Building Expertise by Ruth Colvin Clark

When we find a great teacher, we prize them not only because what we learn improves our lives but also because good learning can be one of the most exhilirating things we experience. Unfortunately, a lot of teaching stinks. It’s boring, rambling, forgettable.

I’ve made a study of teaching. I’ve had to. For almost 20 years I’ve taught and designed courses in the private sector. And for many of those years my work has been in a revenue generating department. What that means is that if my classes are ineffective and dull, nobody signs up, revenue falls, and a lot of folks will stand around and wonder if it might not be better to just replace me with a potted plant. At least a plant would be something pleasant to look at, plus it would also clean the air.

Now not everything I do is stellar (I wish that were so). Sometimes in the quality, cost, speed triangle, quality is the thing that takes the hit. But the point is I have to be alert and try to miminize the schlock. But how do you do that? How do you develop and deliver effective and interesting education?

Luckily, the field of instructional technology (I’m not talking about computers, but principles of instruction) has come a long way in identifying what works and what doesn’t. This is important because teaching theories of the past (many of which are still used today) often relied on rules of thumb and anecdotal evidence. Their precriptions were often ineffective and sometimes counterproductive. What’s exciting is that in the last few decades researchers in this area have put techniques and principles to the test. We know better now than ever before how to structure learning that is effective and interesting. And I have yet to find a better explanation of the proven techniques and principles than Ruth Colvin Clark’s Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement, 3rd Edition.  

Don’t let the “training” part fool you. We often associate “training” with learning procedures and simple tasks (which is what leads to the “we want to provide sex education, not sex training” obfuscation). But Clark isn’t using the term that way. Training here includes all types of learning.

What Clark does is not only share the techniques that build expertise, but also the psychological reasons and research-based evidence for those techniques. This isn’t nonsense based on personality or political correctness. It’s practical and proven.

Among other things, you’ll learn:

  • Why working memory is key to instruction and how to overcome its limits
  • How to motivate learners
  • How to structure learning
  • When to use lecture and when to put learners into action
  • What methods work best

You’ll learn when taking notes can actually be counterproductive and what you can do about it. Or how making your delivery more personable (and what that means) can actually improve attention. You’ll see why lots of practice isn’t always the best answer–sometimes your child will learn more if you do half of their homework questions for them.

You’ll find that there “Is no Yellow Brick road” in teaching. Instead, you’ll see that the effectiveness of any method depends on whether it’s suited to the specific situation. And Clark will explain what the key factors in any situation are so you know which methods to apply and the trade-offs you’ll make when you do.

If you’re a teacher in any setting–family, job, church, school, or recreation–or if you’re trying to teach yourself, this book (specifically the 3rd edition) will be a goldmine for you. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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