour Papert over the last couple weeks (and for the next couple months).  While I was never a student at MIT nor part of any of their Logo programs, I got some time with Seymour when we were both at the all-weekend design meetings for Logo Microworlds, back when I was a graduate student.  (One of my all-time most scary and intellectually challenging dinners was sitting next to Seymour and defending my thesis to him.)  One of his in-passing pieces of advice was that education researchers should regularly learn something new, to continually be reminded of what it’s like to be a learner.

I’m “Baron Elberfeld” in our church’s production of “Sound of Music.”  My wife (“Frau Schmidt”) and daughter (“Brigitta”) are also in the production.  All of the rest of my family have been in plays, and my wife and son have been in many.  This is my first play ever.  Not even in high school was I ever even working on the set.  This is totally new for me.

One of my first observations: I don’t know the severity of my mistakes.  I’m the eager-to-please newbie, and I make mistakes.  Are they “okay” mistakes?  Did I just make a serious faux pas? I make some of each, but I can’t tell at the time.  I figure it out 5, 10, 15 minutes later, judged in terms of later response to me.

Yesterday, we were at rehearsal all day long.  Since I only have two lines and am in only one scene (but have to dance two dances, and sing the final “Goodbye” with all the other party guests), I spent much of the time yesterday trying to help out with the set.  One of the people in charge gave me a task to do, which I worked at diligently.  Someone else came along and thanked me for doing it — it needed doing, and he was worried that nobody was doing it.  I went out to get more supplies.

When I came back, somebody else more senior (everybody is more senior to me) was doing my job.  As I walked up and he saw the supplies in my hand (more of what I’d already been using), he told me, “No, those are completely wrong.  You should never be using those.”  He explained why.  Then he pointed out the tools I was using, and told me how his tools were much more appropriate for the task.  He then turned away from me and went back to work, on the job that had been mine.

I felt humiliated.  I felt like I must have screwed things up, working for over an hour with the wrong supplies and wrong tools.  I strongly suspect that he felt that he reached out to me in a “teachable moment” — he explained to me how I was mistaken, and how his approach was much better.  He probably felt that he did me a favor.  I felt like quitting.  I packed up all the stuff I was using and put it away, then went and sat down until it was time for my scene.

Back when OOPLSA was in Atlanta, in 1997, I got to have lunch with Adele Goldberg.  At that time, she was working on a Smalltalk programming environment to be used in the UK Open University‘s introductory course.  She told me that the greatest benefit of distance education was for supporting working professionals in learning something new.  The issue wasn’t finding time in a day.  It was humiliation.  “You work in a field for 10, 20 years, and you get recognized for your expertise.  Now go into a classroom, and raise your hand to admit that you don’t know something.  It’s really hard!”  On the Internet, nobody can see you blush.

Seymour’s right — it is a good thing to be in these situations, to be reminded of what it’s like for our students. I’m sure that our students may also feel that they’re losing face when met with a “teachable moment.”  It’s a real challenge for us to teach it in a way that avoid humiliation, that allows the student to see the lesson but feel encouraged to keep going, to keep engaged.

January 17, 2011 at 9:13 am 7 comments


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