What Can You Learn about Teaching from My Lack of Running Water?

Awareness requires a rupture with the world we take for granted…” ~Shoshana Zuboff

The compressor for our well guzzles oil like a camel that’s just crossed the Sahara. Down the hatch in one frantic gulp but with no impact on the thirst.

Compressor and oil bottles.   Put another way, we have water challenges at our farm, and it’s not just because of the drought in California. The pump is a cantankerous old hen, and it rarely coughs up the golden egg—that is, enough water for something as glorious as a shower.

There’s nothing like sponge baths for weeks on end to make you truly appreciate water that runs when you turn a tap.

WaterBuckets   We’ve become inventive about everything involving water, from washing dishes to washing hair to shaving to flushing toilets to watering the garden with the dishwater.

The other day, as I was trying to wash my hair from a pot of hot water (not easy, I can attest), I realized that until the past year, I had taken a shower nearly every day of my adult life.

I blithely assumed that I would get up in the morning, turn on the water, and be able to soap up without turning off the water for fear of running out while still covered with suds. And that I would be able to do this for the rest of my life.

I took running water for granted. There it is, my confession.

For years I had tried to be conservative with water, turning it off while brushing my teeth and doing other things we’re told to do to save water. (Except for my showers, of course.)

I knew that there was a drought in California and much of the world. But heck, I was on the East coast where water is as available as…well, rain. All that changed when I moved to the West.

My point here isn’t to make you feel guilty for however much water you use, or to make you feel virtuous for however much water you save.

My point is that getting used to something makes us less aware of it, in all its uses, subtleties, challenges, and integrations into our lives.

We all know mindfulness is important, yada yada, and we take even that for granted. But when we are teaching, mindfulness is essential—yet as hard to attain as it is essential.

For one thing, we often take for granted what we know about the subject. That is to say—we already know the subject, and we forget that our students don’t.

Depending on your subject area or how long it has been since you learned something, you might, for instance, take for granted such things as how you multiply, what happened in the Battle of Gettysburg, how to network, or why the Impressionists were rebels even though now they seem like a part of art history that always existed.

We forget that for our students there is always a moment when they hear the material for the first time.

Think about that.

Can you remember what it was like to not know what you know now?

For my part—while I’m confessing things—I hardly remember what it’s like to not know how to write, how to organize content, how to deliver in front of a camera. But I force myself whenever I teach these things to unpack them, break them down, find metaphors that help convey their challenging nature.

I’m always surprised at how much there is to unpack and how difficult it is to dig down to the very bottom of my knowledge, to the starting point. I can do it—but only if I bring my teaching to that beginning point, to the foundation, to the point at which I stop taking for granted what I already know.

Whether you are teaching 1 + 1 or astrophysics or how to make crème brulée, your students need you to be mindful of what it’s like to be clueless about what you’re learning.

Your students need you to don beginner’s mind and stop taking for granted all the things you already know. And to get creative about how to teach from the ground up, once you see what you’re actually building—not only the end point of knowledge attained, but all the steps in between.

When my son returned home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, he had been traveling for four days straight and out in the field for a solid month before that. His uniform was stiff with mud. He peeled out of his boots and padded upstairs in socks that were blackened and sweat-soaked.

Twenty minutes later I heard him shout from the bathroom. “Ma! You have hot running water! It’s AMAZING!”

That’s the reaction you want from your students when you connect them to the wellspring of your knowledge. All it takes is seeing with fresh eyes.

Please share this post on LinkedIn. And on Twitter! Thank you.

Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course. 

Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).

How to Make a Criticism Sandwich

If we had no faults we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.” ~François de La Rochefoucauld

When I was handed my first course to review for The Teaching Company, I got out my red pen and bled it dry.

What a mess that professor was, and I let him know it by rewriting, reorganizing, and reinventing every paragraph. I felt very impressed with myself for being so much smarter and such a better writer than this award-winning (ha!) professor.

criticismSandwich   Since it was my first course for the company, I handed my notes to the person training me.

