Our Gender Bias

genderbiasWhen I first read the NYT headline, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist” in the Sunday Review this weekend, I thought it was a joke. Or maybe an ironic goad to draw the reader in? But no. The authors, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci (both researchers at Boston University and Cornell, respectively) were completely serious.  They’ve just published a paper, Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape, with their colleagues, in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. That paper, summarized in the NYT op-ed piece, claims that there is no sexism in the science academy and that the under-representation of women in math-intensive science fields are “rooted in pre-college factors and the subsequent likelihood of majoring in these fields, and future research should focus on these barriers rather than mis-directing attention toward historical barriers that no longer account for women’s underrepresentation in academic science.”  The authors claim that it is all about personal choices that young girls make, opting for life sciences or other fields. In their published paper, they discuss the reasons why females make these choices and talk about the “perception” among new female PhDs and post docs that tenure track positions are not compatible with family formation.  The main thrust of the NYT piece is to say to these women – good news! science departments are great places to be as a woman and the whole gender-bias thing is over.

I did a double take. And then I quickly flipped back to the paper’s front page because, yes, in fact there was a front page article about sexism at Yale. Right there. In the same newspaper. A sexual harassment case that’s been unfolding at Yale Medical School for the last five years. Cardiology Chief, Michael Simons, made unwanted advances to a student Annarita Di Lorenzo (18 years his junior) that went on for years, undermining her career as well as her then-boyfriend’s.  Despite formal filings with the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, Simons is still there and, though he admits that he made “an error in judgement by pursuing a junior colleague”, he claims that he has never abused his position of authority or leadership. Riiiight. Academic science departments are a great place to be as a woman. I’ve got to think that the NYT editors had a frisson of delight over the juxtaposition of these two articles. But I take little comfort from the fact that the Williams/Ceci article is an opinion piece and the Simons story is hard, cold fact. Gender inequality and bias are alive and well.

Shall we take a look at a few gems from the world of gender bias research?

Science Faculty Subtle Gender Bias Favors Male Students

Blind Orchestra Auditions Better for Women

Gender Bias in JAMA’s Peer Review Process

Bibliometrics:  Global Gender Disparities in Science

or, one of my personal favorites, Female Hurricanes are Deadlier Than Male Hurricanes.

One of the leaders in this area is the MIT researcher, Nancy Hopkins. From 1995-97, Dr. Hopkins chaired a committee at MIT that studied inequalities experienced by women science and math faculty as a result of unconscious gender bias. The summary report from that committee – known as the Report on Women Faculty in Science at MIT – is credited with launching a national re-examination of equity for women scientists.

In January 2005, at an NBER meeting in Cambridge, MA on the topic of how to address the under-representation of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, Dr. Hopkins rather famously walked out in protest during a talk given by then-Harvard University President, Larry Summers. In his address, Summers proposed that one reason for the very small number of high achieving women in science and engineering fields might be their lesser “intrinsic aptitude” for these subjects, relative to men. Subsequent news articles and reports about Summer’s speech set off a national discussion on gender discrimination, which ultimately was one factor leading to Summers’ resignation as the President of Harvard. Have we already forgotten the Larry Summers story?

Have a listen to Dr. Hopkins’ 2014 BU commencement address. Wendy Williams, were you there in the audience that day?

The sad fact is that gender bias is sneaky.  Sometimes it is overt and obvious (like Simons at Yale or Summers at Harvard) but often it’s hidden and sneaks up on us. Thoughts and impulses that are so deeply rooted they are outside our awareness – and often our control. Doubt your own gender bias?  Try taking the gender bias test at Project Implicit (Mazahran Banaji’s, Harvard University, amazing work).

Since Sunday, thoughtful science bloggers have taken deeper dives into the original paper by Ceci et al. and shared their analyses. This by Jonathan Eisen (UC Davis) (along with his nicely done Storify piece) and this by Emily Willingham who takes a close look at the data provided in the published article, reaching very different conclusions. Then there’s this, from Slate, published this morning. I’ve got to say, I’m looking forward with relish, to see what Letters to the Editor the NYT will publish as follow-ons.

