Democratising Education to Diversify the Workplace
Part 2: Practical tips for learning and teaching
In my last blog, I discussed how certain sectors, like computer programming and audio, have grown to appeal mainly to stereotypical nerds and how this has spread into learning resources for those sectors. Teaching subjects in a way that only appeals to one type of person is a form of gatekeeping and is a significant barrier to attracting a wider variety of people to our field. If we want to benefit from diverse workplaces, we need to diversify how audio is taught and how we learn together. Today I’m going to outline a few suggestions that I have very unscientifically put together from my own experiences as well as friends’ and colleagues’, which I hope will help make education more enjoyable and effective for all kinds of people.
Why the anti-nerd sentiment?
I should start by saying there is nothing wrong with nerds. Some of my best friends are nerds! If you find current learning resources engaging and you learn well from them, that is fantastic and you should carry on. However, bear in mind that plenty of people find them difficult, boring, or off-putting, and if you teach others they could very well benefit from a different approach. I am not advocating for getting rid of all current resources, but rather adding to them with alternatives.
We have so much potential
I have mentioned a few times in previous posts (1, 2) that beliefs about whether our capabilities are fixed or not have huge ramifications for our lives. Professional fields with a consensus that you need to be ‘born with it’ and ‘super talented’ tend to attract very confident young men, and turn off less confident people. They also show signs of discrimination against the minorities that are present in those fields, because employers can hide their biases behind claims that those candidates just don’t have what it takes. Similarly in an education setting, students who feel that people are simply good at something or not are less likely to put effort into subjects in which they do badly, and teachers with the same opinions are less likely to take the time to help those who fall behind.
I was surprised to find that the idea of ‘learning styles’: that each person is most suited to learning through visual, auditory, or hands-on means, is not only a myth but can be detrimental to education (3). Although we may prefer to study in one of these ways, no evidence has been found that predominantly using one over the others helps us to learn more. In fact, we all benefit from using a combination of these methods. Tailoring materials to different learning styles may be well-meaning but doesn’t actually help pupils and it takes resources away from more effective forms of teaching. Belief in learning styles can also mean people miss out on great opportunities: “I’m not going to listen to that podcast because I’m a visual learner,” for example.
These beliefs all stem from a ‘fixed’ mindset that people are born with a certain set of abilities, but the key to effective study is having a ‘growth’ mindset: that we are all capable of improving. We in audio are continually learning throughout our careers, and we know that practice makes perfect. A growth mindset means you see learning as a fun challenge rather than proof that you don’t belong in a field, and you can surprise yourself with how much you achieve when you take that challenge one step at a time. If you catch yourself saying that you just have to be born with innate talent for something, ask yourself why we spend so long in school. If ‘you either got it or you don’t’, we’d go to school for maybe a week, find what we were good at then head out into the world and do it. And I’m just going to say it: I’ve never seen a baby mix a band well. From front of house or monitors.
Find your level
It is totally fine to offer different classes to participants with different levels of experience. For example, if you needed to explain speaker design from first principles every time, you’d never get on to advanced topics within a one-hour session. It can also be quicker and easier to discuss things when you know everyone involved understands the terminology instead of explaining it in layman’s terms all the time. However, there needs to be introductory materials in the first place before people can graduate to the more advanced ones. Think carefully about who the resource is aiming to teach, and what their abilities and past experience might be. If you are offering or attending beginner or mixed-ability classes, bear in mind that prior knowledge of a subject is no predictor of future success (4), and you could be alienating the most promising students by expecting them to have it. Snorting “I can’t believe you didn’t know that,” is one of the least helpful things you can do as a teacher or classmate (or colleague). Everyone has different life experiences and their own sphere of knowledge. You might know how to plug up a Digico SD7, but can you do the same for all Avid desks? SSL? Soundcraft? Can you build and mix a show entirely in Portuguese? In Korean? In Arabic? Everyone comes up against gaps in their knowledge eventually, and they should always be applauded for trying to fill them, not derided. Lording your proficiency over a novice only makes you look like the idiot, like boasting to a toddler that you could take them in a fight.
