Desirable difficulties

I like learning and I am a perpetual learner. I also love teaching so I spend a good deal of time at my work signing up to run training sessions. My favourite subjects to teach are hard to teach ones like Extreme programming, Test Driven Development, Team building etc. For a long time I used to either learn from classroom sessions or from books, which I started developing a liking towards those formats. I thought I was old school and did not like the new age video formats in bite sized chapters peppered with quizzes to test our understanding between the chapters. I retained a lot of learnings when there was a discomfort for my brain to finish the chapter which I observed that many of the new video formats did not have.

A lot of training programs I observe, tend to concentrate on immediate recall and score really well in that area. Lots of cues, easy to process and understand sentences, narrow scope of learning etc make it a joy for learners and it easily gets into short term memory. So when the trainers immediately evaluate, the learners do really well on retention. This type of retention is volatile, as there was no hard work done by the brain to etch the learning into it.

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For our brain, every read or thinking about a problem/solution is a write as well. It is not like in computers where read and write are different operations. The more you think about something the more connections get established in the neuron mesh which strengthens retention. This has been pointed out in the book Range. That is one of the reason I prefer socratic method of teaching where the learners have to undergo a difficulty to learn a concept.

An example from an eight grade school book

How are cyclones formed?

Direct ineffective teaching answer: Cyclones are formed when warm air from a hot region raises up, creating a low pressure area into which wind blows from high pressure area and the cycle continues.

Majority of lessons just concentrate on memorising the statement above but look at the following Socratic method (There will be a lot of answers, some may be wrong but teacher never attempts to answer and let the answer emerge)

Q: What happens if you heat air?

A1. Hot air expands, I read it in physics class

A2. Hot air is also less dense so it will raise up

Q: If it raises up what will happen?

A1. Cold air from above falls down

A2. Cold air from the sides enter inside

Q: Why should cold air take that place?

A1. Because hot air has gone up

Q: What will happen if you heat water?

A1. It boils

A2. It turns to water vapour

Q: Is water vapour also air?

This keeps going on for a few minutes, I had attended this class 25+ years ago and I still vividly remember how the class went. I kept thinking various answers because the teacher did not conclude how cyclones are formed, we had to go back and read up to conclude. The trouble I see with many of the online courses is a result of instant gratification and the urge to put a checkmark in our list. The content creators also are incentivised for immediate recall which translates to 5 stars for them.

Barring first principles and fundamentals, factual transfer of knowledge is a shallow learning/teaching mode which gives a false illusion because of immediate recollection but fails in long term memory. An element of difficulty is desirable, this may even look bad for the trainer who is evaluated on the spot but helps in long term retention as the learner keeps ruminating about the session. By going for a 5 star driven course design we are creating content consumers, not learners.

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