It’s also interesting to note that Ceci et al only examined data with regard to women in math-intensive academic fields. By far and away more women (and men) who major in science enter jobs in industry, where gender bias rages with intensity and larger numbers – salary inequities, promotional dead-ends, sexual harassment, and an alarming paucity of women in leadership positions.

I can’t resist concluding this post with a pair of viral videos that add zest to the story and an important reminder that sexual harassment is all about power and control. The first, produced by Hollaback, shows excerpts from video recorded of a young woman, walking around the streets of New York City for 10 hours:

The second, from Funny or Die, a send-up of the first, with a man doing the same:


Filed under Reflections

Where Do You Read?

Reading. Flickr Alui0000

Reading. photo from Flickr Alui0000

Where do you read most often?  Is it online?  Is it curled up with a paperback book?  Is it sitting at table, highlighter in hand, with a large and heavy tome laid out in front of you, or is it with your arms extended and newsprint held aloft? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where and how we read. How does that impact our comprehension? What methods do we use to help us focus and retain what we read? What can we do to become better, deeper readers?  And what innovations do our new tools make possible that are not possible with the printed page?

It was MaryAnne Wolfe and her amazing book, Proust and the Squid, that really got me thinking about reading online versus reading on a printed page. A recent New Yorker blog post, by Maria Konikova, provides a very nice summary of Wolfe’s work.  In it she quotes Wolfe as she muses about the past and future of reading:

“Reading is a bridge to thought,” she says. “And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?”

My conversations with educators and other education stake-holders frequently puts me in touch with people who are very concerned about the impact of too much time staring at screens, by the perceived demise of books, and by the apparent lack of reading focus seen in children raised on screens and e-readers.

But what scientific evidence do we have about the impact of the medium (printed page vs. screen) on our reading?  Turns out, there’s quite a bit. But the questions are by no means settled. Prior to 1992, most studies concluded that people read slower, less comprehensively, and with less retention on screens than on paper. But starting in the early 90’s reading studies have produced more inconsistent results.  Part of the challenge comes in what questions are asked, what is measured, and what confounding factors are taken into account. For example, are we primarily concerned with reading speed? comprehension? fatigue? accuracy? motivation? More over, what methods are used to assess those factors – eye movements?  manipulation?  navigation? reading strategies? assessments?

The terrain of a printed book.

The terrain of a printed book.

There certainly is a navigational dimension to reading. Wolfe points out that we are not born with the wiring to read. Our brains must learn to read, to process letters as physical objects. In many ways, you can think of reading a book as navigating a physical landscape. We create mental maps of the books we read – how far am I from the beginning, how distant the end? The two pages of a printed book are spread before me, like two large rooms to explore top to bottom, left to right. And the physical turning of the pages- swoosh- feels like proceeding along a path, marking my progress with a rhythm as I proceed.  There are far fewer of these physical landmarks with screen text. It’s a bit like spelunking in a cave – where am I, in relationship to the whole story? And how can I find my way back to this spot, right here? It is more difficult to see one passage in the context of the whole. I often remember events in a narrative by their physical location on the page – that crucial passage about the murder weapon was in the lower left hand corner, in the earlier chapters….One of the researchers in this area, Anne Mangen, Stavenger University in Norway, supports this point in her research about the physicality of reading. She’s found in her studies that while Kindle and print readers score similarly on most measures, the Kindle readers score comparatively worse than print readers on plot reconstruction – that is placing events from the story in the correct order. Mangen suggests that the haptic feel of a Kindle or a tablet does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of what we read as does a print book.

And what about distraction?  Some researchers point to the hard-to avoid lure of a new tab, a link, or worse – a flickering advertisement off to the side.  Certainly, when reading online there are many, many opportunities to wander – some might say explore?  Regardless of how you think of it, once you depart you have leapt away from the initial task of reading.

A NYT graphic story on a reef in the South China Sea.

A NYT graphic story on a reef in the South China Sea.

