How not to begin teaching a topic

October 2006

Kathy Sierra is on form once again this time talking about how to begin presentations, articles and well pretty much anything. It's reassuring to know that I'm not the only person who wants to scream when they come across a book which starts with the history of the internet. The article reminded me of a couple of other practices common in education that I've noticed over the years that don't really work as part of my gradual attempts to improve the things that I do.

Starting with definitions

As a former mathematician it pains me to say this, but definitions by themselves aren't interesting. They are just there to help you communicate. If I had to give you the full definition of the Frattini series of a finitely generated soluble group every time I wanted to talk about one (which I have to admit isn't really very often these days), then having a discussion about them would take forever.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't clarify terminology that people might not know, nor that naming things isn't powerful in some way. There's the classic example that once you say know the names of wild flowers you'll recognise and notice different types of flowers everywhere that you never did before. I'm a believer in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Discussing definitions is fine if you're trying to debate if something is true or not, but definitions per se just aren't engaging. And no it's not any better if you get everybody into groups to discuss how they would define 'teamwork' or 'leadership', though at least that way they might have a fun chat with someone interesting about how boring the session is and go away happy.

Starting with a summary of what you're going to talk about

How many times have you read a story or seen a film that starts with a plot summary? The worst thing is that I've actually seen teaching evaluation forms where you have to say if the person you're evaluating did this or not. Repetition in different contexts and reinforcing how everything fits together is good obviously, but there are plenty of ways of doing that without starting with a spoiler.

I really don't understand the obsession with starting with a summary of what you are going to cover. I think it must be because people think it motivates people to know what they are going to learn. But that's what people want to know when they buy a book or sign up for a course not when they actually start reading the book or attending the course.

Generic statements about importance or ubiquity

It's far better to illustrate the importance of something than state it. Tell me that absolutely everybody in your daughter's class uses MySpace rather than that social networking is becoming increasingly common. I think this stems from a lack of not knowing how else to start talking about something and so just copying what everybody else does.

Is it ok to start with stuff about yourself?

Obviously this doesn't apply for things like books, and for presentations, you should really have somebody introduce you properly. But if that doesn't happen, I think it's probably ok to say a couple of sentences about your background. I have to admit that if I go to a talk I do like to know a teensy bit about the speaker to give me some context. I'm always curious about the people who teach me, especially when it's obviously not their full-time job. I'm interested in how they learned what they know. I think as long as it's short and sweet, it can be ok, especially as it's something difficult to go back to later on in a talk.