Miscellaneous · Teaching

Discovery!

In 1998 I added a number of hands-on, active learning activities to the course Introduction to Networked Information Systems. This transition opened a number of doors for students to gain a more practical understanding of the components that make up computers and networks, and to discover some of the challenges in working with the technology. While relatively controlled, the unpredictable nature of working with technology assured that every semester brought its share of “learning moments” in which the students and I would have to work together to solve problems. In the Fall of 2000, a service-learning component was also added to the course in which students refurbished donated computers, set them up into small labs, and delivered these labs to community organizations working within economically distressed communities around Illinois, and especially within East St. Louis, Illinois. The nature of the work meant that students would often strike off in unique, unpredicted directions in order to appropriately setup the computer labs for their commuity partners. This further increased the number of learning moments.

During these learning moments, we would occasionally reach a point where I, as the instructor, would perform a sequence of steps that would resolve the problem. Students would ask me how I knew precisely what to do to address that problem. While many times I could describe what I observed and why I chose to take certain steps, there were times when my very unsatisfactory answer was “gut instinct”. Students didn’t like hearing this answer, and I felt uncomfortable giving it, but I also didn’t have a good explanation for how I seemed to be able to do what others couldn’t readily do. I needed to find a better answer.

At the time, I had been reading “The Dragon Riders of Pern”, fiction that included characters filling roles as apprentice, journeyman, and master. I began to reflect on my own childhood working in my family’s sawmill as a youth. I realized that I had served as an apprentice under my dad during those childhood years, eventually working my way up in status and responsibility at the job. An advantage of being an apprentice is that you are assigned rather menial tasks that provide you with a lot of time to observe. You begin to tune into the rhythm and music of the craft. Certain loud clashes went seemingly unnoticed by the others in the facility, while a slight, almost inaudible change in pitch of a constant sound might bring about great scurrying of everyone available. Over time, I found I began to adopt similar responses, and began to understand the unremarkable noises from the signs of significant problems. Indeed, over time I internalized these responses to the point where I couldn’t tell a friend visiting why I responded as I did. I reasoned this might be what is meant by gut instinct.

The question then became, short of an extended apprenticeship, how could such lessons be taught. Over time, I came to realize that a core skill students needed was one they already possessed, that of troubleshooting. Or that of the scientific method. Or that of the inquiry process. Or as one student who had served in the military once remarked, the OODA-loop — the military equivalent. For purposes of my class, I distilled it down to four basic steps:

  • Observe — use all your senses to take in as much information as you can;
  • Think — consider the various possible causes;
  • Plan — consider how you might test each possible cause considered, as well as which tests might be easiest to run or most likely to succeed; and
  • Act — perform the selected test, then observe, think, plan, and act.

It seems rather obvious now that gut instinct is really just a very rapid application of the above four steps, combined with an historical perspective that allows a person to rule out many of the possible causes as unlikely and narrow in on the most likely causes. Still, for me this was a discovery that helped transform my teaching in a way that allowed me to empower the students very early on in the semester.

I can say that students don’t always appreciate the empowerment — at times they would be much happier to receive simple cheatsheets that they can carry with them and that would fix the problems. And in truth there is a fine balance between strongly encouraging them to practice the troubleshooting skills vs. pushing them over the edge and into unrecoverable frustration. Identifying when to step in and provide more guidance, vs. when to help them ask salient questions and think through the process is a key part of the art of teaching in my mind. But when practiced well, I find I now am able to help encourage the development of gourmet chefs who can walk into a situation, identify the needs and resources, and combine them to produce a meal worthy of a fine restaurant, as opposed to someone who reads the box every time they make spaghetti.

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