Having said all of that, there are some remarkably interesting experiments with online reading that deserve exploration and consideration. For example…the graphic articles pioneered by the New York Times that marry video, stunning images, and text [this one about an avalanche at Tunnel Creek or this one on speed skating at the Olympics].  In these beautiful online reading experiences you are in the driver’s seat with videos launching just as you arrive, photos coming into full brightness as you arrive, fading as you flick or scroll away. Or how about the literature map that helps a reader make connections between authors and their works, or Robin Sloan’s tap essay for the iPhone, or this instructional offering on the dangers of fracking, or the gobsmacking Scale of the Universe?  And then there are annotation tools, like Diigo, Kaziena, and A.nnotate, and Evernote, that facilitate note taking, curating, and collaborative reading online. Researchers like Chih-Meng Chen are finding improved reading performance in children with collaborative annotation environments.

Another facet to consider here is the skills needed to read in these different environments. We are all very well-trained in how to read printed pages.  Pages numbers, tables of contents, the glossary and index nestled at the back – these are all familiar devices for us. What’s more, printed works are quite standard. The skills acquired when we are 5 or 6 years old serve us well as we move from early readers, to young adult, to the classics. We know what to do when presented with a print book.

Variations on e-reader navigation.

Variations on e-reader navigation.

By contrast, reading on the screen varies with the device.  How to size it, how to advance the page (a mouse, a track pad, a next button, a scroll bar) – a range of interfaces and systems to master. The innovative tool sets that various electronic reading devices have devised to mimic the manual manipulation of a book (highlighting, turning down a page, etc) vary widely as well. Each time you work with a new tablet or read using a different interface, you must learn how to use the tool d’jour. Perhaps we are so stuck in our print approach that this all feels mystifying to us, but it would not to someone who learned to read with these tools? Does this suggests a new way of approaching reading education? A new set of skills? If early readers learn to read with the tools, approaches, and navigational methods of reading on the screen will it be as comfortable for them as the printed page is for us now?

What do you think?  And how do you read most often?  I’ve been taking an informal poll among friends and family but would like to cast my net wider.  Take a moment, would you, to answer seven brief questions in this online survey about how you read? I’ll post the results gathered so you can see what comes of it.

With all this noodling, it feels natural to come to the conclusion that we need both. Print books to give us physical representations to collect, explore, and savor along with screen reading and its many promising adventures. But I don’t know. You tell me. You can take the survey right here or travel to it.




“Let us read and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world!”  – Voltaire


Filed under Learning

A Closer Look at a Caffeine Story

Coffea canephora.

Coffea canephora. Bali – Indonesia – July 2007 – Guy Sabattier

Like many people around the world, I begin my every morning with a rather large cup of coffee. Caffeine – found in coffee, tea, mate, and chocolate – is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world. So it was with great interest that I greeted the news, published in Science on Thursday last week, that an international team of scientists has sequenced the genome of the coffee plant, Coffea canephora.

Molecular structure of caffeine.

Molecular structure of caffeine.

Getting inside the coffee plant’s genome provides a biochemical view into the mechanism for creating caffeine (start with xanthosine, shave a bit off here, add a bit there and – voila – caffeine).  But here’s the really interesting part – the coffee plant and the cacao plant produce caffeine in different ways. In other words, the biochemical pathway for producing this important molecule evolved more than once. Different evolutionary paths to the same end point. Biologists call this phenomenon convergent evolution. The independent evolution of similar features in different lineages (think wings in birds and bats, the camera eye in vertebrates and octopuses, the ability to glide in flying squirrels and sugar gliders). When this happens, it’s a good indication that the evolved adaptation is pretty useful. And, indeed, caffeine is a very useful molecule for these plants – it helps to ward off enemies, to attract pollinators (and keep them coming back for more), makes the soil immediately surrounding the plant inhospitable to competing plants, and it deters leaf-eating pests. For the rest of us, it provides that much-needed kick-in-the-pants each morning.

As excited as I was about this story, I was quite taken with the way different news groups elected to cover it:

Here’s the New York Times article:

New York Times.

Here’s the Washington Post article:

Washington Post.

Washington Post.

And here is Fox News coverage:

Fox News.

Fox News.

The thrust of the WaPo and Fox coverage is on the “mutation”, the possibilities for manipulation, and the slightly shadow-ey (the “quirk”) scariness of what might come next – genetically modified coffee??

