Saturday, July 09, 2016

Paint-by-Numbers: Thinking About Types of Content

I have just returned from a really wonderful workshop at the Omega Institute. It was "The Emotional Landscape" taught by a brilliant photographer and amazing instructor, Douglas Beasley. You can find his website here. The workshop was about (in my eyes) about interacting with the physical world as a spiritual being, using photography as a lens to see and share that vision with others. It was much more than I had even hoped when I read the description and signed up. Honestly, my experience with non-trainers teaching has been rather grim up to now. I come with low expectations, usually. If I can take away one or two new thoughts, that's a successful workshop. That was not the case here -- I've got things to think about for years!

But that's not what this post is about.

I observed an interesting phenomena in the session, one you might have encountered if you have tried to teach anything to do with design, soft skills, or decision making. Doug would be talking to us about interacting with our photographic subjects in a spiritual way, about having a "conversation" with our subjects. And right on the heels of this, certain members of the group would be asking about equipment, technology, f-stops. Topics that were about as far away on the spectrum of photography topics as one could imagine. Doug would allow the conversation to veer into this procedural areas, but it must have been frustrating. Why was this happening?

The answer is actually quite easy. We can divide all content into two categories: What we want the learner to be able to DO when they complete the instruction, and what the learner needs to KNOW before they can learn how to DO it. "Doing" content is primarily of two types: Procedural, and Judgement-making (also known as Principals.) Procedural content is the type where if you and I follow the same steps correctly, we will both come to the same correct outcome. Judgement-based content is where you and I will apply guidelines to come to completely unique but entirely correct, outcomes.

Judgement-making is hard to learn, and almost universally poorly taught. It requires particular elements in the instruction, in order to be taught successfully. Here's what you need to include:

  • A clear statement of what the happy outcome will be if the guidelines are applied appropriately
  • Guidelines that the learner should consider/weigh in making their decision or applying judgement
  • An example, with the guidelines called out as they are applied
  • An optional non-example, where the learner can see the result if the guidelines are not appropriately applied
  • Multiple opportunities for the learner to practice with the nuanced, live, feedback of a master
Procedural performance outcomes are easier to teach because all they require is that the steps be clearly described and the learner be given adequate practice in following them. 

The tricky part is that sometimes content can be described as either procedural or judgement-making. Most judgement-making topics can be taught in ways that use some sort of formula to achieve the impression that judgement was used. Do you remember "paint by number" kits? (Do they even make those any more???)  The painter can just fill in the picture chunks with the specified color, and the result is an oil painting. Or think of the self-help articles that are titled "Three-steps to....." The difference between a paint-by-number painter and an artist is that the artist is NOT doing something formulaic. What determines if the content should procedural or judgement-making is who is in the audience. 

In this case, we had a very diverse audience. We had people who understood the physics of their cameras as easily as taking their next breath. And then we had people who did not, who were novices to cameras. And everything in between. 

Although the description of the class mentioned that participants should have a good working knowledge of their camera, exactly what that meant was rather vague. (It is one of those things where if you had a good working knowledge of your camera, you would understand what the comment meant. If you don't have a good working knowledge of your camera, you wouldn't know what it meant. So people who should disqualify themselves can't, and those who could, shouldn't!) And there was no requirement to prove that knowledge before being accepted into the class. (Thank goodness, or I wouldn't have been able to attend!) It was the decision of the organizers or the instructor to allow anyone in, and there are good reasons to do that. But the tradeoff is that you are going to have class members who keep trying to turn every judgement-making content block into to a procedural content block. Or you may have class members who haven't mastered the preliminary knowledge block that is required in order to be able to learner the performance content.

How can we  design instruction so that we can work around this? In elearning, it would be easier. We could add pre-tests before each topic. If the learner can't prove mastery of whatever the preliminary or foundational knowledge is, they can be pushed to additional content. After they complete that, they can move to the judgement-making content. 

In instructor-led situations, it is much more difficult. The instructor can ignore the needs of the unqualified learners, or can require the prepared learners to wait while the less prepared learners catch up. The best thing to do is to try to keep the audience as homogeneous as possible. And there may be very good reasons not to do this. In that case, the instructor may want to have some supplementary materials available, and realize that a certain amount of procedural information is going to be requested. Determining what your boundaries will be ahead of time, and how you will deal with the group diversity may make walking this tightrope easier for you, and make the experience less frustrating for the class. In our case, the instructor used an approach of being very flexible about responding to class members' needs, bringing humor into the situation, and gently but firmly keeping the focus on the the topics he wished to emphasize. 


ccpence said...

Yes! Excellent discussion and points directly to how the whole process of photographic imaging can be used in course design.

Post a Comment