How We Learn and Why We Resist It

4 05 2010

When I first started teaching at USC’s film school some eight years ago a much much wiser person than me told me that there were several things I needed to know in order to teach well.

First, not everybody’s learning curve is the same so you can’t teach  a concept only once. In other words, since everybody is going to learn at different times, you’ve got to structure your teaching so the same thing is taught in several places in several ways because you never know when a student’s teachable moment will be. To most effectively teach many people you need to structure your teaching so you’re teaching concepts from many different perspectives at many different times.

Allied with this is the fact that most people (and this applies particularly to teaching artistic concepts) really learn something only when they need to learn it. It’s why I’ve always believed in project based learning. I can talk about pre-lapped audio all I want, and I can show you examples of it until the cows come home. But most of us aren’t going to really learn it until we need to do it in our own editing in order to push the energy at a cut. I don’t know about you, but I rarely read manuals until after I’ve started playing with a piece of software. Most of my students don’t want to learn how to change the opacity of an effect until they realize that they don’t like the effect that they’ve just created and need to change it. If it can get better with a tweak to the opacity then they will really remember that setting forever. If they don’t need to tweak the opacity, all I can do is bore them with instructions.

The second thing I was told (and this goes with the first points I think), is that you need to tell your audience what they’re going to learn before you teach it, let them know what they’re learning while you’re teaching it, and remind them what they’ve learned after you’ve taught it. It’s reassuring to the learner to understand that there is a new concept being taught and that they’ve learned it. It also gives them three chances to figure out how this new concept works for them.

Third, all teaching is really about entertainment. Most people don’t learn things just because you tell them they need to, any more than they’re going to like swallowing medicine that’s good for them. They have to be involved in the process, and that often happens when they’re entertained in that process. Mary Poppins said it (or sung it, to be precise): “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

I was thinking about these thoughts as I began playing with the latest version of Avid Media Composer — 5.0. It’s not available to everyone right now, but there are a few advantages to running the editing track here at USC, and seeing some software in early stages is one of them.  You’ll all get to play with it soon enough, and you can certainly see enough videos about the new features (there’s one on the Avid web site, and another from a German media site) but one of the most interesting points about the new version is that it changes some of the interface, partially in an attempt to make it more Final Cut Pro-like in that it allows for more direct manipulation of the tools right within the timeline without jumping into various modes.

Naturally, there are editors who are already not liking it.

If you ask me, a large part of the eternally stupid debate between FCP and MC users boils down to what we are most comfortable with. And that boils down to what we learned on. I remember when NLEs first started coming onto the market there was a great hue and cry among editors about how giving up 35mm or 16mm film editing was going to make for sloppier editing. Sitting here in 2010, I don’t know of any editors who still edit exclusively on film. As for me, I’d leave the country before going back to the days when we spent more time hunting for tiny two-frame trims hidden in the bottom of our shoes than we did working our films with those trimlets.

Editing on the Lightworks

My first NLE experience was on the Lightworks, a great tool that had the advantage of feeling more like a flatbed film editing machine than the Avid did at that time. It had a timeline in which I could open and close splices (there was no editing on the Avid timeline at that point). It was so much better than editing on film (even with its horrible screen resolution and limited storage space) that I was immediately won over.

Many of my editor friends were not. They weren’t willing to sacrifice 35mm projection quality (even though they generally looked at the film on the tiny screens of their upright Moviolas) for the ease of making splices. They didn’t need to see a dissolve in order to know what it would feel like. And they were right, up to a point.

That point came a few years later, when they all had to move over to digital editing.

For me, I had made that move a few years earlier on the Lightworks and then learned the Ediflex and Montage editing platforms. And when I was told that I had to learn the Avid Film Composer (back then there were two versions of Avid — one for 30fps and another for 24fps) for a new job, I tried my best to learn it.  But it wasn’t easy.  I was just so invested in the Lightworks interface — including the silly little red shark that we’d use to trash items (check it out on the left).

Of course, I eventually did make the move, and added Final Cut into my arsenal several years later (I still know nothing about Premiere, but that’s more my old brain refusing to hold onto a third set of keyboard commands). But it taught me that, despite our best intentions, our brain tends to gravitate to things that are what we already know. Many of us refuse to learn something new just because we’re told it’s good for us. It’s only when our producers or directors tell us — “Hey, you’re going to be doing the color correction on this show” that we open up Color, or the 3-way color correction tools in our NLEs and really try to learn them.

Avid knew about this when they started to change the interface for 5.0. They knew damn well that editors who were totally invested in the way the trim tool had worked in MC for the last ten years were not going to be happy adapting to a new paradigm (or, to be precise, to the choice of the new paradigm). When they floated a few of these ideas to a small group of editors a year ago, you would have thought that they had announced that they were taking our children out to a field and auctioning them off. I was recently talking to another editor about some of the changes (he has not had a chance to see or play with them, so the conversation was theoretical) and he wondered whether it was a good idea for Avid to be catering to the “easy edit” crowd.