It’s startling to see how few of the primary news channels covered what was most interesting about this finding. Namely, the intensely interesting evolution story and the way genomic tools help scientists solve problems and understand the mechanisms of life.  Only Carl Zimmer, that noteworthy NYT Science journalist, included a clear and helpful description of the evolution element in his story. Sidebar: note the illustration choices in the three articles – the cup of coffee, the barista’s product. The New York Times at least shows the coffee beans but not a one of them show the actual plant, let alone the plant in its environment.  How we report the news – the headline, the image, the story – these are all vital ingredients that help shape public perception and our attitudes toward science.




Filed under Interesting Science




OK, I’m on board.  Alan Levine, Jim Groom, and Howard Rheingold have organized a seven-session (run over four months), distributed course to serve up a curriculum on how to create an open, online, connected courses. It’s called ConnectedCourses. A learn by doing experience, go-at-your-own pace, facilitated by some of the best thinkers and doers in higher ed tech, for free. Sounds pretty sweet…so why did I hesitate?  First off, I am wary of the time commitment. While these courses are open, free (incredibly generous of them to give so freely of their time), and not asking for a particular commitment, we all know that you will only get in proportion to the investment you’re able to make. I’ve now taken enough open, online courses to know that it works best if I can do the time – participate in the live sessions, read the participants’ blogs, ruminate and blog about it. Could I carve out the time? And was a deep dive into the architecture of an open, networked course something that I needed? That was my main hesitation, but there’s something else. I have to admit, I do get a little tired of the boys’ club feeling to these kind of events. There is a male-ness to the thought leadership and culture in this community that tires me out.

I went to the ConnectedCourses site to find out more and listened to the pre-course warm-up video  – a capture of a September 2 Hangout, orchestrated by the three course leaders (Alan, Jim, and Howard) who are referring to themselves as Click, Link and Embed, in honor of that other infamous boys club – the Car Guys.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.21.04 PM

But through the mists, I could hear some really good stuff coming through. The course is for faculty, each week will feature an idea key to the success of open, online learning, facilitated by some excellent folks. In addition to our three fearless leaders, we’ll hear from Michael Wesch, Cathy Davidson, Mimi Ito, Gardner Campbell, Helen Keegan, Randy Bass…  well, ok then! The line up sounds terrific.

In addition to that, Howard Rheingold’s words resonated with me (as they always do)  – the language of the web is the lingua franca of the way we interact and communicate from now on.  We have a responsibility to understand how this works in education (and in life!).  We have a responsibility to learn it and pass it on.  It’s the right time to take control of these tools, where you content goes, who owns it, and how it works.

Howard also talked about the importance of tinkering…that there are no solid answers out there, new services are cropping up all the time, figuring out as we go is the way this works.  It reminds me of that wonderful John Seely Brown video (from 2008!!!), Tinkering as Mode of Knowledge Production:

So, I’m on board.  I’ve made my first blog post for the course and I’m grateful for the help/support/guidance that this community will provide as I grapple with this body of knowledge.  I’m looking forward to the conversations in the community, making sense of this topic together. Let the tinkering begin!


Filed under ConnectedCourses

Retrieval Practice and Ed Tech

From July 18,2014 NYT, Sunday Review

From July 18,2014 NYT, Sunday Review

Last month, the NYTimes ran an education article entitled How Tests Make Us Smarter, by Henry Roedigger [July 18, 2014]. The basic idea put forth in the article was that frequent testing begets frequent retrieval of the tested information; the more often we attempt to retrieve information as we learn it, the more sophisticated mental structures we create around it, the better it sticks.

