One Concept: Ten Ways to Teach

Posted in: digital humanities  pedagogy  praxis 
Crossposted to the Scholars' Lab blog.

Praxis is in the middle of our unit on digital humanities teaching and learning. As a part of this section of the year, our students’ task is to design a lightweight, speculative workshop that introduces a DH concept of interest to them. The activity is a teach-to-learn one with some constraints: in an effort to move beyond buttonology approaches to teaching technical topics, the students are meant to think through how pencil and paper, low-tech, or otherwise minimal ways of teaching might empower themselves and their students to learn material that might otherwise feel beyond them.

At this point in the semester the fellows have just begun their thinking. I asked them to run an activity related to Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities as a means of finding the areas within digital pedagogy that speak to them. And then from there we did some mind mapping work meant to encourage the students to think broadly about how teaching intersected with their interests in the field. So the fellows all have a general sense of what their workshop topic will be but no specifics just yet. Yesterday when discussing their ideas, a number of the students expressed difficulty moving from these large topics to actual, teachable activities. How do you get from a focus on network analysis to an activity using string and rope? Do you just wait for inspiration to strike?

I’ll be sharing a few posts in the coming weeks with exercises that our current fellows might use to help facilitate the brainstorming process. In this first piece, I’ll touch on ways to bring iterative design into the development of lesson plans to open them up as spaces of possibility. I’ll call it “One Concept: Ten Ways to Teach.”

One Concept: Ten Ways to Teach

I would wager when most people lesson plan that they try to do so as quickly as possible. Working under the constraints of limited time and resources, we probably take the first or second good idea that we have for approaching our material. Rarely do we dwell in the possibilities that the learning experience might contain, but a quick speculative exercise can help us do so when we have the luxury of more time to think. If we iteratively take on several different approaches with intentional constraints we can explore the myriad ways we might approach teaching a particular topic.

The title and approach here shamelessly adapt (rip off) Wired’s 5 Levels series. In the 5 Levels videos, an expert teaches a single concept to five different audiences and with varying levels of complexity: “first to a child, then a teenager, then an undergrad majoring in the same subject, a grad student and, finally, a colleague.” In the video I’m most familiar with, music phenom Jacob Collier explains the definition of harmony to a child (harmony makes a melody less lonely and helps us change how it feels) all the way to jazz legend Herbie Hancock (what even is harmony anyway?).

The series orients itself around a kind of idealistic approach to teaching and learning: a complex idea can explained to anyone given the right approach. While that is a useful lesson in itself, the approach can also be used as a generative exercise in iterative design. Forcing ourselves to explain the same concept with varying levels of complexity and constraints can help us push past our usual teaching models. Here’s how we might apply it to a DH context.

Take one minute to think of the DH topic or method you want to focus on. Write it down.

You’ll now practice different ways of teaching the same idea. For each one, take one to two minutes to think and then three minutes to write before moving on to the next one. In each case, it is probably more important to capture the general approach you would take than to focus on writing an actual, new explanation. For each new way, consider these questions:

  • How will you need to explain things differently?
  • How will the genre of the teaching change?
  • What will you (or they) likely have trouble with (can you ignore that thing entirely)?
  • What will you need? What can you let go of?

Here are the ways:

  1. Teach the idea to an academic not in your field.
  2. Teach the idea to a very well read, bookish friend who is not an academia.
  3. Teach the idea to a child.
  4. Teach the idea using something in your home as a prop.
  5. Teach the idea using a metaphor.
  6. Teach the idea using a lecture.
  7. Teach the idea where you don’t speak and the students come to the realization on their own.
  8. Teach the idea using no technology.
  9. Teach the idea in the worst way.
  10. Teach the idea in three words.

Etc. etc. You might come up with your own! The number of ways is arbitrary, but the important takeaway is simply that the ways are numerous. Success in the activity does not come from finding the one perfect approach. It comes from trying on new things. And then another. And another. When all is done, you might take a look at how your thinking has changed over the course of the exercise. What was especially challenging? What seems like it would be the most fun to teach? What will be your way?