Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Art of Simplicity

The fine art of teaching or of education is simplicity. Students who don’t grasp what we are trying to impart ,  generally because we haven’t broken it down simply enough for them to go “Ah ha” - I get it !”  It is a skill that makes the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher. It also makes the difference in our own learning. Why do we make notes of lectures, talks or conferences we have been to ? It is trying to simplify the information, breaking it down into simple, small chunks of information that we can understand , retain and repeat.
I think this was the true genius of Steve Jobs. He was a brilliant marketer, driver and innovator (and sounds like he was a horrible person to know !) - but I think his true forte was “keeping it simple”. Making items that people just got on and used. I think this has been the real reason for the expanded growth of apple of the last 10 years. The other companies have now seen the light and are trying to outdo them.

If simplicity is the key to productivity and learning - why aren’t we all doing it ? Mainly - because “simplicity” is hard. Ask any author what is the most difficult form of writing - the novel or the short story - and they will unanimously respond - “the short story”. It is hard to make things succinct. It is a complex skill that very few people have. As educators we are always striving for it but not always achieving it. Otherwise every student that left school would be a brilliant, articulate, and well educated young person. We would have no need for outcomes, standards or whatever other international gauge we have to measure student achievements.

Recently I was looking around to do some further study (basically around the IT/ education area). I have an interest in photography and noticed one of the Universities offering a 5 week introductory course to a Masters - that involved Photoshop. I thought I would give this a go. It was done online through a webinar. I thought it would be interesting - as well as getting a feel for what the full course would be like. I have used Photoshop for a number of years now (self taught) and know a reasonable amount of it’s use. The lady who ran the course would present the webinar each Thursday. I don’t doubt her knowledge base. She obviously knew her stuff. But her ability to make it clear to the student left a lot to be desired. I persevered for a few weeks - then gave it a miss. I looked around for another Uni to do my course. I’m not having a shot at the lady who ran the course - but it did strike home to me the need to be able to impart your knowledge clearly, simply - repeating main points - so the student gains knowledge themselves. Even as adults we want the learning blocks broken down to simple, achievable “ah ha” moments.

All this leads to the main point of this post. Recently I came across a short course that exemplifies this aspect fantastically. In fact had me quite excited. I love learning new things - especially in areas that I have no background in. I love history and have a curiosity to things scientific. The tying of these two aspects together, in a format I could understand greatly intrigued me.  
The course I am referring to is called “Big History Project”. It is a course designed by David Christian from Macquarie University. It is a free, online course that tells the story of our Universe and humanity. It combines the best of social studies, humanities and science. It takes about 6- 8 hours to complete the core material and quizzes. It attempts a very complex concept by breaking it down into eight key components. It makes it achievable for to gain new knowledge for both yourself and any students you may teach.

The link is here:

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