An Update on Teaching Part I

Ok, so here’s my long-awaited update on teaching.  So let’s backpeddle a few weeks now and describe what has been happening.

A few weeks ago I noticed a critical deficiency in the ability of my students to think critically about a given situation.  If a task was not spelled out for them word for word, they would have much difficulty completing it. In my opinion, this will make it very hard to use computers.  Modern day computing is all about being able to read new instructions, mostly ill-written and ill-conceived, and follow them using known computer-interaction paradigms and whatnot. 

For people in the West, these interaction paradigms are drilled into us early and almost as much as learning how to breathe and walk.  We live with computers, we use them every day, it is obvious that we would be able to learn new things on them quite quickly.  This is not the case for most Kenyans, who most likely are coming from a life in a very rural area; where living at NYS is probably their first encounter with consistent electricity, running water and maybe even food.  And no, I am not trying to be dramatic.  That’s simply life here.

Combine this unfamiliarity with computers with a learning style completely alien to the learning style of the society that developed modern computers in the first place.  The notion of interacting with learning is a foreign concept.  I think it’s even more foreign than the concept of a white guy from America trying to teach it.  At least they can see people like me on TV.  For so long they have been drilled that wrong answers are unaccpetable, that experimenting is pointless, and that whatever a teacher tells you is absolute truth.  Computers were invented by people who were wrong a lot, were experimenting in their basements and garages, and were certainly not cut from any “normal,” mold.  And I would bet most of them were arrogant and cocky enough to argue with their teachers… a lot.

But you cannot lecture computers.  It is impossible. Sure, you can lecture computer theory and more abstract concepts, but this requires two things: 1) a basic understanding of the fundamentals of computers in order to understand the more abstract, theoretical concepts and 2) a brain that has been trained to analyze, deconstruct, and apply theory to practice.  My students have neither, sadly.  It is no fault of their own, they are simply products of their education system.

So what do I do?  Hand hold them through every word of a research paper or number in an accounting spreadsheet.  I’ve reconciled that I will have to teach them more specifically than I first desired, but still, how?  It doesn’t help that some of the kids have the fundamentals of computer interaction down and others don’t.  Some know how to click and type fairly well, others don’t even know how to hold a mouse.  It also doesn’t help that I only get about half attendance per class, and that it’s a random attendance.  I don’t even know who’s dedicated!  Frustrating in its own right.  Heck, I had an entire class not show up yesterday.  An entire class!

It also doesn’t help that the Kenyan computer instructor, who I was hoping could be my Kenyan-Thought-Process translator, has been recalled to Nairobi and may not come back, ever.  Or that his replacement, who is of an unknown teaching-stock (the first, Mr. Mutuli, being known and well-liked by Dai Kato), has an indetermined ETA.  So I am on my own effectively.  Even Dai Kato is leaving in two weeks.  Oh Boi.

So we played solitaire two weeks ago.  It’s a game that is installed on every computer we have.  It requires a decent understanding of mouse control, click, drag and drop, and a constant reevaluation of the play area.  It forces my students to think critically, but within a time frame that they control because they control the flow of the game.  I stood up and gave directions, which Mr. Dai Kato, who has never played Solitaire before himself was able to follow and learn how to play.  And he’s not even fluent in English!  I walked around and helped the individual students after explaining the directions.  They didn’t get it.  Despite repeatedly showing them that they could uncover new cards after moving top cards from the piles, they would still require my prompting to do so.  I would make a circuit of the class and come back to see the same cards flipped over on a student’s screen.  And don’t even get me started about the concept of moving King Cards to empty spaces.  Needless to say I was frustrated.  I had failed again.  How do I teach these kids?

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