April 6, 2022

Notes on teaching & chairs

Repair, tacit knowledge and memes

I fell asleep in a lecture once. The lecture hall was so crowded, there must have been over 200 students in the hall, so I was sat on the steps of the lecture theatre at the back. This is at Warwick where I studied mathematics - the lecture was likely on something like Linear Algebra.

Of course I fell asleep in lots of lectures (it didn’t help that my classes had names like Algebra I, Algebra II and Algebra III) - but I remember this one in particular because I was sat on the steps instead of a nice comfy bench. I was falling asleep despite being sprawled on the uncomfortable steps.

The classroom chair. The long benches of a lecture theatre. The stairs I fell asleep on. Chairs and education seems somehow emotionally entwined. Picture a classroom and you’ll think of rows and rows of chairs facing the blackboard. The idea that you should sit down and listen.

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I’ve spent the last year teaching in earnest, building the first SEO MBA course (that launched last year) and now running a beta of the new course that will come out in a few months. So of course I’m thinking about chairs.

The biggest surprise building the SEO MBA is quite simply how hard teaching is. As a teacher, you really want the process to be as simple as explaining the concepts in a linear fashion. Sit down everyone, I’ve got some teaching to tell you about. But unfortunately it’s not nearly so simple.

You see the goal of teaching is not to get people to simply remember what you said - it’s to be able to apply that learning in context. For teaching to be effective it has to be felt in the bones. You need students to examine, unlearn and relearn concepts. It’s about reshaping mental models of how the world works.

I’m still learning how to teach (ha!). But I’ve found that when constructing a syllabus or a lesson there’s a kind of framework I follow. Maybe this is old news for teachers. It goes something like this:

  1. First figure out what the goal is for your students. Ideally you try and write this as a statement: after completing this course they will be able to…
  2. Understand what the current level of understanding is. What are the pre-existing approaches, mental models and experience of your students? For the courses I’ve been teaching I run a survey before I start to try and tease out these things.
  3. Decide on the content of the teaching. What are the topics you want to teach (that meet your students where they are and teach them the skills to meet their goals)?
  4. Find ways to communicate each concept clearly so that it’s easy to grasp and hard to confuse, even for people from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.

    Points 1-3 are relatively straightforward. 4 is harder. I’ve found that there’s a huge gap between knowing a concept and being able to explain it clearly. If you get through 1-4 you’re doing pretty well as a teacher. But you’re still just telling them what you want them to know.

    There’s more you can do:

  5. Find examples, data points and evidence that what you’re teaching is true. It’s one thing to make an assertion like “Your presentation should have an executive summary” and quite another thing to find evidence for your claim. Can you convince your students to both care about what you’re saying AND believe you?
  6. Find some stories that deepen the emotional connection to the subject. Why is this stuff important? Why do you care? What are real examples from the world that show this learning in action?
  7. Shift the teaching from telling to showing - find ways for students to come to their own insights. The highest artform of this is to never once tell the student what you want them to know, but to allow them to arrive there themselves.
  8. Once you’ve done all of these things, finally, you need to make it entertaining. You need to make the teaching experience capture their attention for extended periods of time.

Likely your first attempt to teach something will cover something like 1-4. Points 5-8 are harder. And there are likely levels to this I’ve not even thought of yet.

Interestingly, this is a framework for taking the same materials and continuing to revisit and expand it over time. Every class that you teach is an opportunity to improve the stories, or add examples, or explain something more clearly. You’re not changing the what you’re teaching, but changing how you teach it. And that makes a big difference.

An average teacher starts by explaining the concept, telling you what you’re going to learn and then breaks down the topics.

A great teacher shows up in a fish suit, punches you in the gut and tickles you - making you realize how important oxygen is and forcing you to reexamine your relationship to air.

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Do you remember when Facebook ran that ad about how Chairs are like Facebook? Unironically!

But, talking of memes and chairs and learning… My friend Jonathan is building new startup around the idea that memes are a revolutionary educational tool. His thesis? That you can’t meme something you don’t understand:

Shitposting. There’s an unusually intuitive framework for learning called Bloom’s Taxonomy, which emphasizes that Creation and Evaluation are the highest form of learning. Why? Because exposition often, but not always, relies on regurgitation and repetition (the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy), whereas creating something new based on the subject matter relies not only on a fundamental understanding of that subject but also the opposing opinions on that subject (also see Bryan Caplan’s Ideological Turing Test). It’s impossible to tell good jokes about subjects you don’t fully understand, and very difficult to tell jokes that people with opposing opinions will enjoy and grapple with. To accomplish the latter you need to be informed enough about opposing opinion, generous enough to take it seriously, and above all confident enough to tell a joke that, taken at face value, inverts your actual opinion. This is shitposting.

There’s a great 4 min video here that explains that relationship and shows a bit of the Antimatter experience.