Roedigger’s piece sent me off on a hunt for the original research cited in the article.  That led me to this article authored by Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt (Purdue University):

Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping, [January 2011]

Their research points to the conclusion that testing provides retrieval practice and, as such, works as a memory modifier – it strengths the information in the learner’s brain, making it more likely to be recalled later. In their article, Karpicke and Blunt cite the researcher, Robert Bjork, a cognitive psychologist at UCLA who has, hands-down, the best lab name I’ve ever heard, “The Learning and Forgetting Lab”. Bjork is well-known in education circles for coining the phrase “desirable difficulties”. His cog psych research points to the conclusion that roughening up the learning path (“desirable difficulties”) leads to greater retention and comprehension. The practice conditions that produce desirable difficulties are spacing (distributing practice over time), interleaving (for example, mixing in equal parts tutorials and practice problems), and testing (retrieval).  Bjork talks about the “study-study-study-TEST” model versus the (preferred) “study-test-test-test” model. I’ve blogged about Bjork’s work previously.  Here is a good explanation of his research, When and Why Introducing Difficulties and Errors Can Enhance Instruction, Courtney Clark and Robert Bjork (UCLA)

The key take-home in both Bjork’s and Karpicke’s work is the importance of using testing as a learning tool instead of just as an assessment tool. Frequent, low-stakes, formative testing, companioned with timely feedback, allows learners to strengthen their retrieval and rehearse the correct information.

With this research base in mind, the next natural step is to address the practical question of how best to provide regular retrieval practice? How to encourage practice that enhances learning in the classroom and doesn’t add to the feeling of being tested to death. To my mind, that’s where educational technology comes in. With tablets or laptops in the hands of each student in a wired classroom, educators can construct lesson plans around frequent, low-stake performances that provide regular feedback.  For instance, reflective blog posts, short student presentations, practice problems, and peer-to-peer teaching in small groups.

The interesting thing about this way of looking at educational technology, is that it doesn’t drive the change – it becomes a facilitating tool.  First you want to improve teaching/learning, next you examine what the educational literature tells us about what works, and then you look for the tools to help drive that change.


Filed under Reflections on Teaching

An Irrigation System Comes with a Teaching/Learning Lesson

New garden installation.

New garden installation.

We’ve recently installed a new front garden – a nice bevy of native and drought-tolerant plants, along with a bit of functional hardscape (I’m learning the landscaping terminology) in the form of a meandering pathway to the front door. In addition to improving the patches on all sides of our home, it’s turned out that this garden project has awarded other benefits – useful lessons in teaching and learning and a well-timed reminder of how incredibly difficult it is to do this education stuff right.

Our guide on this project, Liz Simpson, is an experienced landscape designer, who specializes in native plants.  I’ve worked with her on and off for the last six months, planning, sketching, preparing the soil, etc. and have found her delightful to work with – flexible, clear-thinking, and imaginative. In an attempt to marshall the budget on this project, I volunteered to be the laborer, along with my husband. That meant that we did the sheet mulching (see earlier post), the soil preparation, the digging and planting, and, eventually, the installation of a drip irrigation system.  Needless to say, there was a lot to learn.

The actual installation took place over a three-day period – 197 plants and lots of mulch.  Liz was there the whole time, overseeing the work, making sure we plopped the plants in the right places and heaving the flagstones into place herself, with the help of two, strong-backed helpers. It was all hard work, no doubt about it, but we got it done and were very happy with the results.

Irrigation system parts.

Irrigation system parts.

Then came the irrigation system.  These are drought-tolerant plants, but they do need some water, and given our current complete lack of rainfall in California, the drip system was called for. Liz brought over all the gear – tubing, emitters, brackets, couplers, goof plugs (my personal favorite) – and gave me a thorough tutorial on how to assemble the bits and pieces into a working system.  It’s a bit like a tinker toy operation.  The parts are designed to fit together, snap in place, and be flexibly positioned so that each plant has its own wee stream of water delivered right to its root ball.

Paper plan.

Paper plan.

Liz had carefully assembled all of the components of a productive teaching and learning experience for me.  She would explain, demonstrate, and give me resources – then I would be on my own for the ultimate assessment – a properly installed system.  I listened carefully to Liz’s “lecture”, watched her as she “demonstrated”, consulted the overall irrigation paper plan (“textbook”), and felt confident in my ability to complete the job.

Sound familiar?  Bet you know where I’m going with this.

