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Developmental Psychology and Teaching

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communication, education and training

Teaching about teaching is a pretty odd job.  Yet surely someone has to have a go at it. As my own field of study is developmental psychology (with special interest in education) – then I have had to confront this challenge quite a bit. If the student of your teaching-about-teaching is themselves a teacher then the academic dialogue can get quite tense: as you struggle to occupy the space between reactions of:  “that’s pretty obvious” and “that’s pretty stupid”. 

Yet there actually is some safe ground to be occupied.  One patch concerns the imperative that teachers should start their treatment of some difficult and abstract subject (say, for example,  the physics of floating) from a full understanding of the learner’s naïve familiarity (and understanding) of this phenomenon.  Then sensitively build onwards from where the learner is currently at. It turns out to be very easy to reinforce this imperative by revealing some nice research examples that expose the scale of learners’ naiveté in some areas – notably physics of course. So the student of teaching can be quite receptive to this theme. And, indeed, it is actually an important one.

What’s interesting is that most learners of teaching, in practice, don’t often act to diagnose and understand their students’ naïve theories of the world. And so those teachers can’t always use such understanding  as a resource.  But I also suspect that most teachers of the learners-of-teaching  don’t bother too much with it either.  At least that is what I discovered in myself recently.

This incident of self-awareness arose in a project that has been about designing a digital infrastructure for individuals who are elderly and alone. Something that would allow them  to enjoy richer communication with their relatives, friends, carers, or volunteers.  The aim was not to displace existing live conversation – face to face or telephone say. The aim was more  to supplement it with some other form of communication channel that could be managed while the two parties were at a distance from each other.  What “supplement” means here is that the content of this new communication might then become a resource to underpin traditional live conversations held at other times.  If made sufficiently vivid it could be a pool of ‘shared experience’ to be invoked and developed during  those later conversations.

In a situation where an elderly alone individual was comfortable enough with a web browser and where their distant friend/relative/carer was owning a smartphone or tablet, I felt clear what would then define a “vivid” exchange. However, “vivid” may not promise “convivial”. And that is where I violated my own understanding of the imperative to start from where the learner (or, “user” if you like) is.

For me “vivid” was going to be something like a live, shared walk.  The remote but mobile friend/relative/carer would point their video-enabled phone at the world around them and thereby take their elderly partner on a visual walk - communicated live to the domestic web browser. And as they shared this synchronous experience they could talk about it – for example, taking kids to school, going shopping, a stroll in the park.  And so on.

This is not entirely crazy.  After all, since hatching the project Google Glasses came along (hijacking  the idea – at least at the level of effective technical realisation). But there is a degree of craziness here: one that arises from not first diagnosing and understanding what counts as communication that is convivial (yet still “vivid”) for both parties in this exchange.  And it’s not a shared video walk.  There are reasons for this and they concern both partners.  It turns out that communicating with video (excluding Skype-style talking faces) is not a very comfortable communication medium for most people (how much personal video do you see on Facebook for instance?).  And, at the receiving end,  it turns out that the demands of launching and maintaining this as a conversational experience are quite alien to most elderly and novice computer users – however simple you make the launching.

So that was a signal to get a better understanding of how any participant in a communication exercise of this sort might think about its design  as a good social experience.  And exploring that lead to another kind of innovation to replace the shared video walk. Something we term the “sound photo”.  But explaining that probably needs a separate blog posting. 

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