Jeremy Côté


Transfer Difficulty

We’ve all been in this situation: we have an idea in our mind, and we just can’t seem to get the person in front of us to understand it. There’s a sort of divide between you and the other person. On the one hand, you can clearly picture what you’re thinking about. Furthermore, what you’re saying makes perfect sense to you, but the other person can’t follow at all. This causes frustration on your part. On the other hand, the person you’re speaking to might be wondering whether they just aren’t good enough to understand (or, more cynically, they think you’ve given a horrible explanation).

When I get myself into this situation, it’s easy to try and keep on pushing forward, willing the person to understand what you’re talking about. Personally, I got into this situation the other day when I was teaching a young student mathematics. I was trying to explain the concept of subtraction (finding the difference), but I could feel I was getting no where. I think it was due to me using a bunch of words when I should have focused on the actual manipulation, but I ended up confusing the student. I could tell they just weren’t getting, despite it being extremely obvious to me. In my mind, I couldn’t believe how this student wasn’t grasping it. It seemed ridiculous.

However, the problem is that I failed to appreciate the situation they were in. While I have practiced doing subtraction thousands of times, this person has only had a hundred or so sessions of practice. Therefore, I should have kept that in mind while explaining subtraction to this student.

Additionally, I noticed that my default position when a student wasn’t understanding the concept was to explain more. I think this is because I wanted to give my student as much information as possible in order to understand the situation. But now I realize that this was probably the wrong approach, since it overloads the student with information. And when one feels overloaded with information, it does not matter how easy a question is. The person will mentally shut down from solving the problem. I know this happens because I’ve experienced it multiple times in my education. At one point, the mind has too much information to think about, and so concepts start slipping through the cracks of the mind.

Which brings me back to my student, struggling to understand what subtraction was. When this happened, I tried to take a step back and break the concept down even further. I tried to show that the intuitive feel of a difference (from subtraction) happens when we build towers out of blocks. When the towers are the same height, we say that there is no difference between them. However, if I take a block away from one tower or add a block to a different tower, there is now a difference between the blocks. That is the essence of subtraction.

The reason I tried to explain it like this was because I felt as if having a physical representation of a difference in front of the student would help them grasp the idea. And, it did work to a certain agree. The student was able to answer the problem we were working on correctly.

What I want to learn from this is that teaching and learning is a difficult process. To transfer information out of one person’s brain and into another is a tricky task, and so we have to be mindful of the different ways to go about teaching.

Personally, I find the best teaching occurs when the idea you have in your mind and the one the student in front of you receives is as equivalent as possible. When this happens, your job as a teacher is fulfilled.

However, it’s always a struggle to do. This is what keeps me coming back to the subject of teaching. When you’re able to share the experience of a student understanding a concept, it’s great. I love the feeling, and I hope that I’ll be able to get that feeling as frequent as possible. At the same time, I realize that this won’t be the norm. After all, teaching is about transferring new knowledge to students. Therefore, it is likely that there will be parts of various subjects that my students will not understand. At that point, I have to rely on what I’ve learnt in my experience about teaching.

First, an intuitive sense for a situation is crucial. Yes, explaining to a student what the answer is can be a short cut, but it does not set a student up to be a problem solver. We want students to have a hunch about what is going to happen, which means they’re actively engaged in the subject.

Second, it’s crucial that we let the student dictate the pace of learning. I’ve been on the other end of this situation, and it’s very difficult to follow and learn. If the teacher goes too fast, the class becomes a battle to just get down what the teacher is saying without absorbing anything. There’s nothing more frustrating than spending all your focus on writing and taking notes while the substance of the notes must be ignored. It makes for a miserable learning experience, and so should be avoided at all costs.

However, if we are being realistic, a teacher still has to get through a set amount of material. Therefore, a certain pace must be kept. But a good teacher will plan ahead in order to always add a bit of margin into each class, allowing for times where a concept takes a bit longer to understand.

We must always remember that teaching is about transferring information from one person (the teacher) to many other people (the students). The most efficient transfer will be where everything a teacher says is understood by the students, whereas the worse case scenario will probably have the students saying they do understand, but they do not. There is always a certain transfer difficulty when information flows from one person to another.

The key then, is to always try and shape the information in a manner that the students will understand. This means you have to consider what the students think like. I can guarantee that the way you think and the way they think are not identical. The reason is that you’ve had much more experience with this material and other material, meaning you’ve both practiced using this information, and know your whole way around it.

Imagine you and a friend are in your house one night, when the power suddenly cuts off, throwing both of you into darkness. You will probably begin to move around the house, trying to find what caused the power to turn off. Your friend will attempt to follow you, but will quickly run into items they never would have if the lights were on. You try to give them a few instructions about where things are, but they only seem to minimally help.

In this situation, you’re both in the dark. However, you’re only physically in the dark, while your friend is both physically and mentally in the dark. You may not be able to see, but you still have a mental map of your surroundings, something your friend does not have. This map enables you to move around the house without too much friction, while your friend has a lot of difficult.

Similarly, this is the process which occurs as you teach. In the beginning, you know a lot about a subject and your students know little. Then, as the course goes on, the gap between what you know and what the students know lessens, if only a bit. What this highlights is that it’s not easy to transfer knowledge at the beginning, because the students don’t have the information you have. As such, explanations need to be crafted in ways that they will understand, without any help of material further along in the course. This can be tricky, because sometimes the information further along in the course complements what is said at the beginning. However, it is better to wait until the appropriate time to give the information, because the students will get confused.

The best teachers introduce their subject based on what students already know, and slowly build up the course from their. By doing this, every step is deliberate, and the students are not searching blindly in the dark for a light switch to illuminate the course.