Two days later, we set out to install the thing. It quickly became apparent that this was going to be harder than I’d thought.  There were elements that weren’t covered in my “lesson”, nuances to the execution that were eluding me. For one thing, the black, mainline hose turned into a serpent creature, taking on unforetold behaviors, roiling in unexpected directions and just generally being a pain in the ass. Furthermore, in what order should we work – should I lay out the hose first, stake it down, and then punch holes for the emitters?  Or is it better to install each emitter as you worked, laying out the hose in small segments? Complicating the whole enterprise was the fact that the “punch and insert” action required to add the emitters was extremely difficult – first, you have to get the hole just right (straight on, not at an angle) and then, when you push in the emitter, the hose sort of collapses on you, failing in the face of all that pressure and pushing (I distinctly heard it mocking me).  What’s more, everything has a proper orientation that must be remembered – right side in, path of water to plant, uphill versus downhill. What had, at first, sounded like a pretty straight-up affair was quickly turning into a Herculian task that I felt less and less qualified to complete. My fingers and hands fatigued quickly and we opted for a tag-team approach, I’d punch the hole, my husband would come along behind and land the emitter (later, it became apparent that was a very bad plan).

By hook or by crook, we finished the first half of the system and decided to call it a day.  Not only were we both wiped out, I thought it wise to ask Liz to review our work, just to make sure we were on track, before starting the second half.

When she arrived to check out our progress, I could tell by the look on her face that our performance had not met the grade. We failed the assessment. In fact, we were destined for remedial work. In addition to improper hose placement, incorrect distances (emitter to plant) we had installed every single emitter backwards. Yup, you heard me, backwards.

Good grief.  Ok, let’s just review for a minute.  Liz had done everything that a teacher should do with a naive student:

1.  Explanation. She explained the content, using language the learner understood, giving clear examples, making helpful analogies.

2.  Demonstrate.  She demonstrated the method for me, then had me do one with her watching (“watch one, do one”).

3.  Reference.  She left me with a detailed description in print for reference, should I need it.

So, what went wrong?  A dissection of this mess-up is kind of interesting, actually (that is, when I can get over the humiliation of being so colossally mistaken).  First, let’s take a look at the emitter:

Drip system emitter.

Drip system emitter.

Liz’s description was to insert the red side into the hose and the black side would face out.  Couldn’t be easier, right? Not only that, but if you look at the structure of the beast, you can clearly see that the red side is fashioned to accept the water flow and the black side is crafted to “emit” water. But somehow, I got it in my head that the black side would go in to the mainline hose …it matched with the black of the hose, it made a continuous color whole, whatever.  That was the model I had in my head.  And even though she left me a correctly completed example and it was written down on the printed irrigation plan (in words, not pictures, I should point out), my misconception was firmly established and I proceeded to install each and every emitter with the black side in and the red side out. Wow.

I suspect that a picture might have made a difference for me.  Either a photograph or a colored diagram, showing insert A to B here, in this way.  Why the actual physical model of a properly completed one didn’t serve that purpose completely baffles me.

It’s also worth taking a moment to ponder why I didn’t more carefully scrutinize the structure of the emitter itself. If I’d studied its functional design and reasoned my way toward a complete understanding of why the red side goes in, I suspect that would have helped. I suspect that understanding the orientation – as opposed to memorizing the color scheme in a garanimals approach – might have worked. But it did not occur to me to do that. Does that have to do with my lack of experience in building/assembling? Or is is a lack of native how-to sensibility?

What’s more, I suspect the number of details to keep track of got in the way; as if my brain could only hold onto so much information and just plowed ahead with its own managerial method. As we worked the logic of my approach felt more and more rationalized.  Of course, this is the way to do it!

Interestingly, when Liz came to inspect the work, undoubtedly taking pity on us, she stayed for the rest of the morning and we finished the remaining circuit all together. This allowed lots of ongoing observation and regular check ins.  “Do you mean, like this?”  “How deep exactly should the hose be buried?”  “Where do you put your thumb when you punch the hole?” The opportunity to watch her in action over a sustained period made a significant difference – wrestling with the main line hose, tapping in the brackets, how she kept her tools nearby, the way she positioned her body in relation to the hose when punching the emitter hole. I gained a much deeper and more practical insight into the proper method, not to mention the hard-to-explain-in-words nuances of the approach. It also allowed me to ask context-specific questions and get the answers when I needed them.

