How do you help people have an epiphany about difficult concepts?
October 11, 2013 9:47 AM   Subscribe

How do you describe the basic concepts of a difficult subject you know a lot about that makes it "click" for a beginner?

For example, I was struggling with Microsoft Access. It all clicked for me when someone said, "Just think of the tables in Access like individual Excel spreadsheets that are then linked together." When I heard that, something clicked and I was able to "get" how to work with Access.

Is there a way you have of describing a difficult concept you know a lot about that help beginners "get" it? No need to limit this to computer talk. Any difficult or mysterious concept is welcome.
posted by reenum to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I generally find out what people know well, and then find a way to tie whatever I'm talking about into concepts that align with that.
posted by xingcat at 9:50 AM on October 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

"All in the wrist. Just think about throwing the frisbee like you're cracking a whip."
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 10:01 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I generally find out what people know well, and then find a way to tie whatever I'm talking about into concepts that align with that.

Seconding this. I once explained deframenting a hard drive to my mother by comparing a computer to "a bunch of file folders that are all stored in different cubbyholes over a desk". Once she got that image, then I said that "imagine that sometimes you just need to put everything back in the right cubbyhole so the computer can find the right things it's looking for".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:04 AM on October 11, 2013

Watch what the person is doing, and listen carefully to what they're saying. Think wildly about all the different worldviews they could maybe have, until you find a perception that matches up to the way they're behaving. Then say something to clarify their incorrect assumption. Maybe you'll hit the jackpot, maybe you won't.
posted by aimedwander at 10:06 AM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

For sighted people, at least, being able to visualize the concept in some way (whether you're visualizing a metaphor or the actual concept itself) is often super-helpful. The thing that finally enabled me to master driving a manual transmission car was mentally picturing the different gears engaging.
posted by julthumbscrew at 10:09 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Empathy is the key. For instance, I have heard the "cracking" a whip line more than once from people who have no idea how to use a lunge whip, or a driving whip, or how to pop a grape soda can off of a hay bale with a bull whip.

It might be useful in the sense of "try another approach" but as a person who can crack whips, I find it makes things worse.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:15 AM on October 11, 2013

I teach knitting. I use lots of comparisons to the learner's job/other hobbies/. Lots of encouragement. Lots of changing visual angles. Lots of having them try different techniques, because there are many ways to hold knitting needles beyond what most people think of as "left handed" and "right handed."

Also LOTS of reminders to practice at home every day, because a big long chunk of time is not as useful as 7 ten minute chunks. Combined with Ira Glass' statement about creative people having good taste and getting frustrated when skill doesn't match taste.
posted by bilabial at 10:19 AM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I play a good number of boardgames and my disparate group doesn't stick to any old faithfuls; we're always having to explain a game to someone or having it taught to us. Boardgames employ a number of metaphors but the best ones seem to have a level of realism to their abstraction, and sometimes those don't mesh with a person's experience, even if they're a gamer. You have to know them a little bit and figure out not just the life experiences they have, but also their style of approaching the world. Are they more analytical, more visual? Do they love organizing collections or do they prefer to just throw everything out they aren't currently using? Different games will reward different play styles, which will often correspond to someone's way of approaching the world in some way.

So for example, our friend who is a lawyer often understands the mechanics of a new game once they've been explained to her in terms of each component helping her to build her "case" or army or whatever, but at the same time, she is kind of lazy in that she doesn't want to juggle too many variables, so games where she can get very focused are where she excels.

But for me, I'm all about the sim game metaphor. It will always click for me when I can think of all the pieces in a game as objects in an actual place, like building a city, or maintaining a fleet of actual spaceships. Even in games that don't have that, like dice-rolling games, I have to think of the dice rolling as helping to achieve something concrete each time before it'll click. I love games of pretend, grew up on Sim City, have always been into a good map and am very story and growth oriented, and people explaining boardgames to me know this.

Our friend who is always playing to win, even a brand new game, needs to have rules very meticulously explained to her so she can understand the ramifications of all of her actions from the start. In real life she does something vital but boggling to my artsy fartsy self, about systems analysis and spreadsheets? I'm still kind of unclear, but it corresponds exactly to her playstyle. Once she understands the overall mesh of how the rules in a game interact with each other, she immediately falls into good humor.

