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Easy, PC? Say that again and I'll hit you

Struggling to master a computer can teach the teacher a lot about learning, says John Nisbet

Learning to use a computer has had a bonus for me. I have learnt a lot about learning. And also about teaching - or rather, how not to teach. I think I understand now what it feels like to be a slow learner. Please don't misunderstand me. I am actually quite competent with my computer, but I am inclined to say that I learnt in spite of instruction and the manuals. The way I learnt was by sitting beside a friend who got me started on the road, and then left me to get on with it. But he was always in the next room for me to consult, which I did frequently.

Every time I lost control and the screen went blank or the machine insisted on doing something I didn't want, or not doing what I did want, I could go to him for help. He would lay aside what he was busy on, smile, and say:

"That's easy." And I would reply: "If you say that's easy again I will hit you. It may be easy for you but it isn't easy for me."

The heart of the trouble is that those who have learnt to operate a computer have forgotten what it was like not to know the things they now do without thinking, and have forgotten ever having to learn. Bernard Shaw once said he must have been born with the ability to talk, because he couldn't remember ever having to learn it. Maybe learning to use a computer is like learning to talk: it can't really be taught, it can only be learnt.

I think I have discovered one of the basic requirements of good teaching, which is to understand what it is like not to know. This applies in almost every field, but it is particularly obvious with computers.

There are two reasons for this. One is that computing uses a vocabulary which is (to a novice) as foreign as Chinese. Here is an example from the latest Newsletter of the Scottish Educational Research Association.

Announcing the availability of a new database, it says: "Entries can be viewed and edited via a web browser, without the need for any technical knowledge on the part of the user." But what on earth is a "web browser"? Is that not technical knowledge? I certainly don't know what a web browser is, and I guess that if I ask, I will be told: "Oh that's easy . . ."

Being told "that's easy"' implies that I am stupid, that I shouldn't be asking; and for the first time in my long and successful academic life, it makes me realise what it feels like to be a dunce. If it weren't for the kindly smile with which my colleague receives my naive questions, I would stop asking, because that just reveals my ignorance. I would decide this wasn't for me, and I would give up - many of my contemporaries have done just that.

The second reason is a related one. There is something about expertise in computing which seems to be incompatible with competence in teaching. I went to an in-service course on databases in education, on access and retrieval. "There are 12 main databases," the instructor told the class.

"I'll run through all 12 quickly and then you can try them for yourself."

By the time she got to number three, I was totally confused.

"Can we stop there, please," I begged. "I've already forgotten how to do the first one." Even with basic procedures, the experienced operator can't slow down to my pace. I ask my helper how to insert a picture in a Word document. After the customary exchange of "that's easy", he runs through the procedure so quickly that I can't follow.

"Stop till I've written that down," I cry in agony. He patiently goes over it slowly and, as I heave a sigh of relief, he says: "Wait now, there is another way you can do it." Then, after a short pause, he says: "A better way to do it would be this." This sounds ungrateful to my long-suffering friends and colleagues. But I am just as bad myself once I get past level one in the competence ladder. "I can help you with that," I say eagerly to someone who is even more incompetent than me, and before I know what I am saying, I say: "It's quite easy."

Last year, my oldest brother at the age of 90 said he would like to be able to use the internet; his friends were asking him for his e-mail address and, if he couldn't give one, they were giving up writing to him. I offered to teach him, thinking that, not being expert, I could avoid these mistakes which had so frustrated me. So we started with the mouse (yes, that was all right); and the cursor ("What? Oh, that arrow?"), but when I told him to click on File and pull down a menu, a whole mountain of problems arose: what file? Oh, that word there? Is that a file? What do I want a menu for? And then, where has it gone? That arrow thing has disappeared!

I was cleaning out a cupboard yesterday and I came across some old notes for a lecture on "learning difficulties". I was making the point that we tend to blame difficulties on the learner without recognising that sometimes the fault is with the teacher. There was a quotation marked "Revans" (I had omitted to note down the reference). He was quoting a cry of despair from a slow learner who had an unusually clear insight into the problem: "I do not understand what you are trying to say. I admit that I am stupid, but you have a responsibility for making yourself clear. Yet you do not seem to understand that the whole of this lesson is, to me, so confused a rigmarole that I cannot even tell you what my problems are.

"I just do not understand my ignorance enough to approach you about it.

Your job is to help me to ask questions that will enable you to see what questions I should start to ask myself."

This was from a lecture I gave in Leeds in May 1965. I little thought that it would be 39 years before I really understood what I was saying.

John Nisbet is emeritus professor at the School of Education at Aberdeen University.

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