Know the unknowns
There is a phenomenon in education called ‘the expert blind spot’, where teachers have been in their field for so long that they’ve forgotten what is normal for the general public to know about it (5). The way they convey topics presumes a lot of knowledge that students don’t yet have, and the order and emphasis of their explanations would help a fellow expert understand but often leaves pupils confused and disheartened. I can’t tell you the number of times where I’ve come across a term while learning computer programming and have had to search online for “x” “definition”/ “explanation”/ “tutorial”/ “for beginners”/ “for absolute beginners”/ “for dummies”/ “EXPLAIN IT TO ME LIKE I’M A FIVE-YEAR-OLD!” and still couldn’t find out what the term actually means. Every resource would presume I knew, and would instead explain further issues related to the thing.
The expert blind spot also extends to the educators themselves. They often don’t remember how hard it was for them when they were starting out and tend to overestimate their abilities when asked about how they fared as novices. Even if you did find the subject you’re teaching easy to learn, that is probably why you ended up teaching it! When imagining your students’ perspective remember what it was like to study something you found difficult. Remember just how overwhelming the volume of new information was. If you discuss certain aspects like they’re obvious and everyone should already know them, it can be hard for students to speak up and admit they don’t understand. They might smile and nod along, but in the end that doesn’t help anyone progress.
The flipside of expert blindness can be just as bad. When you underestimate the other party and explain every single thing it can be seen as patronising and a waste of time. I see this a lot in a phenomenon I like to call ‘techsplaining’: it’s like mansplaining except the person isn’t motivated by sexism (I’ve seen plenty of male recipients of techsplaining), but rather a genuine lack of awareness of what is reasonable to expect other people to know. I come across it quite a bit in written resources too: the author explains a tricky topic, then explains it another couple of times, each time finding a new way to describe the easy bit everyone already understands but leaving the complicated bit the same. It makes the resource three times as long without making it clearer at all.
It can take a lot of conscious effort, but looking at a topic from the point of view of a beginner can really help to engage a wider variety of students and deepen their understanding of the subject at hand. It may seem innocuous, but I recommend cutting down on the number of times you say ‘obviously’ as much as possible. We’re all guilty of it; when you’re explaining the basics of a topic and you don’t want to insult your audience’s intelligence or waste their time you’re tempted to say “Well obviously…” and rush through that bit. However, if something needs to be said, it’s worth saying well and leaving out the ‘obviously’ can save you from alienating parts of your audience who might be perfectly intelligent but just don’t happen to know that thing. I took an audio networking course that said of IP addressing: “In binary, the address after 11111111 is obviously 00000001.00000000.” I would argue that unless you can be certain that everyone watching your presentation is a robot, counting in binary is not ‘obvious’, and saying so only serves to put people off.
Know your audience
Following on from being aware of your audience’s knowledge level, it can help to take their personal backgrounds into account. Adding pop-culture references or jokes to your materials can make them more engaging, but bear in mind that the enjoyment that comes from getting a reference is because you feel part of the in-group and by definition, there is an out-group who are being excluded. I’m not advocating for getting rid of these fun additions at all, but try to make them as widely appealing as possible. Make sure that they don’t get in the way of comprehension if someone doesn’t know what you’re referencing. Like the best family shows, there can be plenty of jokes for the adults while the story still makes sense for the kids. This isn’t about banning fun for fear of offending someone, it’s about finding ways to make it fun for everyone and keeping them engaged. For example, computer programming courses often have references to Harry Potter. As someone who couldn’t care less about the series, I don’t really mind if every list of example names is ‘Harry, Ron and Hermione’, but if a teacher claims that something is more like a Horcrux than a golden snitch, they’ve immediately lost me and my respect.
Analogies are like wrenches
Analogies are like wrenches: useful in a wide variety of scenarios, but not all, and indiscriminate application can make the situation worse. I like an analogy as much as anyone, but they should only be used when they contribute to the understanding of a topic. If your audience is already familiar with something it is pointless to wrap that up in an analogy and it can come across as patronising. Microphones don’t need to be compared to sponges, everyone knows what microphones are. In a similar vein to expert blindness, ‘smart-person analogies’ can be counterproductive. Analogies should compare their subject to something easier and more familiar to the learner, not something more complicated or oblique. Someone who finds audio and biochemistry equally intuitive might not notice that comparing reverb to adding a methyl group to a hydrocarbon is no help at all to the average learner, and just serves to confuse and frustrate them. If you’re unsure whether an analogy is helpful, ask a ‘normal’ person who doesn’t know the topic for their honest opinion.
