This weekend I saw a diagram with visual representations of teacher-centered instruction juxtaposed to graphics illustrating learner-centered approaches. I heard myself telling someone that I used to think of them as separate, and I ...
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[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y wiper blades needed to be replaced. I hate these kinds of tasks; they make me feel completely inadequate. But I was doing a lot of reading about learning, and I was looking for concrete examples in my own life to help me better understand the theory and practice of learning. Knowledge transfer, constructivism, scaffolding, and making thinking visible were all pretty new ideas to me.
So, I approached the task as a learning opportunity. I gave myself every advantage—no rain, moderate temps, a Saturday morning with no commitments. I prepared deliberately—a full stomach, empty bladder, and the entire toolbox next to the car. But my resolve was shaken with the very first task. Packaging these days requires the jaws of life. After struggling with the pliers and breaking a fingernail, I went inside for the heavy-duty scissors and was once again ready to get started.
That ended when I opened the 12’’ x 16’’ page of instructions and realized that the four sets of directions, two on each side, weren’t explanations in different languages. They were four different installation options for four different blade types: J-hook, side-pin, beam blade bayonet, and hybrid design. I made a snarky comment to myself but then remembered this was about watching myself learn, so I took a deep breath, noted my frustration, and moved on.
I looked closely at the pictures of each of the blade types. I felt like I was doing one of those brain teasers in which you search for the hidden differences between two pictures. When I did spot the shape variations in the four designs, none of them looked like the wiper blades on my car. Annoyed and a bit stumped, I opted for a second cup of coffee. Somewhere between adding and stirring milk, it hit me. “Duh, look at the new blades in the package to decide the type.” Back at the car, sure enough, the new blade matched one of the picture sets, and once again, I was ready to start.
1. Remove the old blades. “WAH!” That was it. No further explanation. Expletives replaced my former snarky tone. “If I knew how to remove the #$%!@ wiper blade, I wouldn’t be reading directions for putting the @#$V thing on.” Another deep breath and self-talk intervention: “If this were biology content that I know and love, what would I do? Reread. Study. Reason.” So, hypothesizing that getting the wiper blade off was the reverse of putting it on, I smartly looked at the last steps. Not helpful; more deep breathing.
Expert learner that I am, I moved to yet another strategy: look at the diagrams. I could see differences between the steps, but they weren’t meaningful. Arrows pointed in opposite directions, not only in the same frame but also on the same part. There were pictures of a screwdriver, but I couldn’t see any screws and there weren’t any in the package; I checked. Now I felt panic rising in my chest. I went back into the house to regroup—get yet another cup of coffee, sit down, and really study the instructions.
Fifteen minutes and a bathroom break later, I still didn’t understand how you could push down and pull up at the same time, but I did have some ideas. Back out at the car, I tried the only remaining strategy I could think of—poke around. It took a long time to match pictures and pokes, especially in reverse order, but eventually I got the blade off. I danced a bit right there on the curb.
Installing the new blades was a similar hands-on process of pokes, pulls, pushes, slides, and missteps, all accompanied by more swearing. Eventually, I felt more than heard the tiniest of clicks. Such a small vibration had rarely been so satisfying. What’s more, since I’d been paying attention to what I was doing, the second blade took only half the time to install. Victory! Nearly 90 minutes after starting, an inordinate amount of tension in my shoulders, and more broken fingernails, I was the master of my windshield wipers. Learning task completed.
Those of you saying, “Why didn’t you just find a YouTube video?” have already tumbled to my main point, though you may not yet recognize the implications. Indeed, YouTube has become my go-to-strategy. Watch, stop, rewind, replay, watch again. Oh, the power! I’ve since fixed water heaters, washing machines, and ceiling fans! Mechanical tasks are no longer my enemy. But YouTube videos weren’t an option 10 years ago. Back then we had cryptic instructions in the package.
I tackled the wiper blade problem as a way to better intuitively understand learning, and it did that. I had examples of misconceptions, the role of prior knowledge (or lack thereof), inadequate scaffolding, and more. Perhaps more importantly, I experienced the humbling process of being a novice.
All this made me think about my first-year biology students unpacking their book bags at a library table. Their toolboxes at hand, ready, even eager, to work, but many with no real idea of how to accomplish a college-level task. Were my instructions as confusing as those in the wiper blade package? “Read pages 1–25” sounded a lot like “1. Remove the old blades.” Was I making assumptions about students’ prior knowledge and experiences, assuming they knew how to interpret diagrams or recognize subheadings as statements of major organizing principles? Didn’t I expect students to use familiar tools in entirely different ways: to apply simple algebra to chemistry problems or plot data on graph paper with a logarithmic axis? How different is this from expecting a novice to know what to do with a screwdriver when the process doesn’t involve screws?
What about the fact that I didn’t look at the wiper blades in the package to see what type they were: that I missed something right in front of me? I recognized that my brain was so sidetracked with emotion and the weight of previous failures at these kinds of tasks that I missed the obvious. So why am I surprised and disgruntled when students miss what to me seems so obvious?
I found numerous other parallels, but, in short, the result of my Saturday morning adventure made me much more aware of the intellectual distance between novice and expert. Now, every time I watch a YouTube video to learn how to fix an appliance, I’m reminded of the value of being an apprentice, of watching someone who can point out and explain the hidden details. That’s made me much more explicit in my teaching. I model how to interrogate a text rather than just highlight it. I now teach students how to interpret complicated diagrams and how to recognize main concepts and organize details around them.
The experience also helped me realize that I wasn’t teaching some of what I consider the most important educational lessons: There are multiple strategies for learning; when one doesn’t work, try another. When you hit an intellectual brick wall, don’t panic; regroup. Make mistakes; there’s more to be learned from them than from right answers. I’m attentive to habits of mind that promote resilience and risk-taking. I want my students to become expert learners as well as expert biologists.
What prompted me to tackle replacing my own wiper blades in the first place was to observe the learning process in myself so I better understood the new ideas I was encountering. What I rediscovered are the ways in which being a novice is hard and being an expert is blinding.
Dr. Amy B. Mulnix is the director of the Faculty Center at Franklin and Marshall College. Her current scholarship involves synthesizing literature on professional development and the learning sciences.