But that misses the point entirely. The question for me is “what holds us back from jumping in and learning new things?” If our kids didn’t learn anything new in a year at school we’d be really pissed off.  Why is it okay for us to stop learning once we get really good at something? The world is littered with people who were really really good at things until the world no longer needed that thing. Now they’re flipping burgers.

But the reality is that, as human beings, most of us are not about to learn something new unless 1) we really have to, or 2) we really want to.

So, what does this mean for all of the editors, cinematographers and filmmakers of the world, as well as for the manufacturers of the equipment that we use? It means that as we move into new processes, these technologies have to make it easier or more fun to work. The “teachable moments” of how to work with stereoscopic technology, or “performance capture” or new file-based camera and editing technologies, for instance, will have to be accessible and frequent. They will have to be entertaining and delivered in a way that we understand. This means that Avid and Apple and Adobe will need, as a small part of their cost of doing business, to create well-made video and interactive tutorials, instead of hundreds of pages of written manuals. Ever try and wade through Sony’s manuals for their EX-1 and EX-3?  Don’t bother. Go to Alistair Chapman’s videos instead. Want to meander through Apple’s Final Cut Studio manuals? Yeah, neither do I.  Instead, sign up for some of macProVideo’s video tutorials (some of which you can get streamed or downloaded to your iPhone, using their N.E.D.i app) or check out some of the great tutorials at Ripple Training (some good, though outdated free tutorials are available here), or Larry Jordan’s site, among numerous others.

It also means that you and I can’t be comfortable anymore. We can’t learn something, even if it’s the cool new Media Composer AMA feature (and it is cool to be able to instantaneously work with Red, P2 or Quicktime files), and then sit back and collect our salaries. Nope, in order to keep earning our salaries we’re going to have to learn color correction, and visual effects manipulation, and how to use the RTAS audio plug-ins, and how to do good compression, and how to work colalboratively long-distance.

Once we learn how to do those things, then we still can’t sit back and collect salaries. We’ll have to learn more.

The only way we can do that is if it feeds our curiosity. We can’t see this learning as medicine that we need to swallow, or classes that we have to take. We have to be open to learning new things simply because it’s cool. And the people giving us this new technology will have to figure out how to provide those teachable moments, so we can continue to be interested.



3 responses to “How We Learn and Why We Resist It”

14 05 2010
RobShaver (18:46:48) :

In your first five paragraphs I’ve never heard a better summary of how I learn and what motivates me to learn. That’s why I was so surprised to read what I think is a direct contradiction to the beginning of the article four paragraphs from the end.

As a thirty year veteran of electronics and software design, I’ve had to learn something new just about every day. In the last seven to ten years I’ve been learning video production and post production. I’ve tried tutorials in books and video but they always have contrived projects or at least projects that are of no interest to me.

Not to mention they are often poorly structured. My biggest peeve is when they start without telling me what the end product is for this lesson. I’ve often skipped to the end so I have some idea where we’re going.

So I’ve learned, as you said, to learn through plunging into my own projects right from the start. When I get stuck I grab the manual, turn to the index and try to find the exact thing I’m looking for. I can’t do that with a video, at least the way they’re produced now. Tutorials aren’t much better.

Also, I do often skim the manuals of new hardware and software right out of the box. I look at the table of contents. I flip through the pages looking at what features are there but skipping the details of how to use them.

Later, when I’m working … say editing a video in FCP … and decide I want to try something different, I think to myself, “didn’t I see something in the manual that would let me do that?”. Then I grab the manual, or open it on the screen, and spend ten minutes finding it … or not.

Give me a good manual with a great index any day over a video or tutorial book.

Now if the video had a transcript so I could search it, that would be a different story. I’ve looked into transcription services and this seems like a viable option. One service is as low as $1 per minute.

In fact I think it would be a great service if podcasts were published both as audio and (searchable) text. Video podcasts the same thing except still pictures added when needed.

This is just my experience. I’ve taught a few classes and found that teaching well is a hard job and requires lots of prep.

To add to your thought, not everybody’s learning curve is the same), Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) says we perceive the world in three modes: auditory, visually and kinesthetically. It further says that we learn predominantly in one of these modes. To reach all students then the material must be presented in all three of these modes. If you’re interested further, I found these web site enlightening.

I love reading your blog. Keep up the great work.



17 05 2010
Ron D. (08:17:45) :

Great thoughts as always. Thanks, Norm!

17 05 2010
Dustin (15:30:15) :

As someone who teaches/facilitates/etc for a living, I could not agree more! Excellent observations and very true. Thanks for this!


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