Maybe beyond my levels 1-8 above there are things you can do with teaching like memes that make the concepts memorable, shareable. Imagine every course you teach coming with a meme, imagine every student creating a meme about your course! Memes as memory palaces built for the network age.

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Teaching is hard enough. But it’s even harder, if what you’re trying to teach is tacit knowledge:

Tacit knowledge is knowledge that cannot be captured through words alone.

Think about riding a bicycle. Riding a bicycle is impossible to teach through descriptions. Sure, you can try to explain what it is you’re doing when you’re cycling, but this isn’t going to be of much help when you’re teaching a kid and they fall into the drain while you’re telling them to “BALANCE! JUST IMAGINE YOU ARE ON A TIGHTROPE AND BALANCE!”.

What is more important is emulation, and action — that is, a focus on the embodied feelings necessary to ride a bicycle successfully. And this exercise was quite magical for me, for within the span of an hour I could watch a kid go from conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.

In other words, tacit knowledge instruction happens through things like imitation, emulation, and apprenticeship. You learn by copying what the master does, blindly, until you internalise the principles behind the actions.

Cedric’s writing on Tacit Knowledge is wonderful. I’ve been sitting down with it trying to really understand and internalize it.

One of the most challenging things about tacit knowledge is that just because you’re an expert at something doesn’t mean you can explain it or teach it. In fact, it’s worse than that, if you force experts to explain how to do something they’ll make it up:

And if you press them enough, they’ll start making stuff up. The way that experts do, because they want to give you an answer.

This from a great post The Tricky Thing About Creating Training Programs.

This is why I have steps 5 and 6 in my list. I’m trying to keep my own BS in check. Sometimes I try and explain a concept and struggle to find evidence or stories of that principle in action. This is a red flag that suggests maybe I’m making it up.

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Talking of tacit knowledge and chairs… There’s this lovely paper about a program where students buy a chair, deconstruct it and then repair it. Redoing by Repair: The Search for Tacit KnowledgeTransfer in Furniture Design Education:

The famous quote from Polanyi (1966) “We know more than we can tell.” explains the most for tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is the untellable knowledge embedded in the product. The best way to reveal it is to have a dialogue who has the knowledge. Once the tacit has been made explicit to make it one’s own tacit knowledge it is needed to be practiced. In interior design furniture class these methods are evaluated through repair theme as the mediator of the dialogue.

Repair is an act of seeing the product as a whole and not as the parts specifically. This situation suits to Polanyi’s thoughts on tacit knowledge that knowledge is a whole and cannot be separated. In furniture class, the chair is treated as an object to be repaired by a craftsman. Students approached the chair to reveal the tacit knowledge and create a dialogue to whom have this knowledge.

The purpose of the class has not been to make each student a repairman or a crafts person. It has been to make students understand that there is a greater tacit dimension in production of furniture, even greater than the explicit knowledge thought in the class.

This is how great teaching works - by taking something that you know, something you think you understand, like a chair - and forcing you to deconstruct the chair and put it back together again.

You could re-frame step 2 in my teaching process not just as understanding your students level of expertise, but understanding your students mental models. This is hard to do. And it’s challenging - you’re challenging your students and the way they see the world. Viewed through this lens teaching becomes a political act. You’re changing the world by changing your students.

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Teaching after all, is not neutral (bolding mine):

Education is never a neutral process. It either functions as an instrument to integrate new generations into the logic of a present system, or it can be the means by which students are allowed to critically deal with their reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their future—in other words, education as a practice of liberation. No matter what we believe, we all should at least be transparent about our approaches. Every student should have the right to know what kind of learning processes they are about to enter.And of course, one is more likely to support education as a model of integration if one benefits from or has never felt threatened by the status quo. In this case, this system is likely invisible to you. In liberatory educational practices, it is as important to recognize one’s role as an educator as it is to identify and name power. This should never be confused with freeing yourself, as a teacher, from your responsibilities. Even if I believe in co-created knowledge and use methods to make individual experiences and knowledge visible, it is my responsibility to organize studies in ways that increase each student’s chances to reach learning outcomes. If a student fails, this failure is also mine.

Oh!

Ok, listen I’m teaching something called the SEO MBA. I’m not exactly changing the world. Except there is an ideology and status quo that I’m railing against and it’s good to be explicit about it. You could call what I’m railing against something like “SEO audit culture” - I’m fighting for a better way to view SEO as a systemic, complex initiative inside organizations. To see a full accounting of what SEO takes, to examine more closely whether SEO is worth it.

So my courses are like little trojan horses burrowing into people’s mental models to try and help them see the world a little more clearly.

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Anyway. I’m just here sat in a chair, thinking about teaching, tacit knowledge, memes and mental models.


This blog is written by Tom Critchlow, an independent strategy consultant living and working in Brooklyn, NY. If you like what you read please leave a comment below in disqus or sign up for my Tinyletter.