Wednesday, October 2, 2019

. . . And the Verdict Is

Keep it even more simple.

Yes, the KISS formula can be improved on—or, looking at it another way, reduced even further to its basics. When we think we have things boiled down to the right size to fit the right group in the right amount of time, we (or at least I) tend to miscalculate. Overestimate? Underestimate? Whichever descriptor for the end result, I always end up beyond the edges of what I needed.

Perhaps that comes from Thanksgiving Dinner phobia. When it was my turn to host the family's Thanksgiving Dinner as a newlywed, I was terrified we'd run out of food. So I fixed four different salads. And just as many side dishes--besides the usual mashed potatoes, yams, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. Nobody was going to go hungry at my feast. I was prepared.

Seven days after that triumphal Thanksgiving performance, we gave up on the heroics of trying to eat it all and tossed the leftovers in the garbage.

So, yesterday was the big day for my class: I was going to try my hand at another way to evaluate what my beginning genealogy students had absorbed from four weeks of class. I styled an escape-room scenario—adapted for genealogy settings, of course—similar to the one by Legacy Tree genealogist Paul Woodbury that I had experienced at a recent conference.

Only problem: Paul's scenario had seven steps to complete before the first genealogy team could escape to freedom, but I had exactly half the time Paul had allotted for his conference session. Still, I can vouch for it that mine was much simpler than the DNA puzzle Paul had constructed for his APG audience.

Because my current class is a four-week session on how to use, I wanted the students to try their hand at looking up a variety of documents to solve a puzzle involving a common surname, plus the twist of having two different wives of the targeted ancestor. The downfall—and what I continually urged my students not to do—was that the class could easily look up other family trees on Ancestry, and reach the end goal without having to look up any documents at all. Boo. Hiss.

I loved how this collection of near strangers self-organized into small groups yesterday and established their own teams. It was gratifying to see each group talk through the problem, step by step, offering their reasons for how to approach each problem and study each clue given. It was surprising to see one team take an early lead and zoom far ahead of all the others, making me wonder if the tasks were actually too easy for this class—and equally surprising to see how others were stymied with what I had thought would be the easier steps to navigate.

It all comes down to trying to see things from fresh eyes: the eyes of our own students. It's hard to see what a beginner sees in a subject the instructor has been swimming in for decades. What has become second nature to us as teachers might turn out to be what some commentators have dubbed "the curse of knowledge." It's a bias teachers naturally acquire by immersing ourselves in a subject for so long: although we can empathize, we no longer can see what it's like to encounter a subject afresh the way a novice would.

That's why I wondered whether taking on this exercise might be more of a lesson for the teacher than the learner. It became a chance for my students to teach me how they saw, for the first time, details that by repetition have become invisible to me. Teachers need to learn a way to put back into words the "second nature" experience we so take for granted. Our students certainly have no idea how to take that stuff for granted; it's all new to them. In some cases, we can't make it simple enough for first-time attempts at learning.

The best way to build confidence in learning is to learn how to deliver the learning process in even simpler steps. It's a drag to have to take a giant leap for that first step, but such an encouragement to find the process start out with steps small enough for us to race at with a flying leap. When we find that kind of entry to learning a new task, we're so much more ready to tackle step number two.


  1. The class sounds like it ended with a real test of knowledge. I feel fortunate that when I took beginning genealogy classes, I did not have an ancestry account. We were taught to collect our documents and draw our own tree. We could use the Ancestry account at our library, but could not save anything so we had to make paper copies. After collecting all my information from Family Search and Ancestry (birth/marriage/death certificates, census records, etc), I can now look at an Ancestry tree and see if they know what they are talking about. I think your exercise showed your beginners that the knowledge gained by doing it yourself is the most important.

    1. Thanks for the encouraging words, Miss Merry, but color my face blue. I felt like I kept saying, "Don't copy trees; look at the documents for yourself," but apparently the easy way is too tempting. I've been talking with a few people about ideas for how to update the approach for next time, though. Onward and upward--and hopefully resulting in a better product!

  2. That sounds like a fun exercise for a class and a good way of "cementing" the methods that they had been learning in the preceding lessons.

    1. Marian, it was fun! It was great to see people working together to solve the problem. I'll be revisiting this project again soon, and seeing how to best revise it, hopefully to use something similar for the next class, too.

  3. Sounds like a fun exercise for those of us who like to work puzzles:)

    1. Oh, it was, Far Side. And I'm sure I'll use it again. Just need to fine tune it so it's even funner! ;)


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