Creating a “time for telling” (Schwartz & Bransford, 1998)

As we are talking more and more about co-creation and all these cool things, I find it important to remember that sometimes, giving a lecture is still a really good choice. Especially when it happens at the right time, when we have created conditions for students to actually want to be told about stuff.

One way to create “a time for telling” for students with very little prior knowledge is described in Schwartz & Bransford (1998), where students work with contrasting cases to the point that they are really curious about why the cases are different (one example I have heard mentioned in this context is the coke-and-mentos experiment, that only leads to this cool fountain when you use diet coke, not any other type of coke. But why???), and are prepared to listen to someone giving them an explanation. In this case, listening to a lecture is perceived as the fastest way to learn the information that is relevant and interesting in this moment, rather than, in many other cases, listening to a boring monologue that needs to be memorised because someone thinks that it should be.

A week after having analysed the contrasting cases and then having received a lecture, the students in Schwartz & Bransford (1998)’s study predicted the outcome of a related, hypothetical experiment. And they did substantially better than students that had either only read about the features and then heard the lecture, summarised a text and then heard the lecture, or analysed the cases twice but not heard the lecture. The analysis thus prepared the ground for learning by providing prior knowledge on which the lecture could build. The very same lecture was a really effective learning tool when preceded with the contrasting cases, and a pretty ineffective tool without it.

So now that the contrasting cases are clearly a good idea, how to choose good ones? Schwartz & Bransford (1998) suggest that they should be appropriately difficult and aligned with learning outcomes (duh?!). But the cases they present can serve as inspiration for different formats: for example students can analyse conflicting data sets, watch an anchoring video and then order several different tools by how functional they would be in a given scenario, or experience different viewpoints by watching videos of experts commenting on or discussing a case from different theoretical backgrounds. Or, as with the coke-and-mentos mess, watch a set of experiments where one does not seem to make sense based on the outcome of another. I guess the key is to create intrigue about why the two (or more?) examples are conflicting.

What could create such intrigue in the kind of courses I teach?

In oceanography, we often work with “weird” data. For example on student cruises in byfjorden in Bergen, we’ve been deploying homemade surface drifters for years, and by now have quite a nice dataset of how they move in a day. Interestingly enough, sometimes they really behave in a textbook fashion, but often times they really don’t — drift against the wind direction, or suddenly change direction without a change in winds or tides or anything we could observe. And this creates intrigue (to a certain point — it can also get frustrating if we then really cannot figure out what is going on beyond discussing lots of processes that might have had an influence. This works well with data the students collect themselves, but also with data from historical cruises, or data collected by others.

Another example that works well here are all the #KitchenOceanography experiments we do, where, for example, ice cubes melt faster under conditions that students would not expect.

When I teach about teaching and learning, though, where we don’t have spectacular experiments like coke-and-mentos, how could I create such intrigue? Well, first of all, maybe we do have good experiments, too. For example, we could expose participants to two very different teaching situations (either letting them experience them right then and there, or videos or accounts of them) and let that lead into why which elements are more conductive to learning than others. Or we could have videos of instructors arguing for different approaches. Or we can show results of experiments from the research literature that are conflicting. Or we can have participants vote on questions where we expect a distribution of different responses. In a workshop we will teach on Tuesday, we’ll elicit participants’ experience with bad and good communication and have them discuss that for a bit, before we launch into theories of what might make communication better.

To sum up, I think it’s a really important reminder that lecture inputs are still a valid and very useful tool, but that they need to happen in a context where there is enough prior knowledge and interest to make them relevant for participants. And this can either be for example a guest speaker who everybody wants to hear speak because we’ve read about them and are curios about what further insights they can offer, or, in case of classroom instruction when students are not necessarily already excited about speaker and topic, we need to create conditions in which both can develop. And then we’ll have created the “time for telling”.

Daniel L. Schwartz & John D. Bransford (1998) A Time For Telling, Cognition and Instruction, 16:4, 475-5223, DOI: 10.1207/s1532690xci1604_4


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