Make It A How-To!

A lesson on how to do something is inherently more engaging than a lesson on what something is. For an instructor, it is “easier” — to use the term loosely — to teach “how to” than to explain “this is what it’s all about.”

It’s the difference between practice (generally interesting) and theory (generally boring). How do you make theory interesting? 

One way is to start off the other way round: Pose a problem, ask how it can be solved, and then bring in the theory.

But first, a digression. Think about the difference between learning a foreign language and, say, learning physics: 

  • It’s easier to learn a foreign language (say Spanish) by oneself — even formally — than to do the same with physics. Regardless of whether it’s online, from a book, or from a friend, Spanish self-learning is easier than physics self-learning.
  • In a classroom setting, the Spanish instructor knows both sides of the story, literally. The physics professor might find it hard to gauge students’ levels of comprehension, what topics need to be emphasised, and so on. 
  • The Spanish teacher is a role model: He/she actually speaks the language! In comparison, students can relate less to the physics teacher’s knowledge.

There are other important differences, but all of them point to this: Learning a language means learning a skill — how to speak and read in Spanish. Learning physics means learning things — laws, equations, mechanisms. You could say it this way: You learn how to speak and write Spanish, but you learn what the theory and equations of physics are. That difference is, in my opinion, very significant for learner motivation and attitude.

A mathematics teacher in my school would begin a class by writing out a complex problem on the blackboard, like this one:

What is the tangential acceleration of a body at a height when the centrifugal force equals the gravitational pull?

We wouldn’t have a clue how to go about it, but that was the professor’s idea. Using a real-life example, he'd explain what needed to be calculated, and then he'd state that it could be solved using a certain theory. That's what got us going at the start of each lesson.

When it’s difficult to hold learner interest in theoretical details, it might be useful to introduce the hands-on approach. Begin with a problem, throw open the (impossible) challenge, introduce the theory — and work back to the details. When you put out the “how-to,” you’re pulling in interest.