Friday, March 21, 2008

Teach Me Twisted

I got home from PyCon last night, having stayed for sprints for the first time (I'll blog about that later). It was amazing.

One of the amazing things was Steve Holden's Teach Me Twisted session. I came out of simple curiosity; I witnessed the invention of a whole new form of teaching, I think.

Steve had the front of the room and a laptop with a projector, just as if he were teaching a conventional class - only he wasn't teaching, he was learning. All he had, to begin with, were some ideas of what Twisted could do, not how to do them. "So, how would I use Twisted to check if my website is up?", he began. The Twisted experts sprinkled throughout the audience talked him through it. Steve asked questions to move the session along, and channeled the discussion to keep it focused on his needs as a learner. In particular, when the Twisted experts started waxing eloquent on subtleties or engaging each other in esoteric discussions, Steve cut them off and redirected them back into the task at hand - the task of directing a beginner.

It was wonderfully effective! When you think about it, the standard classroom arrangement gives all the power to the teacher, which is precisely where it doesn't belong, because the teacher is distanced from the learners' needs. By the time you're an expert, you've forgotten what it was like to be ignorant. Bad teachers even forget how to pity the ignorant, using the podium to demonstrate their mastery of the subject to an imaginary audience of fellow masters. Good teachers try to be responsive to the learners' needs, but the arrangement conspires against them. They're like a blindfolded chauffeur, trying to find the road by the verbal instructions of their passengers, who may be too shy to even speak up. It's very hard for a learner to muster the courage to tell a teacher, "I still don't understand what you're saying, and your tangents aren't helping."

By taking the role of the ultimate, empowered learner, Steve turned all that on its head, and made for a session that really was all about the learners' needs to learn. Yet even the experts said afterward that they, too, had learned from it. Perhaps that's because it harnessed the multi-directional, easygoing, collaborative spirit of a good Open Space session, while remaining technical and specific, not wandering into vague chitchat. Bravo, Steve!

Pycon-organizers is buzzing about it, with perhaps overambitious dreams of immediately start a whole series of "Teach Me..." sessions. I'm thinking about trying it out at a local Dynamic Languages SIG meeting. Teach Me Ruby, SIG guys?


Matt Wilson said...

That sounds like a really neat way to learn.

In order to work well though, you need grownups. The learner has to be willing to humbly go along with stuff that might not immediately make any sense, and the teacher has to take the time to slow down and make sure the learner is actually learning, rather than just dutifully typing it all in like a court stenographer.

Steve said...

@Catherine: I'd like to thank you publicly for this blog entry. Despite all the buzz there appears to be remarkably little on the 'net about it. I'd have blogged it myself, but I was a little busy ...

Good luck with PyOhio this weekend.

@Matt: They tell the story at most universities, let's use "X" as an example, about how the professor at Cambridge says "Good morning" at the start of his lecture and the students don't reply. At London the students say "Good morning" back. At "X" they all write "Good morning" down in their notes :-)