Basically, empathy, knowing the other person, and trying different angles until something sticks.
posted by Mizu at 10:27 AM on October 11, 2013

Also, diagrams. As a species, we are extremely visual (that's one reason the cliche of "a picture is worth...") so diagrams/pictures can really help with more abstract concepts.
Some of the examples above are diagrams in words - but pictures have helped me immeasurably when trying to understand further db complexities, ETL processes, code promotion, etc.
Naturally, this doesn't work with the sight-impaired, so your descriptions/metaphors should be sharper than ever working with that population.
posted by dbmcd at 10:43 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have three kids: a smart 10-year-old, a smart 9-year-old and a smart 7-year-old. I've learned they can grasp a lot of complex concepts, as long as I use words I know they know. I'm careful not to dumb it down to Dick-and-Jane levels, because I know they're smart -- just young and therefore inexperienced. So maybe just imagine you're explaining the concept to a bright kid.
posted by Smells of Detroit at 10:44 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think what you're describing is what can be referred to as a "threshold concept." This webpage offers a quick overview of what a threshold concept is. The literature on threshold concepts will offer you a lot of advice about how to teach them, or how people "get" them.
posted by meese at 10:47 AM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Visualizations often help.

For example, I'm preparing a session tomorrow on Inkscape and Bezier curves. I could explain them using a simple mathematical definition. Or I could use this animation which visually demonstrates the application of higher order derivatives in drawing the curve, and explains what the handles are actually up to.
posted by pwnguin at 10:49 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree that empathizing with the explainee well enough to understand what approach is going to work best for them is really the important thing.

An example: I tutored a friend for GRE math who, while very intelligent, had literally no math education other than a remedial class in college (long story involving the negligence of basically every authority figure in her childhood). The standard pedagogy for things like fractions and algebra involves basically telling you the steps for solving a certain sort of problem and then having you execute those steps over and over again, which didn't work out so well for her since to her those rules felt arbitrarily motivated, which made it hard for her to memorize them.

The break came when I realized she was a very logical thinker and was familiar with first-order logic, so I sort of wiped the slate clean and explained that, on a high level, math works a lot like compound propositions: when you take an initial set of givens, certain combinations of those givens result in other true statements (so if P is true, and Q is true, then so is P AND Q), and changing the truth value of the givens changes which other statements follow from those givens (so if P is true but Q is false then P AND Q is no longer true, but P OR Q still is), and that to some extent there's nothing preventing you from choosing your givens however you like and seeing what falls out from there (almost like a truth table). It's not a perfect explanation, but it really clicked with her and got her in the right frame of mind to absorb new material, especially since after that point I took pains to go through a brief proof for each new fact from things she already knew (e.g. if you know that x3 = x * x * x then it follows that x3 * x2 = (x * x * x) * (x * x) = x * x * x * x * x = x5). Crucially, I don't think this approach would work for many, or even most, people learning GRE math, but in this case her score on the math section was better than her quite-good score on the verbal. Even better was the fact that she found math more interesting and enjoyable when it became clear that it involved a type of thought that she enjoyed and was good at.
posted by invitapriore at 11:35 AM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I explain a lot of computer things to my husband and his parents by using analogies:
-You can't get to [site] right now because there's a DDOS. Like if I get everybody in my office to prank call Walmart all day, so you can't call to check on an order because all the lines are always busy.
-Your site isn't up yet because DNS propagation hasn't happened yet. DNS is like the internet phone book; it matches up names (URLs) with numbers (IP addresses) so that people can get to your site without having to memorize the number. There are a few companies that make phone books, but they all take some time to go through and add the new entries.

The key is to simplify as much as possible. They don't need to know that the DDOS is run by a botnet from infected computers and that no, the owners might not even know that they're contributing. Figure out WHAT they need to know, figure out what they already understand, and translate to ideas they already know.
posted by specialagentwebb at 11:43 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I generally find out what people know well, and then find a way to tie whatever I'm talking about into concepts that align with that.

This is exactly right. As a cycling coach, I find that in this area of the world there is a huge overlap in athletes who also ski. It's very easy to explain, say, setting a line for countersteer into a sharp corner by using the "pole plant and carve" analogy with rookie bike racers who ski. Likewise (a concept I learned in equestrian sports) explaining to them the necessity for not "dropping in" the inside shoulder going through a turn (counterweighting).

