I have spent the two last days at a “Train the Trainers” workshop organized by the Carpentries project. Here I will summarize some thoughts on the workshop, and things that I will take with me for my own teaching practice.
The Carpentries project comprises the Software Carpentry, Data Carpentry, and Library Carpentry communities, with a shared mission to teach foundational computational and data science skills to researchers. I have taken several Carpentries lessons over the last years, organized by volunteers here at the University of Oslo.
One of the best things about the Carpentry workshops, is that they are very practical. The idea is that you learn some concrete skills, in a hands-on manner. I also like that the workshops are very inclusive. Everyone can participate and in my experience you always find a mix of students, support staff, postdocs and faculty members. It is very rewarding to get acquainted to people outside your regular “bubble”, and it definitely creates a different learning environment than the normal student-oriented semester-long courses. I also think it is healthy for everyone to see professors struggle with the same things as everyone else.
Another great thing about the Carpentries is the focus on short, intensive workshops with a clear focus. This is an example of what I like to call micro-education, as opposed to our regular focus on semester-long courses and year-long degrees. In an ever-changing world, everyone needs to learn new things all the time. I don’t think universities (in general) do enough to meet this need.
Inspired by some of the Carpentries courses I had participated in, I decided to develop a carpentry-inspired course myself: Quantitative Video analysis for Qualitative Research. This short workshop is intended as a tutorial for the Musical Gestures Toolbox for Matlab, and was developed with the Carpentries template.
The course material template is but one thing of the Carpentries. There is also a teaching philosophy that I wanted to learn more about. So when I was challenged (and inspired) to become a certified instructor myself, I decided to sign up for the instructor training.
Online instructor training
I am more than averagely interested in new learning methods, so I was curious to see how the Carpentries instructor training was carried out. For the training we were around 20 learners from around the world and two instructors. One of the instructors, Lex Nederbragt, is working at UiO, and he had secured that the six of us that were taken the training from Oslo where gathered in one room on campus. Such a mix of on-campus and off-campus learners is an interesting challenge in itself. Having a sizeable minority of learners being physically co-located creates a different group dynamic than if everyone had been sitting separately.
The video communication was run on Zoom, a platform I have become very acquainted with through the MCT master’s programme. As opposed to Skype, Hangouts, and similar, Zoom consistently works reliably on all platforms (including Ubuntu), and it has great support for handling changing hardware. I have been adding/removing sound cards, headsets, cameras, etc. during Zoom sessions without any issues. Most other solutions would crash or require restarts to make this work.
Another nice thing about Zoom is that allows for creating breakout rooms, which means that a larger group can be split into sub-groups for local discussion. The instructors used this very effectively during the training, splitting us up in smaller groups for exercises throughout the days. The only challenge here was for the six of us sitting physically together. We had to also split up and move into different rooms for these exercises. It worked fine, but it is interesting to reflect on the different experience the Oslo group had from the online participants. Personally I connected primarily with the local Oslo people, and did not interact at all with any of the online participants. I think it might have worked better for the whole group if everyone had been sitting separately. That way we could all have collaborated more easily.
Some of the most interesting things I picked up during the training:
Mental models: It is important to identify the different mental models that learners may use for any given task. These can be used as the starting point for developing better formative assessment, such as creating good wrong answers to multiple choice tests. Rather than just making randomly wrong answers, they should be based on different mental models that one may assume that the learners may have.
Developing skill: Carpentries embrace the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition and the need to move upwards through Bloom’s taxonomy. While I generally agree with this, I often like to start on top of the Bloom pyramid. In my experience, having people feel that they “master” a tool quickly often help in making them interested in learning more about the underlying concepts. Not everyone wants to become software engineers, most people just want to learn enough to solve their problem.
Concept maps: This is a tool to help develop a complete lesson through drawing a picture of someone’s mental model of a domain: facts are bubbles, and connections are labelled arcs. It is particularly important to explain what the relationship is. Planning how different parts of a course is interconnected is very important, but is something that many of us don’t spend enough time on, I think.
Teach as a learner: This is related to using the mindset of a learner when teaching. Acknowledging your faults as a teacher may be a good strategy for helping students learn more themselves.
Never teach alone: I fully agree with this one. Teaching together helps identify learners that struggle with something, and it is a good way to develop better teaching practice with a colleague. The challenge, of course, is that we usually don’t have the resources available for two teachers for most university courses.
Teach slowly: the live coding strategy employed at Carpentries is an effective way of slowing down the teacher, and makes it easier to follow along.
Make and solve errors: live coding also means that errors will have to be handled on the fly by the instructor. There is a lot of learning involved in seeing someone else troubleshoot code, so this should be embraced. I have been live coding as a teacher for more than a decade now, so I am very used to it. But I still remember how challenging it was to get started with all the realtime, public error-handling in the beginning.
Code of conduct: The Carpentries are very conserned about being an inclusive community. Thus the code of conduct is easily available on the web pages, and it is also explicitly mentioned at the beginning of lectures. I think this is something that should be embraced more generally in teaching.
Feedback strategies: There is a very structured approach to feedback in Carpentries:
- Feedback is delivered in the form of pre-workshop and post-workshop questionnaires. This is useful to learn about the learners’ skills before the course, but also to follow their progression from beginning to end.
- Minute cards are used before lunch with the focus on writing down one positive thing and something that could be improved.
- 1up-1down evaluations are used to receive oral feedback from each of the learners.
Stick-it notes: We didn’t use it during the instructor training, but the use of stick-it notes is another “feature” of Carpentries. When carrying out tasks, learners put a yellow stick-it on their laptop when they are done, and put a read if they have questions. This is an efficient way of ensuring that people are on track or have problems.
All in all it was very interesting to take part in the instructor training. I have been doing many different types of teacher training over the years, but this one was by far the most practical and hands-on. As such, it fits nicely into the Carpentry philosophy: provide hands-on tools for real-world problems.
I am looking forwards to developing and running my own Carpentry-courses in the coming years, and I am also quite sure that I will use several of these methods in other teaching as well.