Instructional dialogues

Posted in all posts, education, stories by coleman yee on September 26, 2007

Professor Zo: I’d like to talk about this interesting way of teaching. The best thing about it is that it can work in a lecture or classroom setting, and it can work online as well. You don’t even need to be a computer nerd to do it online…

Alice: Use a story?

Prof Zo: Hmm you’re right actually. But I was thinking of something else, which is somewhat related to stories. In fact, you might say it’s a type of story. Anyone?

Bob: You’re gonna have to give us a hint – we still haven’t mastered the art of mindreading.

Prof: Okay here’s a huge hint. Plato used this technique frequently. While I’m not sure if he was the first, he’s probably the most well-known…

Cindy: Dialogues. He’s known for his Socratic dialogues.

Prof: Do tell us more…

Cindy: Well, Plato wrote a great number of works in the form of dialogues – usually two or three people discussing about a matter. They’re called “Socratic” because the main character of the dialogues is usually Socrates.

Alice: So by “listening in” to their dialogue or conversation, we actually learn something?

Prof: You got it. If you’re interested, you can check out Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a very well-known dialogue between Socrates and someone else. It’s one of his easier ones too.

Bob: Prof, any modern examples to show us?

Prof: Certainly. How many of you have read or heard of Hofstadter’s book, Gödel, Escher, Bach?

Prof: Nobody? What a shame. Anyway, it covers philosophy, mathematics, music, art.

Bob: Philosophy again!

Prof: It’s fascinating! Anyway, every chapter of the book starts off with an entertaining dialogue, usually between Achilles and Tortoise.

Achilles: What is that strange flag down at the other end of the track? It reminds me somehow of a print by my favorite artist, M.C. Escher.

Tortoise: That is Zeno’s flag.

Achilles: Could it be that the hole in it resembles the holes in a Möbius strip Escher once drew? Something is wrong about that flag, I can tell.

Tortoise: The ring which has been cut from it has the shape of the numeral for zero, which is Zeno’s favorite number.

Achilles: But zero hasn’t been invented yet! It will only be invented by a Hindu mathematician some millennia hence. And thus, Mr. T, my argument proves that such a flag is impossible.

Cindy: I’m not sure if I get it…

Prof: That’s only an excerpt – too short to be very comprehensible, but long enough to give you an idea of what a dialogue could be like.

Alice: Okaaay… but can we have one more example, please? And something that I can understand?

Bob: And not on philosophy?

Prof: Hah! I was expecting this. You’re in luck – just the other day, I was surfing around and found this blog on typography. It’s called “I love typography“.

Bob: Typography? You mean about fonts and all that? Maybe we shoulda stuck with philosophy…

Prof: Believe me, typography is not just about fonts. It’s a fascinating subject. In fact, I know of this book on typography and some philosophy as well…

Bob: It’s okay Prof!

Prof: But do let me know if you’re interested in the book. Anyway, I read this post in I love typography where the author used a dialogue in the form of an interview to teach about serifs.

Cindy: Serifs are just little hooks at the ends of some letters. You don’t need a dialogue to learn about serifs!

Prof: Perhaps not. But it certainly helps if you want to learn about adnate or abrupt serifs. Or the difference between Egyptian and Humanist serifs. Or…

Cindy: Okay I get the point. Show us that post already!

Prof: The post is The Return of the Serif. Type Terminology. That blog is worth reading – the blogger John D Boardley uses many interesting techniques to teach the reader about typography.

Alice: Prof, could we have just one last example of an instructional dialogue?

Prof: Alice, we’ve just been participating in one.

“The Future of Learning” Manifesto

Posted in all posts, education, future, learning, stories, teaching by coleman yee on January 6, 2007

think:lab has a thought-provoking manifesto on “The Future of Learning”.

Since I’m an Educational Technologist, I’ll just quote his point on the use of technology:

9.  It Ain’t About the Technology.  It’s About the Story.

Laptops?  (Yawn)
Blogging? (Yawn)
PowerPoint? (Snore)
Multi-Media Center with a Starbucks ‘coffee house’ espresso shot in the backside? (Daring?  21st century school?  Yawn.)

How about we stop talking all giddy-like about the technology.  For us, it’s not about the box.  Not even about the iPod in pink or black.   And it’s definitely not about the email (psst:  we don’t email ‘cept when old people need help).

