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I am a Software Engineer working with the latest in .NET focusing on Web Development. With a burning heart for programming, I blog and author a book about C#. Filip is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 54 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

The Art of Teaching

04.29.2013
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Preface

The following article is an article that I wrote duing my studies for a bachelor degree in Software Engineering. Minor changes might have been made to make it more suitable on this website. It was originally posted on my old blog in 2008 but have now been re-processed.

Both my experience and writing style has changed since I wrote this article, but I still want to share my thoughts from 5 years ago.

Let me know how you prefer teaching others and how you prefer to learn!

Abstract

A teacher knows that there are no straight answers on how to teach. There are multiple ways giving people new information and helping them adapt this in their current work. One of the preferred learning method by me is the Problem Based Learning, I will take up more about this in the upcoming topics. It’s also very important to take the age of the student in mind, how do they actually see on you as a teacher and does your and their age really matter?

Introduction

By passing on knowledge to new generations we somewhat evolve into a new and different kind life form. This not being as deep as it sounds, every day we somehow pass knowledge to someone. It might be the neighbor, a child, a sibling, a parent or anyone else for that matter.

The important thing to remember is that all new or old knowledge is dangerously important to pass on to those concerned. There are a million ways of teaching something, not all of them are good and not all of them are bad, being old or being young doesn’t matter, all the age gives us is perspective and understanding of how to pass on knowledge and whom to give it to.

By viewing the aspects of teaching, who needs to know what to be able to survive, complete a task or just continue living their life. Of what importance is all the facts, does one give the window of failure or does one give all the fact so that there is nothing left to learn?

Different generations

This might actually be a sensitive spot to touch, but I’ll be short in these words. There is actually a big difference between teaching 2 different generations. Imagine having a student which was born somewhere around 1960 and a student who was born 1980, depending on the age of the student and the age of the teacher, both these persons will take the information in two whole different ways.

If we would’ve taken me as a teacher example, I’m born 1987 which makes me not very old for being a teacher. Some of my students today are actually a lot older than me, which might give in to complications.

The different generations doesn’t only differ in age but in the attitude and the way of learning. A person born in the 1960:ies might have a harder time actually learning new things than someone born in the 1980, this is because, when this text was written it was the year 2008 which makes someone born in the late 1980:ies somewhere around 20 – 25. In this age, you have much easier to learn and take in new information.

Now this does of course not mean that someone born in the 1960:ies is stupid, rather that there are a big different and when teaching a group with a lot of different generations, this has to be taken into mind when planning a course.

Take another example such as a work place where your co-workers are much older, being young you rarely have anything to say on a work place where the stuff have been done in a certain way for very long.

So when trying to teach an older co-worker, you really need to sell the new information so that the older generation will be more interested.

But going back to the topic of teaching in a class room, it might be a benefit of being older, because older generations have much easier to focus and having a different mindset which will help them succeed.

It’s very important to respect each other, despite the age difference, if a younger person knows something that the older one doesn’t, it’s very important that the senior gives the younger person a chance to actually come forth and tell the information, that might in fact help production or whatever the work space might need.

Teaching differentials

There are a lot of different ways of teaching and what should be kept in mind when talking about different methods and where they apply is that everyone is different. I might not find it as amusing as you would, if I were forced to be taught with the old style teaching methods.

Thus, as stated in the upcoming topics, there are benefits of the both methods and there are of course a lot more out there, but the ones that you mostly see in action, would be these two.

Problem Based Learning

I would certainly say that PBL; Problem Based Learning, is my favorite method of learning. Ever since high school this has been a method that I’ve worked with.

The principles are that a student is given an assignment and there are known factors of failure which will somehow help the student learn what is necessary. After working with the problem for an amount of time, the solution will somewhat appear and the student has learnt something new.

There’s also another aspect of this, or rather, another explanation. Let’s take implementation of the sorting algorithm quicksort as an example. This is a fairly hard algorithm to master and it requires some base knowledge in the field. So when given this assignment, the first obvious part from the teachers perspective is that the student will somehow search for information about the algorithm.

Using internet or a special course literature, both should work very well. This gives the student an opportunity to master this assignment on his or hers own means.

When all the information is collected and the next phase in the learning process begins, which in a programming line of work would be to put up a structure of your software, in this case the software won’t be huge but having a pattern when working is always good, no matter the size.

As a result of this method, the student will have taught him or herself something new and by the individuals own needs.

Old Style Learning

As a matter of fact, the “Old style” in from my point of view might not be what you would suggest as an older style. And I am not talking about the old school tutoring where the teachers would be rude and make students learn by force and learn by fear.

In my eyes the old style would be where all the answers are somewhat given and there is no room for self teaching or in any way, a path given where the student can choose to learn just what is needed or learn so much more.

This old style can be seen at many high schools throughout, in my experience, Sweden. Now, the old style, what exactly defines this and are there any benefits? Well to start off, the old style learning method is where the students are put down at a desk, everyone directed to a whiteboard, and the teacher is using a pattern of teaching, where the pattern repeats itself. The old style pattern is when the teacher enters the room, greets the students, and starts talking and then when a question is stated an answer will be provided directly.

Now this point of view might be a little bit dull and it certainly has its good parts, they are just somewhat harder to find than the good ones in a problem based situation.

We have to keep in mind that everyone learns differently and that it’s important to give everyone what is needed to succeed. Thus, this method works in some cases but I would say that it wouldn’t work in most cases.

A benefit of the problem based learning system which the old one lacks is that you give a broader room for questions and thoughts and it’s fair to say that it requires a totally different mindset and maturity.

Which is best?

Giving an answer to that question would be somewhat impossible. Just not because everyone differs from each other so much, but in some situations I would also prefer to be tutored using the old style method.