She said something like, “You clearly have a strong background in editing. This professor won’t have time to make all these changes, so it will be more effective to tell him the 2 or 3 things that will have the biggest impact on how well this teaches, and delete the rest of your notes. I really appreciate how hard you worked on this.”

I just got handed my first criticism sandwich.

How to Get Comfortable in Front of a Video Camera—7 Tips

Anxiety is practicing failure in advance.” ~Seth Godin

No one believes me now, but when I was young, I was terribly shy. I hated to speak in front of other people. Much to my horror, when I was in 9th grade, I had to deliver the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from Julius Caesar to the rest of the class.

Face on camera monitor.   One day I was reading the speech and mumbling it to myself as I sat at the kitchen table. My mother overheard me and insisted on hearing the speech. I stumbled through it with my head down, barely whispering. It was embarrassing just to read it to her.

She insisted that I stand on the chair and deliver it aloud—truly aloud. I protested. I whined. I got up on the chair.

How to Make It Sticky: 6 Examples from The Great Courses

Sticky = understandable, memorable, and effective in changing thought or behavior.” ~Chip & Dan Heath

A dark-haired, emerald-eyed, voluptuous woman shimmies past you.

brightOrangeMinidress   She is wearing a bright orange mini-dress that barely reaches her hips, and a matching, fringed scarf wrapped once around her long neck. It drapes to her knees.

A man in a white, three-piece suit puts a record on a turntable you hadn’t noticed before. You hear the scratch of the needle and then the smooth opening notes of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. The man reaches for the woman, and they began to dance, hands touching but bodies apart.

You might think this is a scene from a nightclub. But no, this is a moment in a survey class on U.S. history, and the professor and his wife are demonstrating the concept of “cool” as it permeated American culture. It is a lesson the students present that day never forgot.

Why not? Because it surprised them and made an abstract idea concrete.

Does the Thumbnail for Your Video Make Anyone Want to Open It?

Never forget that you only have one opportunity to make a first impression—with investors, with customers, with PR, and with marketing.” ~Natalie Massenet

You know those pictures of you that you wish your “friends” had never posted on Facebook or Instagram? The ones when your mouth is open, you’re making a terrible face, or your hair looks like Godzilla was your stylist… Or in the case of the thumbnail here, I look like I’m savoring a piece of really good chocolate.

VideoBadOpen   Why is it that we will beg for those images to be removed ASAP, but we’ll post videos for our company, our online courses, or our lead magnets that show a thumbnail of us at our worst?

5 Things You Don’t Need When You Make an Online Course—and 5 Things You Do

If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Albert Einstein

For many years I believed that a Thanksgiving meal had to include not only an excess of food, but an excess of types of food. Not just one vegetable, but three or four. Not just one kind of potato, but two (and maybe a noodle dish as well). Not just one type of bread, but muffins and rolls as well. Not just one type of pie, but several.

Pies   Well, I still think you need at least three kinds of pie to make the meal truly outstanding, but otherwise, I keep it simple. Besides giving me more time with loved ones, keeping it simple allows me to bring out the best in each dish. I go for the highest quality rather than the most stuff.

I approach creating online courses the same way. You don’t need to throw in everything and gooey sweet potatoes too. You just need the best quality teaching, delivered passionately.

Use a Prewriting Checklist to Make Sure Your Organization Is Solid

Checklists seem able to defend anyone, even the experienced, against failure….”~Atul Gawande

Checklist Prewriting Organization   Who doesn’t love a list? Well, lots of people, but forget about them for a minute…and if you’re one of them, pretend for a minute that you like them. When you’re preparing to write—whether it’s a course, a book, a report, or what-have-you—the hardest work is what you do before you write. That’s the prewriting organization. It’s also the work with the biggest pay-off.

I’ve been talking about this topic for a couple of weeks, and I want to wrap up the series with a checklist.