It’s about the conversation.   The ricochet of words.  The energy.  The fact that its happening right here right now and it ain’t coming back.

Definitely worth reading and pondering over if you’re an educator.

Making Ideas Stick

Posted in all posts, books, stories, teaching by coleman yee on December 25, 2006

Imagine this scenario:

You spend the larger part of your one-hour lecture slowly and painstakingly explaining partial differentiation (or some other important but abstract concept you have to teach), and your students seem to get it.

Come the following week, only the 2 nerds in the front row seem to recall anything. The concept was as sticky as Teflon for everyone else.

Familiar? I’m sure most teachers have experienced this, and many of them have cracked their heads trying to concoct with stories or analogies or illustrations just to make a concept more sticky – I’ve spent countless hours doing it myself.

Well, looks like help is on the way, with the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

As of now, this book isn’t out yet, but you can (and should) read the introduction, which is really compelling.Made to Stick

The introduction talks about the 6 principles of sticky ideas (which I won’t elaborate on):


It helps that the 6 principles spell out ‘SUCCES’ – corny, but helpful – and these principals are a good gauge on how sticky the concept will be.

I like the part on the Curse of Knowledge as well:

This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.

Teachers are definitely “cursed” cursed by their knowledge!

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this book.

Feedback from a Student

Posted in all posts, blogging, life, philosophy, stories, teaching by coleman yee on August 4, 2006

Yesterday, I had my last lesson with a group of students. Since this was my last opportunity to speak to them, I spent quite a bit of effort in preparation for it.

The “closing talk” went really well. Using lots of my own stories and experiences with loads of humor, I had the full attention of the 18-year-olds (including the normally attention-deficient ones) throughout the 150-Powerpoint-slides-in-45-minutes session. (Yes, I really had 150 slides.)

Later that day, one of the girls blogged about it:

today during i n e lesson i was really inspired by coleman’s closing talk. he talked about courage, and having the “just do it” attitude. i feel that i should have that attitude too and not try and think so much. at times im a real thinker and think about the consequences, and factors that would affect my decision. also, he did emphasize that we get only one life, so make it meaningful. yes. i should make my life meaningful and make it my own. i want to re-live life again. yes, i’ve got only 1 life, and i should treasure it and make it really meaningful. he did mention about honesty also. yes, its very important. and i guess when i make decisions, i guess, its not about whether its theoretically right or not, but whether the decision i made is it honest to myself or not. these are lifeskills, and it is essential. coleman’s closing did really inspire me and i’ve really made the decision to make my life meaningful. this life is mine and God is in control. i want to rise up and soar from the situation i am in.

It’s reading things like this from students that makes teaching really meaningful and worth all the effort.

The Story in History

Posted in all posts, education, stories, teaching by coleman yee on May 1, 2006

“How do you make history interesting?”

I posed this question to a lady who was training to become a History teacher.

It turned out that this question had been bothering her as well – she’d always loved history, but she understands that not everyone shares that love. In fact, many students have the perception that history is boring, requiring the memorization of loads of facts and information.

Since I didn’t get far with the question, I asked another:

“Why is history interesting to you?”

“I like to know what happened in the past” was her reply. Not exactly helpful either.

We didn’t have time to converse further, but I was left wondering about the burning question: how to make history interesting to students who aren’t already interested, or even think that history is boring?

Many History teachers make use of films, either documentary (such as WWII or later events where real footage was available), or reconstructions (on events that weren’t captured on film).

Films are definitely helpful, as they add a visual dimension to the historical event (which would otherwise have remained largely textual). One doesn’t have to be a predominantly visual learner to reap the benefits of motion picture.

I have viewed a good number of documentary films, and most of them were highly enjoyable, not to mention informative as well. Recently, however, I viewed a series of war documentaries which had great footage and even computer-generated animation (to illustrate troop movements etc.), but the presentation was not very compelling.

After some thought, I realized why. The difference between the good documentaries and those that weren’t compelling was that the good ones told a story, and not-compelling ones simply presented facts. And the best documentaries – they didn’t just tell a story – they touched your emotions, they developed the characters, they took you through a journey.

Unfortunately, not every historical event is documented or reconstructed on film, and not every historical film is available to the History teacher. What can the History teacher do to make the lesson compelling?

Tell stories.

Something to think about.