The assignment stated in the PBL-example a couple of words back is a great example of how you can absorb new technology and new point of views. Programming itself is very broad and there are hardly any similar solutions out there. And the quicksort implementation sure is a defined structured algorithm but it can be implemented in so many different ways, it doesn’t matter if there are fewer rows or more rows, and they are just all different.

Which in the end would make you to consider how others are implementing it, what are the benefits?

Using the old style method, the tutor would just present some ways of implementing it and not giving you as a coder any room for own thoughts. A teaching method is always abstract in my eyes, you can’t tell someone to just go with a method, because “implementing” PBL differs from time to time.

Team work is important

You might think “What does Team work has to do with everything?”; Well actually team work has everything to do with learning. By being a tutor on various programming sections I’ve reached to the conclusion that team work is the most important part of learning and teaching. Now, team work isn’t all important only in the case of teacher to student teaching. This is also very important when we talk about teaching in a workspace.

Since I generally work as a programmer, the examples of programming workspaces suits me the best, so here goes. Imagine having a workspace where there are 10 – 20 developers, 5 graphical interface programmers and a couple of designers. These all parts need to co-operate for the development to work. If some of the staff has knowledge that someone else doesn’t, it’s very important that if this knowledge will help the company produce more, then this person needs to convey this to the rest of the staff. This is where the team work is important, if someone on the staff feels insecure with conveying the knowledge; this person is probably not right for the position.

I always say that when I work somewhere, I don’t want to be the brightest and the person with the most experience, this is because I want to learn, learning is very important and knowledge is worth a lot.

And if you’d come to a workspace where people is unwilling to co-operate, sure this workspace lacks team work and this will be disadvantage when you want to learn and grow professionally.

Sharing is caring

Not only does sharing rime with caring but it goes very much hand in hand, almost every time that is. In this case, sharing knowledge to your co-workers, students and family is very important. Especially when you work as a teacher, the sharing part is not only important but it’s a factor for you, keeping this job.

I’ve met teachers who felt threatened by me as a somewhat quick learner and bright student, not to sound too self-righteous this was actually a problem for me when I went to high school. I had teachers that, somehow, felt threatened by my knowledge and therefore didn’t want to share new knowledge with me.

This is a dangerous way for thinking and teaching, you always need to take the student, no matter if it’s a coworker or an actually school student, you always have to see the people you are tutoring new things, to be your student.

And a student is to be handled with care; your personality will in the end reflect in this student and will show everyone, how good of a teacher you are. Of course some people like to learn themselves, but, put your mind around this, initially how do you give someone inspiration? It’s by showing the person what skills you have and maybe how you’d do some things.

Sharing knowledge is in the end a vital factor for evolution, what if Einstein or other important people for our evolution, wouldn’t share their findings? How would this affect our current living environment and our current ways for thinking?

Feeding answers is dangerous

However, when sharing information it’s very important that you do this correctly. As mentioned in the previous chapter, all people learn differently. This is probably one of the hardest parts by being a teacher; you need to find a common spot which almost all students like.

Of course this is often impossible, thus there are more than one path to take and there are almost always presented two or more ways for the students.

One important thing to always keep in mind is that you can never ever just give out an answer to a question without somehow providing a solid explanation or a proof why it works.

Why you might ask, this is because when being a student, you are almost certain to always take the easiest path and not thinking clearly about consequences. By being spoon feed you will never really care about how or why the solution is what it is.

And being a programming tutor, this part is very important, what if I were to give all the students the correct answers to all assignments, and tell them “Here are the answers, go find out why”. Maybe a couple of percent would actually find out why the answers are as followed but the majority wouldn’t. So to keep in mind is that when a solution is presented, always give out a good and pedagogic explanation to why.

This topic actually doesn’t just apply to students, it’s also very important not to just give co-workers the answer and let them be happy about it. I know that sometimes I just want a quick answer, but when I actually encounter the problem the second time, and not knowing how to solve it, I regret not doing more research the last time.

Giving inspiration not motivation

Not to feed answers and giving inspiration is actually something that we can see go hand in hand. When you actually want to teach someone something you want to give the person inspiration and give them the mindset of wanting to learn.

So why wouldn’t you want to give someone motivation? Motivation isn’t something that can just be handed out, actually motivation is something that I would say comes hand in hand with inspiration, when someone is inspired, the motivation might peek and giving coworkers and students inspiration on a regular basis might in fact help the persons succeed and somehow indirect force them to teach themselves.

When open source helps programming tutors

Talking about open source could be a completely separate paper and take up many pages of explaining why this is a good way of learning and working. First of all, what is open source? Open source is a way for providing your product open and free, not only the software itself but also the source code, which defines the business logic, the graphical programming and other aspects of the program. This is a definition from Google on open source:

A program in which the source code is available to the general public for use and/or modification from its original design free of charge.

This is actually interesting, companies, people and organizations giving out their source code for free, so how does this actually help a learning process? Well for starters, there are software available for development and making office work more easy and there are so many softwares out there that can and will help you learn new ways.

The topic on open source now is very programming tutoring oriented and might not really be of interest if you work in a construction site. But think of it like this, what if there were some free ways to actually make your construction work easier?

When teaching programming we often come to points where we do reference an open source project, Linux is one of those; Linux is a kernel for the GNU / Linux operative system. This kernel has from the start been open source and the community which uses it has always been very helpful and made this a better product.

Now, working on a project like linux might not be very easy, but it does in fact give you knowledge, this is an very important time to take up that you always have space for new knowledge and you are never too old to be learning new things.

Programming on linux or any other open source projects might require that you actually have some experience from the start but you will also gain so much from being a part of this process.

Published at DZone with permission of Filip Ekberg, author and DZone MVB. (source)

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