Four Tips for Using Titles and Subtitles to Focus Your Writing

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written out your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” David Ogilvy

My titles tend to be a bit on the clunky side. Between wanting to be clever and wanting to get picked up by SEO engines, I usually flub around until my writing is due, and then I toss out something that fails at both goals.

titleBlog   Clever is not my strong suit. Sadly, search engines are not either. But organization is. Here are four tips for using titles to help organization be your strong suit, too.

Tip #1: Write your title before you start your first draft to help you clarify your core idea.

Build a Pyramid to Make Sure You Have Only One Main Idea

Every trail has its end, and every calamity brings its lesson.” James Fenimore Cooper 

When I was in grad school, I wrote a paper on James Fenimore Cooper. My original idea was to talk about the humor in his books. This was, admittedly, rather an obscure idea and one hard to defend. But I thought I could do it. I wrote my thesis statement and set about building my argument from his major works.

Deerslayer_Cooper   As I pulled my argument together, I began to see threads of another argument that I thought I could blend into the first to provide stronger support. Instead, I soon found the paper extending from seven pages to fourteen to twenty, and yet I couldn’t wrap it up. I brought it to a hasty conclusion in the wee hours of the due date, and it was still a mess. Why? Because I had two main ideas instead of one, and if you’re familiar with the meaning of the word main, you’ll realize that I had a conundrum on my hands.

When is a main idea not a main idea? When you’ve got two of them.

It was a Sisyphean task, and quite possibly the worst paper I’ve ever written. In the years hence I’ve worked with many a subject matter expert whose online courses also suffered from competing “main” ideas.

How to tease out the single, most compelling, core idea for an entire course, book, report, blog, etc. has to be one of the most difficult tasks we face when we write.

So let me be straight with you here. My one core idea for this blog is to teach you how to use a pyramid diagram to sort out your one main idea for whatever you write.

How to Use a Pyramid Diagram to Verify Your Main Idea

You can work your pyramid from the top block down or from the bottom row up. Either way, your goal is twofold. First, to make sure that everything beneath the top block supports it; second, that the top block is truly above (not equal to) any of the blocks supporting it. And that means, by default, that you can’t have two “top” blocks.

Okay, roll up your sleeves and let’s get started. We’ll use my rotten literature paper as our playground.

Starting from the Top of the Pyramid

Let’s start from the top, with the statement of core intent. Ask yourself:

  • What’s the subject of this writing project?
  • What question am I answering about the subject?
  • What’s the answer?

Answer the questions. In the case of James Fenimore Cooper, the answers could have looked like this:

  • What’s the subject of this writing?
    • The subject is Cooper’s novels. (You can see how that answer alone is way too broad to be manageable. That’s why we have to dig deeper.)
  • What question am I answering about the subject?
    • Does Cooper demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor, and if so, how and to what end?
  • What’s the answer?
    • Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters and situations, to…

And here is where it gets sticky. You’ve got to get that why into this statement, and it could be several things:

  • Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters and situations, to add color and humanity to his stories.
  • Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters and situations, to lighten up his otherwise heavy moral message.
  • Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters and situations, to help tag the nature of his characters.
  • Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters, and examining these character descriptions will help us appreciate Cooper’s writing style.

Notice that all the statements will require proof that Cooper has a sense of humor. The first three require proof that the sense of humor does specific work in the novels. The fourth one requires proof that Cooper’s writing style is better than we might think because of his sense of humor, and it narrows the focus to character descriptions—whereas the first three could also include narrative passages and descriptions of the setting. Note, too, that the second one will require developing a position on Cooper’s “heavy moral message.”

The point of all that noticing is that there’s stuff to talk about in all four, signaling that each one is “big” enough to work as the main idea.

PyramidDiagram   All four statements can sit at the top of a pyramid, and you could even combine them in a single statement that would likely need a much longer development. But once you settle on the main idea, the supporting blocks below must develop only that one proposition. You can’t go mucking about in Cooper’s heavy moral tone, for instance, if you’ve decided to focus on how humor helps humanize the characters.

