Help, for Madmen and Beginners
by George Bowden
ur club is about members helping members. Some things we can do for each other, some things we can only teach to each other. This article is about the second part, teaching, and how difficult it is.
My best student keeps telling me that I am making all these assumptions about what she already knows, and that I am talking about more than the problem she is trying to solve.
Good for her, stopping me there. So how does a teacher get to know what the student understands? And how do I know when am I losing focus on explaining the solution to the student? I could suggest a course. But the appropriate course doesn't start for weeks, and I'm flattered that she asked me for help, so I want to help her today. By writing this, I hope to understand how to teach her better. (She says that she appreciates the help she gets from all the club members.)
Of Mice and Men (and women)
Let’s generalize with an example. What does the user who is new to computing experience? They see a screen, a keyboard, a mouse that moves a pointer on the screen. When the beginner pushes the mouse buttons, sometimes things happen on the screen. A middle student clicks once on something, and if that doesn't work, clicks twice. The expert clicks once to select the icon, and then right clicks to choose an action for the selection. Yes, anyone who has mastered that action is an expert on the mouse! But only a madman would teach that the mouse click sends you to the Windows Manager, which sends you to the program managing the object that is currently selected. Now I've learned that someone can become an expert at some part of computing, and feel good about it, in about a half an hour.
Of Files and Folders
Now, how do we teach about files. Here, the silent stare of the student is not good news to the teacher. First, does the student need to understand the abstraction of files? Most beginners see icons which someone told them to call programs, or data, but only god knows which, and when. The middle student understands that they need to get things like pictures off their camera and onto their computer, or onto their memory stick. Memory sticks they can see. Cameras they can see. Hard drives they cannot see. C drives are almost invisible, and partitions are magic that put you to sleep. Experts are those that have lost their work so many times that they have learned to save it in a file before shutting off the computer. Only fools want to explain hard drive formats.
Now I've learned that we can focus on problems, not abstracts. A student who knows there are several valid levels of mastery has steps to achieve, and a goal.
What is a folder? I need a folder to group similar work (saved as files.) The beginner doesn't need to group work, so for the beginner, Microsoft Windows saves everything in the one folder called My Documents. Well, even Microsoft realized that beginners want to separate pictures from resumes, so they save pictures in a sub-folder called My Pictures. Middle students will open Windows Explorer to drag folders from their camera, and drop them on their thumb drive, or their hard drive. Experts will know how to search for where the folder landed, or instead, to select the folder, right click, and choose to move or to copy the folder.. Only a madman tries to explain why My Documents appears twice in Windows Explorer.