Marketing Tools and Learning Metaphors

February 23, 2010 at 4:40 pm (Metaphors and Allegories) (, , , , , , , )

As a CMU Delt, I often partake in Delt activities, make use of Delt resources, and hang out with my Delt brothers. I, probably more than anyone else, know how difficult it is to drive the herd to a new pasture. In the distant past we tried rolling out a BB, a phpBB 3.0 forum, a Shareflow, and now a Drupal wiki. Getting everyone to register on the same network, no matter how great I or the respective admin think it a step forward, is one of the most grueling, frustrating, and unproductive processes that I have ever undergone. The worst is that even when a majority of the users have finally registered, there is no incentive to actually make use of the system.

Until now. One of my brothers came up with an internal game: each brother must declare himself the absolute best at some unique activity within our fraternity. Everyone else can then challenge their title, and claim it if they win the challenge. The massive e-peen style bragging rights of owning multiple titles is already driving brothers to challenge each other. With half of the brotherhood claiming their titles, and 8 challenges already announced, I consider this a successful venture given that it has only been one day since I rolled it out.

The marketing tool: I started the title signup over e-mail, but I placed the list of titles and challenges behind the Drupal Wiki registration. So half of the brotherhood has declared a title and are now committed to the game, but must register for the wiki resource to keep track of everyone else. Frequent visits to the wiki will hopefully prompt more involvement in filling it out with content, but at least the registration problem has been surmounted!

On the other side of the table I’ve been reflecting on how I learn. Back when I was taking the various levels of Calculus, I always suggested that I understood the material best after we had applied it to the next topic. Unfortunately, this often came after the exam, so my self-appraised knowledge meant diddly squat in the calculation of my grade. It appears that in my Conflict and Dispute Resolution class I’ve hit the same problem (along with the rest of the class). We were all called out on our unanimous failure to complete the assigned reading, which is a breach of our “learning contracts.”

After forgoing the intended topic and instead discussing our problem, the best argument that we were able to come up with was that some of us learn better when we are given an active chance to exhibit the topic in class, or are provided with an example first, and are then given the option to research the theory more deeply afterwards. I illustrate this with the hallway metaphor.

Imagine that any theory is a hallway lined with doors to rooms. The rooms are examples: situations where the theory works to explain something concrete, singular. Reading about the theory first is like hearing tales of Paris: the Eiffel Tower, the eclairs, the river, without actually seeing it. I propose instead that we start in a room, and explore it the way CSI might explore a crime scene, searching for the events that lead to a murder. I propose we explore that example, which hopefully makes no sense, until we apply the theory, which is provided by the instructor. It is like opening that door and realizing where the room was located in space. Now that I am facing the hallway, I can walk around and open other doors, apply the theory to other situations and examples.

The alternative, where the theory comes first, starts me in the hallway. It tells me things about that hallway that I have no way of anchoring, and tells me so many things that by the time I need them, I will forget most of them. When I am finally placed in the hallway, I am placed facing into a room, looking at one example. I start applying the theory right away under the assumption that it was correct, without ever trying anything else. And now my memory is of how this example pertains to the theory, rather than of how I used the theory to dissect the example. I will not realize that there are other doors behind me in the hallway – I will never apply the theory in situations that are incongruous with that first example.

I learn by curiosity: I frame things as problems, and look for their solutions. It isn’t fair to tell me what the solution is without first giving me a stab at the problem: I get nothing from seeing the answers to the SAT without first struggling with the questions. How then, is it fair to prime my learning by making me read the theory before I’ve had a chance to stumble onto it myself? Am I a wikipedia page, taught to spew forth aggregated knowledge, or am I a difference engine, capable of solving problem by processing information?

I say down with required reading. I didn’t teach myself PHP because I read a book: I read a book because I wanted to use PHP to make a website. My brothers didn’t register for the Drupal Wiki to become contributors: they registered to solve the problem of having no access to the content they wanted.

I wont learn anything by reading a book before I come to class: I will read the book because what I learned in class made my curiosity itch for more.

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