Feeling Learning

While using chopsticks at lunch today I found myself musing about how to train a robot to do the same. One could, of course, attempt (likely in vain) to describe how it is done. Perhaps better than that, one could show how it is done. But the thing about using chopsticks is that when your hand-brain-eye system gets it, you know it. It’s a feeling, “I got it!” Suddenly it totally works. What was awkward becomes natural. Those two slivers of bamboo or plastic become an extension of the self. The strength of the “this is working” reinforcement feedback is tremendous.

Which got me thinking about teaching in general. We do a lot of explaining and describing and even some showing. And we tend to couple it with rewards in the form of approval/disapproval, points added or points taken off. In another jargon, we might say that we are inventing reward functions for our students, rewards rooted, ultimately, in the instructor’s approval.

And many of us bemoan the fact that a predominant result of this process is that the students invest a lot of time trying to figure out “what the teacher wants.”

Of course, what we really want is for the student to master the skill at hand but we offer this proxy reward, our approval when the performance is judged right by us.

Somewhere in this is a theory that if we repeat this process often enough, the student will learn what it was we were actually after (that is, they’ll get beyond trying to win our approval and see that actual mastery of the skill is what it is that earns the approval). We vary the inputs and mix showings and tellings of both problem and solution in a hope to optimize this process.

But what about that awesome feeling when your fingers and brain finally “get” how chopsticks work? What if I could be more successful at communicating that feeling and setting up in my students a search for it? My job can then be converted into helping them move toward trajectories that will pass through that experience.

We might still deploy some conventional approaches to explanation, demonstration, and performance assessment, but I think I’ll be doing a better and more effective job to the degree that I can create opportunities for the production and recognition of that tangible feeling of “I got it.”

Photo by Chopstick.JPG: 毛抜きderivative work: Richardprins (talk) – Chopstick.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9559743

Author: Dan Ryan

I've been an Academic Program Director at MinervaProject.com, a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. My current mission is to figure out how to reorganize higher education and exploit technology so that we can teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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