Watch your language
I am no longer the grammar pedant I used to be, but I have to say that writing clearly is important. If writing isn’t your strong suit or you’re teaching in a language in which you aren’t fluent, that shouldn’t stop you of course, but get someone else to look over your work. Spell checkers are getting smarter all the time but they’re no substitute for a human yet. Spelling and grammar are standardised to help everyone understand each other. The odd mistake here and there isn’t a big deal but I know from experience that learning from resources that are, frankly, garbled is very difficult, even as a native English speaker. If someone is trying to learn in their second language, the way you misspell a word because it sounds right to you phonetically could be completely unintelligible to them. Similarly, if you’re going to use idioms make sure they make sense when directly translated. Even if “measure twice, cut once” isn’t a standard phrase in the reader’s language, they can figure out what it means. However, something like “he literally shot himself in the foot” could be completely baffling even though they know the meaning of the individual words.
Enthusiasm is infectious
I have always learned best from people who are truly enthusiastic about their field. Having an animated conversation with someone about a subject they’re excited to share with you is a great way to both understand and remember it long-term. People like Mary Beard, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Tim Harford are such wonderful public educators because they’re genuinely fascinated by their subjects, and speak to their audiences like intellectual equals who just don’t happen to know the topic yet. My favourite is Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock, whose enthusiasm is so infectious and joyful that you can’t help but be interested, no matter what she’s talking about. Listening to people like this, combined with some more painful periods of study, has helped me to realise that very few topics are truly boring, it’s just how they’re presented. For example, did you know that word clocks (used for syncing digital audio devices together) are tiny quartz crystals that vibrate thousands of times a second, and that frequency of vibrations can be controlled by their size, shape, and even surrounding temperature? Gigs are held together by crystals! That’s crazy! Yet lots of resources about word clock are super dry and don’t even mention what they physically are (or are replicating, in the case of digitally-generated word clocks). Expert blind spots can make teachers forget the original wonder that a subject might have inspired in them.
Share your story
Tim Harford, a British economics journalist, has said that the way to get people interested in concepts is to turn them into a story (https://freakonomics.com/podcast/pima-tim-harford/). Find the human connection in the data and use that as your hook. Using yourself as that human can be a great way to engage your audience. I definitely identify more with teachers who talk about the ups and downs of their own learning journey. I love hearing about the problems they faced, not because I’m a sadist but because it’s reassuring to know that even experts struggle sometimes, and we can all learn from their mistakes. The more people are honest about the challenges they worked through, the more people will be inspired to stick with it instead of giving up because they think they aren’t cut out for it. Recounting your story will also remind you of what it was like to be in the students’ shoes and can counteract your expert blind spot.
One caveat to this is beware of the humblebrag: for example, I recently saw a comment on a course’s forum about a notoriously difficult task that said “I just wanted to let everyone know that it was tough, but after 12 hours I finally finished it. If even I can do it, anyone can! :)” That task took me 9 days so… that person was not as motivational as they thought they were. Share your successes by all means, but the self-deprecation of acting like you’re the worst at something can make anyone who has to try harder than you feel even more inadequate.
When I spend hours or even days researching something, I find it so frustrating that after putting in all that effort, I’m the only one who has gained that information. I think it’s very inefficient to put lots of energy into something that only benefits one person, especially when countless other people might have to do the same research and get lost down the same dead-ends as I did. Sharing what and how you’ve learned with others helps save them from the pain you went through, helps them to learn how to study better and helps you understand the subject more thoroughly by explaining it to others. Share your excitement with your friends and colleagues, but do ensure you have enthusiastic and ongoing consent. If you see their eyes glazing over or they keep glancing anxiously at the exits, maybe find a more willing audience.
I like to use several different resources while learning. The repetition helps me to remember the information, but also seeing several different people’s take on it increases the chances I’ll find a phrase or example that helps it click for me and saves me from relying on one source that happens to be wrong! More voices adding to the conversation can’t be a bad thing. To increase diversity in audio, we need to increase the diversity in teaching. If you have knowledge to impart, it’s never been easier to share it. Write a blog, make a podcast, make videos about whatever excites you and put it out there. Even if the only person it helps is you, that is a worthwhile investment.
Beth O’Leary is a freelance live sound engineer and tech-based in Sheffield, England. While studying for her degree in zoology, she got distracted working for her university’s volunteer entertainment society and ended up in the music industry instead of wildlife conservation. Over the last ten years, she has done everything from pushing boxes in tiny clubs to touring arenas and spends a lot of her life in muddy fields working on most of the major festivals in the UK. She has a particular passion for flying PA, the black magic that is RF, travel, and good coffee.