Teaching novices

I've just been teaching my mother how to set up a Gmail account. For those of us born in the 1990s, in the developed West (including me)...well, we grew up with technology. It was like a logical, nay, even a spiritual extension of ourselves (in the sense that it just seemed to flow from mind to internet). When you have tech-savvy people around you, that effect is only intensified. With all that in the mix, it can be quite hard to look at things from the viewpoint of what are politely called the less technologically literate.

I ended up having to write yet more crap in this blog because of it (I get inspired far too easily, don't I?). You see, I responded to it in ways that made me really think.

I'm a really impatient and easily frustrated person, prone to random outbursts when things don't go my way - or more precisely, when I simply cannot understand why, for all my hard work, I'm not getting the results I want. I get especially frustrated when trying to explain things to people and when they don't understand, as happened quite often. I remember being 11 and trying to explain things which I considered quite simple to my 11-year-old peers, and them not getting it. The story repeated itself over and over again when I was 12, then 13, then 14...now that I'm 15, things have finally looked up a bit (and I've lowered my standards sufficiently). All through that period, adults would get my explanations, but my peers wouldn't, which confused me, because apart from obvious differences in knowledge and experience, I thought the underlying framework for interpreting the environment was the same (I couldn't measure it, so I just assumed it would be like that)...and after all, I could get it, so why couldn't they?

I'm getting off topic. Long story short, because of what happened back then, I'm not really confident of my ability to teach - and suddenly I find myself having to teach someone with nowhere near my experience (which isn't even that great - I'm experienced enough to navigate my way around a computer without doing something stupid like deleting vital system folders, but nowhere near advanced levels of fiddling around with computers, but that's more digression...). Worse, I was the one who offered to teach my mum (she was still on a freakishly slow Hotmail account and didn't understand the difference between a browser and webmail...sigh...) - I have an annoying propensity for getting myself into taxing situations.

Actually, it didn't turn out that badly. I managed to successfully guide her through creating an account without losing my temper. For a person like me, that's a major achievement. It really did make me think: it made me think about my own maturity and what I'm capable of. Yes, I do still lose it a lot, but it means now that I might be able to make my way through society without bursting a blood vessel from anger.

Another thing it made me think about is the differences between a novice and someone who's become used to the system. People who work with the system get really very used to how it works: the layout, the functions, where to find things...they can adapt quite easily to different bits within the system, because they've seen it before and they assume that it works like the other bits.

Newbies don't have that knowledge. Fine, that can be remedied with a lot of time and patience...but more problematic is that they don't have the framework to accept that knowledge, which is a lot harder to build up than simply throwing knowledge at them - and it gets harder and harder to build up a proper framework as they get older.

At first, because they don't have the knowledge, they get helped with basic things on the computer. (This is how the savvy people start off, too.) They learn those functions - but unlike the people used to the systems, who can extrapolate and make connections, allowing them a lot more freedom and helping them to build up their framework, the novices learn only those functions and don't make the connections which allow for proper understanding. This makes it a lot harder for them to take the knowledge and understanding to new systems, and it means they need a lot more help to do things and understand less. If you have to teach them and if you're not used to teaching - say someone like me - it's an eye-opener, and a rather depressing one too, because it shows just how much work needs to be done and how hard that work is to do.