Alan Dix > HCI Education


SIGCHI Bulletin HCI Education column March/April 2003

This is for the March bulletin so I'm thinking again of March 1st, St David's Day ... and if you don't know your patron saints let me remind you ... David was the child of a rape by a local warlord, who became Celtic monk, archbishop and eventually patron saint of Wales.

In Wales every school has an Eisteddfod on Saint David's Day: singing, dancing, plays, music and poetry.

The Eisteddfod is at the heart of the Welsh culture, although itself largely a Victorian re-invention of an older practice. I recall as a child competing in the Urdd (youth) Eisteddfod and last year I was fortunate enough to see my own daughters' choir win in the International Music Eisteddfod (the Welsh approach to music is rather like the ACM approach to computing: the rest of the world is ranked in a single lumpen).

At the heart of the Welsh National Eisteddfod is the chairing of the bard - the word eisteddfod comes from "eistedd" - to seat. The bard is the master poet, the wordsmith, forming images from sound, playing the listener with language.

And in each school the houses compete with one other, yet try to include each child in some event, moving each to mastery.

Some years ago, not long after I had passed the driving test myself (not until I was 27!), I was driving with a friend. She was soon to take her test and I was sitting with her while she practiced.

One of the maneuvers in the test is to reverse around a corner into a road. This was the thing she most dreaded and her tension was clear as she pulled up beside a street and started to drive carefully backwards, trying to remember in the right order the instructions she had been given: "turn the wheel a little to the left, when the kerb is in the bottom corner of the rear window then turn ..."

She finished and the car was reasonably straight and not too far from the kerb. She sighed with relief and I looked backwards down the road. It was a dead end, that's why we had chosen it; one of those suburban cul-de-sacs with a small turning circle at the end. There were no cars parked; it was clear all the way down.

"Try driving backwards" I said "play with the wheel, see what the car does. Don't tell me whether you mean to go straight or swing about."

She did it and the car wiggled its way slowly backwards down the road. She stopped. And the look, the shine, the confidence in her face. It is beyond words. Trepidation turned to triumph. She had driven backwards, not by rote, but by herself. Mastery.

Since then I have analysed the reasons for this, the play, the purposefulness too, the deliberate removal of external judgment but enabling of internal judgment, the shift from correct performance to exploration. There are techniques we can learn to help students grow.

In my own teaching I have a thing I aim for, but do not always achieve. I call it the T model of teaching.

When teaching one is constantly faced with a trade-off between depth and breadth of coverage. The solution is often to decide on the breadth that one feels is necessary (perhaps driven by external curriculum factors), then deal with everything to the maximum depth possible given this. This uniform model is hatched in the picture. Typically students lose track of the material about 2/3 way through any course (so perhaps all curricula ought to be 30% less broad?). The end result is that students may pass exams, but they feel "I'm no good at subject X".

In the T model one still deals with the whole breadth of material, but in overview - knowing what is there, and why it is important, but not in any theoretical or practical depth. This is a sort of road map of the subject area.

In addition, however, one chooses some part of the material, no matter how small, and delves to the very depths, grounding the material theoretically and in real examples. (Solid area in the picture.)

By grounding, the students gain mastery, and from mastery comes confidence.

In the future, when faced with the need for knowledge they know what techniques or information are available because of the broad overview. However, they also feel "I can do this subject" because of the mastery they gained. Knowing that they have been able to master one part of the subject they can go on to learn, when needed, the extra areas required for their purpose.

In the past I have written about the destructive nature of many of our failure-centric education systems, often stemming from fundamentally flawed educational values. In this and the January column I've been looking more towards the opposite. Let's strive to teach in ways that enable students to discover and nurture their strengths and that give them the confidence, control and humility that comes with true mastery.


driving lesson

more about 'driving lesson - feerless play' - my most successful educational experience!


adding more on this, please chase me if you want it and it isn't here yet!


the Welsh National Eisteddfod is the main Welsh event
the Urdd Eisteddfod is focused on children (I competed for Glamorgan in our School's folk dancing team back in 1972!)
Urdd Gobaith Cymru is a children's organisation focused on Welsh langauge and culture
the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod is an annual event based in the permannet showground in llangollen, and open to competitors from all round thw world. As well as the music it is worth going for the many national costumes that the competiitors wear even when they are not competing.
'Wales Calling' has a brief history of the Eisteddfod