Lessons, Remixed

29 Apr 2016

This is a reponse and riff (shall we say remix?) on Greg Wilson’s blog post from earlier today on collaborative lesson development, where he lists reasons given for a lack of collaborative lesson development and why he finds these reasons un-compelling.

My tl;dr response: I agree with his conclusion that remixing is the best analogy for collaborative lesson development. But feel free to read on why.


I think it’s fair to say that Greg finds it odd that other endeavours (open source software, wikipedia) have managed to use collaboration so effectively and lesson development…not so much. But as he acknowledges at the end of his post, perhaps that’s the wrong comparison to make. I think that’s closest to the truth. Comparing collaborative lesson development with collaborative software development is like comparing apples and oranges.

Here’s two angles on why:


Here I’m drawing on a metaphor that’s worked its way into the Software Carpentry instructor training: teaching as a performance, comparable to music and theatre.

Software, by definition, needs to do the same thing every time. Its authors may haggle over what it should do and how to implement it, but once that’s been decided, the written code should translate into a single performance - as it’s meant to!

Whereas, even if a group of teachers got together to decide what to do (lesson objectives) and how to do it (lesson plans), the performance of each teacher will be different.

But, you say, actors all manage to provide their own unique interpretations of, say, Romeo and Juliet while working from the same script! Surely teachers can do the same.

Teaching can be like theatre. One type of teaching - lectures - is definitely theatre. There is a script, it is interpreted (sometimes to great effect!), the audience applauds at the end. You might even have a very well-developed semester-long course that incorporates more active learning techniques, where it really can be delivered from a “script”.

But the type of teaching we’re striving for in Software Carpentry feels a bit more like improv or stand-up comedy. And for improv, you don’t necessarily need or want a whole script. You need some principles about how comedy generally works (timing, the 2 joke build-up, 3rd joke payoff, say yes, etc.) and then you need some starting material. Which leads to my second metaphor.


In college, it’s common for a whole class to be assigned a single topic for a paper. Everyone - in some sense - has to write the same paper. But each paper will be slightly different. Some may structure their argument slightly differently, some may choose to emphasize one line of thought over another.

All the papers will share one thing though - their sources. The collected wisdom of the academic community gets recycled and remixed in order to support a point or argument.

Teaching can be like collaboratively “writing” a paper out loud. You need source material (exercises, analogies, activities) in order to support your argument (learning objective) so that learners understand your conclusions.

(Here’s where I’ll note that the most time-consuming part of paper writing is not necessarily the writing, but finding your sources, reading them, and then choosing the bits that best support your argument.)


What the two previous metaphors have in common is the need for “source” material. When it comes to teaching, I’m thinking of source material as good examples for live demos, activities that tie into learning objectives (and are well scaffolded), and other bits and bobs like metaphors, helpful diagrams, and funny videos. That’s where I would want to collaborate, mostly because those are the pieces that take a long time to create myself.

What does that sharing look like? Here are two thoughts:

Metadata and Remixing

When I was teaching first year calculus, I had the outline for my “paper” (the syllabus), and I knew the math. What I needed was material: actual examples and activities for my class.

“Isn’t that what the textbook is for?” you say? Yes and no. A textbook is full of math problems - but not in a way that helps me as a teacher. My dream, as a math instructor, was having a set of problems with metadata. (As a very concrete example:

With at least three different versions of each type, even if it just meant having different numbers in the problem.)

Along these lines, I think the greatest value in the Software/Data Carpentry lessons is having a pile of example data/files to start with. In the shell lesson we say: here is a set of directories and files to muck around with. And to some extent, there’s metadata: use this set of files to demonstrate pipes; use this directory to show how find works. Creating these examples from scratch (and have them be meaningful) is hard; remixing them, on the other hand, is easy. I have remixed the SWC Python lesson twice now. It’s been pretty easy to pull into its consistituent pieces and rearrange - not because the original lesson is flawed, but because I’m trying to tell the same story, with the same pieces, in my own voice.

Open Mic Night

I’ve come to realize that it really is valuable to observe
other people teach. I always learn something new when watching someone else teach material I’ve already taught. To return to the comedy metaphor - we need fresh material. We need to see each other’s jokes.

This is a harder kind of knowledge to pin down and share. How do you share performance? Watch other people teach? Talk about it?
Write it down? What would a teaching “open mic night” look like?

To some extent, these questions are being explored (if not fully answered) by the Carpentry communities, which is pretty sweet. Folks have investigated a lot of options: Edthena, for watching videos; workshop pre+de-briefings to knowledge-share; lesson instructor guides with written tips; last year’s instructor retreat as a sort-of open mic experiment. There’s no single solution yet, but it’s awesome that there is a critical mass interested in this kind of sharing, and is really trying it out.

Being Human

This turned into a very long post with a lot of opinions, so I think it’s important to end with a personal confession.

I have all these metaphors and reasons and explanations, but part of the reason I don’t want to collaborate on lessons, especially to use someone else’s material, is because I’m egotistical. There is part of me that wants to be creative. Wants to do something different. Wants to be acknowledged for my brilliant teaching. There’s always a little piece of me that says “I could do it better” or “I would rather just do it my way.”

So that’s another place to start: humility. To get off the high horse of my own ideas and listen to research, learners, other instructors. Bit by bit (and it’s not easy!), I’ve got to overcome an individualistic, teacher-centered view in favor of communal knowledge, learner-centered approaches.

Collaboration is only possible when I’m willing to set aside my agenda to reach a common goal, in the context of a similarly-minded community.

response » reflections » lessons, collaboration, teaching, personal,

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