So, bottom line, our little exercise in irrigation underscores a couple of important education reminders:

  • Pictures really make a difference.
  • We hang onto our misconceptions with a death-grip.
  • The apprentice model really works.

Now.  If I can just remember….red in.  black out.

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Filed under Reflections on Teaching

Learning Feels Different

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI grew up surrounded by music teachers. My mother was a piano teacher and her father, my grandfather, taught violin, guitar, and piano. They both taught students in their living quarters so my own home and my grandparent-visits were woven through with the sounds and sights of music lessons. The line up of nervous children waiting their turn, the dissonant sound of songs not quite mastered, the ritual tones of fitful tuning, the repetition and nervous laughter. If you’ve ever heard “Tuna Fish” pounded out on the piano keyboard by a well-meaning eight-year-old, well, you’ll know just what I mean.

Though I lacked the native talent of my matriarchal lineage, growing up without learning to play an instrument just wasn’t an option. I started with the piano, but my instrument of choice was guitar. I learned mostly by imitating others and through sporadic lessons. Once I’d left home my guitar stayed with me but it mostly hung out under my bed, collecting dust. Occasionally I’d feel the itch to play, pick it up and quickly put it back when I realized how rusty I’d become and how little I remembered.

Recently I decided to pick up the thread. By luck I found a very good guitar teacher, Wayne Anderson, who is a perfect match to my ambition (gentle, non-intimidating, and relaxed). We meet once a week for 30 minutes.

It didn’t take long for it to feel familiar again – the comfort of the instrument’s wooden swell on my lap, the companionship of working a pattern out in my head, and the dull ache on the fingertips of my left hand.

But what was completely unfamiliar and a delightful surprise is how guitar teaching has changed.  Wayne’s approach to my lessons, as facilitated by digital tools, is a completely different animal to the way my mother and my grandfather taught.

Pitch Lab's tuner screen shot.

Pitch Lab’s tuner screen shot.

The differences begin with the most commonplace of lesson openers – tuning the instrument. Wayne introduced me to a number of apps for my iPhone. After looking them over, I downloaded a free, easy-to-use app from Pitch Labs. Flawless, no-sweat tuning, every time.

Next up, there are no books. Gone are the color-coded Schwann’s piano books, clutched nervously in sweaty fingers with scribbled annotations in the margins as the lesson proceeds. Wayne has a laptop and printer in our small cubicle of a practice room. When we’re working on a new piece, he finds the guitar tabs or sheet music online and prints it out for me. Voila.

As we work together to figure out the piece, assess the timing, and decipher the picking technique he searches for a YouTube video of the song, as played by the songwriter. Bob Dylan, Antje Duvekot, Leonard Cohen, the Avett Brothers, and Joan Baez regularly visit my practice cubicle.

When we’re working on a particularly tricky element we make use of the recording option on my cell phone. Last week, for example, I was struggling with Travis picking. After many failed attempts, I was finally getting it. Wayne gestured to my phone, suggesting I might want to capture this, while the going was good. I propped the phone up on the music stand, pressed record, and did my bit. Back at home, practicing, if I fumbled (which I did regularly), I could just pull out my phone and hear myself picking the right way. I can also recorded Wayne playing and, and in so doing, take my teacher home with me.

On my own I’ve found countless (and I mean thousands and thousands) of excellent instructional videos.  Really good guitar teachers, showing you step-by-step, how to play non-trivial songs on the guitar like Blackbird or Freight Train (seriously, do a search). Often the video production values are so good they’ll show you the right and left hand on a split screen or the musical tabbing along with playing top-to-bottom. Videos are, of course, endlessly patient. I play, stop, rewind, and fast-forward them as needed.

My teacher also makes use of software called Scorch as a teaching device. He bought the software, I have the free plug-in. Wayne will create a scorch file from a piece of sheet music and share it with me. With my plug-in, I can play the song on my laptop and control the speed, slowing it down to match my learner’s pace, and play along with it. Huge.

I haven’t even touched on the various ways to record tracks, edit sound recordings, and write music (I’m so not there yet), but even at my amateur state I can see that teaching and learning music has fundamentally changed.






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