Visualizations are really helpful, and again, tying them to a common theme helps. Getting a beginner equestrian to sit up straight with their knees under their hips is a visualization we called "marionette"; i.e. picturing yourself as a puppet being supported from above by a string on the top of your head.

Knowing how to diagram in an engaging, meaningful way is extremely helpful if you're teaching abstract conceptual stuff like process maps / flowcharts for software or manufacturing processes. One of the chemists here always indicates the reaction vessel in a process whiteboarding session with a little "explosion cloud" like you'd see in a cartoon, not to indicate that it'll actually blow up, but to emphasize that there is critically important stuff going on in there that needs careful attention.

Something that I find critical is a very good grounding in the basics, and a compassionate understanding of how to explain things in a non-threatening way without dumbing it down.

If your subject matter expert doesn't actually remember a time when it was difficult for them to execute basic steps as a beginner, and the whole process of how they overcame that, then they're going to have a hard time explaining it to other beginners. Or if they just aren't compassionate to their students' fears or limitations. Whether this is an athletic coach who scares a rookie mountain biker or skier out of the sport by overfacing or injuring them on too-advanced terrain, or a project manager who is incapable of reaching past technical jargon and complex rules strictures to explain concepts in a simple, logical fashion without condescension.
posted by lonefrontranger at 12:00 PM on October 11, 2013

I'm a lawyer and explain hard legal concepts a lot. I find that the keys to helping someone understand are:

1. No jargon. Just regular person language. For example, to "waive" is to give up. So I ask people if they want to give up on x or y. If I were going to talk to a computer noob about computer files, I'd refer to them as "the place you put things, like your pictures."

2. Giving very concrete, familiar examples. For example, explain different everyday situations that show "knowledge" -- I'm aware of, or know, that I am wearing clothes. Or "forfeiture" -- I used to have a parking spot, but I lost it -- forfeited it -- when I didn't pay the parking fee.

3. Not too much information at once. Give some, then check in with the person for questions, comments.

4. End on a high note -- you have that nailed! - and schedule another session to discuss more.
posted by bearwife at 12:56 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing both trying lots of approaches, and empathy.

One thing that I find helps a lot is figuring how the person currently thinks about the concept you're trying to teach. Most of the time, you're not filling up a blank slate with new information. Your student already has an incorrect model in their head about how things work. Your job has four parts:
  1. Figure out your student's mental model of the subject. This is the hardest part.
  2. Find the difference between the incorrect model and the correct model. Usually this is pretty easy.
  3. Explain the difference. Hard again.
  4. Go back to step 1. If you figure out that their model is now the correct one, celebrate and stop.
Imagine directing someone to your house by saying "I'm on 164th, right across from 7-11." Someone who lives in your town and knows it well (an expert in the subject at hand) will have no problem with those directions. Someone who just moved from out of town (a beginner) is going to have a much harder time. They might know where 164th street is, but not the 7-11. When they get lost and call you, it might take a while for you to figure out that they are on 164th STREET, because the 7-11 is on 164th AVENUE. You can't understand why they don't see the big light up sign, which is impossible to miss, and the landmarks and cross-streets they are talking about don't make any sense at all, yet your student keeps insisting that they are on 164th. Note that this point in the process--step #1 in the sequence above--is a problem solving exercise for you, the teacher.

If you don't make an attempt to understand where your student is, all you can do is repeat your original description of the destination and hope they trip over it. Giving a more detailed description of your neighborhood and its landmarks improves the odds that the student will figure things out on their own, but only if they are already close by.

If you recognize that your student mentioning a bowling alley means that they went to 164th STREET, your next set of directions will almost certainly "click".

If you start off realizing that the student is new in town, find out their starting point, and know the tricky intersections where people usually make wrong turns, then your first set of directions will click.
posted by Courage is going from failure to failure at 11:57 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just remembered another one.

Never ask, "Did you understand that?" The person will likely either be Dunning Kruger'ed and NOT KNOW that they don't understand, or they will be too embarassed to admit that they aren't getting it.

Instead, say "tell me what the process is from the beginning." Then the person will tell you what they think is (supposed to be) going on. And you can spot the gaps in knowledge.
posted by bilabial at 3:39 PM on October 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

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