Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Nerd Man of Razzmatazz

Yesterday I had a look at a brief survey the ELI is doing about current issues with teaching and learning.  While in Malcolm Brown's solicitation for completing the survey he welcomed a very broad audience, a good thing to do, I found that going through the topics there wasn't really anything for me.  I should say here that nowadays I think of myself purely as the college instructor who uses technology as he sees fit, and no longer as the learning technology administrator who cares about where the profession as a whole is headed in driving the technology that is employed in instruction.  So in writing my response to the survey I chose the last entry, Others, and then wrote in something like - Getting students to believe that their instructors care about them.

In my class, that is a big deal.  My impression from the students is that in the other classes they take nobody actually does care about them.  My course, then, comes as a surprise, though I wish it weren't.  Then I started to noodle more on surprise.  I seemed to recall Ken Bain making the argument in What the Best College Teachers Do, that students learn the most when they are genuinely surprised.  Let's say that's true.  As a teacher interested in promoting student learning, it becomes natural to ask, how can I promote surprise in the students by how I teach?

Even though my current memory is for the birds, my long term memory still seems to be functional.  In looking for an answer to that question I recalled the Last Lecture of Randy Pausch, which if you haven't already seen it is worth viewing. He is the person I'm referring to in my title.  Near the end of the lecture he explains that his approach to teaching involves misdirection.  Students think the lecture is about something.  But it really is about something else, although that something else is not revealed ahead of time.  The students eventually discover the true purpose, after the misdirection has been played.  This is what produces the surprise.

People who are not in the education biz might find nothing startling about this revelation, for it sounds just like good showmanship. The professor is like a magician who pulls a metaphorical rabbit out of his hat, near the climax of the lecture.  But if you are in the ed biz, then the Randy Pausch approach might challenge your core beliefs.   I wrote about those beliefs some years ago in a post called, Is "No Brainer" A Double Entendre?  At issue is the following assertion from instructional design.

A well designed course should have clear goals.

In my post, I deconstructed this assertion some.   I'll leave the reader to have at it, other than to note that if the real lesson is a surprise, then it couldn't have been a clear goal to the student at the outset.  So something is fishy here, or needs further untangling, or a different way to view things so that they come back in focus and then make sense.

I want to do something else here, create my own surprise. I actually lied above (something I rarely if ever do so with intention in these posts).  While it is true that I did the ELI survey before starting to draft this post, I did not noodle on how to create surprise in learning to come up with my title.  It was actually quite the opposite.  I came up with the title (I'll explain how that happened in a bit) and then tried to find subject matter to fit it.

The title itself is actually a rhyme for a pretty well known movie starring Burt Lancaster that came out when I was a kid.  I'm guessing that just about anyone my age would know the name of that movie, as it was quite popular at the time.  Coming up with rhymes is something I do now, much of the time, as anyone who has seen my Twitter feed will be able to attest.

What may be less obvious, is how those rhymes appear to me in gestation.  It is never the whole thing in one gestalt.   But with some frequency the first line seemingly appears in my head from nowhere, especially if I'm not writing a rhyme as commentary on something I've just read.  I've come to appreciate this form of "discovery" as the product of my subconscious at work, solving a problem I didn't know I had.

With the first line almost there, I then had to do a Google search because I thought the last word was Razamatazz (sometimes I remember things incorrectly or never heard them the right way when I first learned them).  The Google search not only revealed the right spelling, but also the meaning, razzle-dazzle.   So I had my line about a nerd who did razzle-dazzle.

The next step is the heart of the matter for me.  It's not the initial spark, but what follows it.  I'm guessing that most people who "discovered" the line for themselves would simply drop it.  There's not much to make from it, so better to move onto something more important.  I operate differently.  I've learned to respect these bits of serendipity as gateways into something interesting. So I started to look for how I can explain the line with something we all know already.  It was probably less than a minute later that I came up with Randy Pausch's last lecture.  He clearly was a nerd.  Misdirection and razzle-dazzle aren't necessarily the same thing, but they are pretty darn close. To me, I had found the connection I was looking for, enough to make a post out of it.

Now a different surprise, one that tries to tie things back to ELI.  Can technology help in teaching with misdirection?   I'll reframe the question, which I think is really more the issue.  Can technology help the learner find serendipity in the process of learning?

I think that's a big question, one worth a lot more investigation, and I want to wrap up this piece, so I'm only going to comment a little on it.  My piece has hyperlinks in it.  What do we know about student reading of online material.  Do they read the hyperlinked content?  (I'm guessing many students do not.)  What might get students to change their approach and follow the hyperlinks?  If they did that would they start seeing connections between things that heretofore appeared disconnected? These questions aren't on the list of questions in the ELI survey.  Maybe they should be there.

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