Ask “Why” to Build Your Major Points

As you move to the first row of major points, you’re again asking, “Why?” For instance:

  • Why do you say that he has a sense of humor?
  • Why will examining his sense of humor help me appreciate Cooper’s writing?

And so forth. You fill in that second row with these questions, and if you’ve got sufficient material, you should be able to ask at least two or three major questions. If you find that you have more than three major questions, you need to consider whether your one main point needs to be narrowed or how long your content will need to be to address all your major questions.

A longer work, such as a book or a 60-lecture course, will obviously address more than a few major questions and have a broad enough core idea to develop through such length. On the other hand, if you find that you don’t have at least two major questions, you need to broaden your one main point.

Ask “How” and Answer “Because” to Build Your Subpoints

The next tiers, down to the bottom tiers, answer “how” your statement at the top and your major points come to be true. Put another way, you might start every lower tier with “Because…” Those statements would go in the blocks on each level, with more blocks in turn supporting them as you unpacked them.

Effective Structure Is Both Vertical and Horizontal

But the pyramid isn’t just vertical—representing the connections between points and subpoints. It’s also horizontal, representing the ways that the subpoints work together to hold up the larger points and the main point.

All the ideas below the main point at the very top will always have both a vertical and a horizontal relationship to the other ideas in the material. Any idea that doesn’t, either doesn’t belong or is in competition with the main point.

How to Test Your Main Point and Supporting Points

As you add your supporting tiers, then, you can continually test the efficacy of your main point and your supporting points (both points and subpoints) by checking them against one another. How do you do that? Ask questions such as these:

  • Does this point help explain “why” and “how” for the main point, or does this point bring in a different idea that is unrelated to the main point?
  • Does this subpoint help explain “how” for the point or bring in a new idea that is different than the point and steers away from the main point?
  • Does this subpoint say the same thing as another subpoint?
  • Is another main idea emerging? If so, what is it? Is it stronger (i.e., more supportable) than the main idea I have?
  • Thinking about this visually, are you building too far out in one direction or another to create a solid pyramid? If you throw your points on sticky notes and physically lay this out on a wall or table, you will see clearly how it’s developing and whether you need to make some changes.

Use Deductive or Inductive Reasoning to Build Your Pyramid

In the example above, we started from the top of the pyramid and worked our way down to build tiers of our points and subpoints. This is the route of deductive reasoning (start with a thesis statement and provide supportive facts and examples).

But we could have built our pyramid with inductive reasoning by starting with that bottom row, listing all our examples. Then we could have examined them to see what they led us to conclude; those conclusions would build the next row up, and so forth, until we got to one final conclusion. That final conclusion would be the block on top of the pyramid.

Whether you build your pyramid from the top down or bottom up (and likely you’ll go back and forth, deductively and inductively), paying attention to the overall shape as well as each level will help you verify that only one main idea is truly capping off the whole affair.

If you build your pyramid before you start writing, and then revise your main idea according to your findings, you will have a much easier time writing because everything you write will have already been verified as belonging to your structure.

In my paper on Cooper’s humor, I didn’t have a strong enough base to support my thesis, so I kept broadening the base to have enough to write about. I failed to recognize (in time, anyway), that I had two competing capstones and needed to rewrite the main point. The tiers of the pyramid revealed this to be the case, however, and if I had been drawing out my organizational structure, I probably would have ended up with something that looked more like a lopsided steamship with two big chimneys.

steamship   So get out your Lego blocks and build a structure around one main idea. That would be a pyramid, not a steamship.

Did you enjoy this post? Please share it! Share on LinkedIn. Share on Twitter.

Please send me your questions for future issues, and tune in next Friday for Issue #32 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” We’ll talk about the role of titles in developing an online course.

Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course: https://www.marcymcdonald.com/contact.html

Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).

Want to learn how to make online courses that teach outstanding content well? Sign up for your free copy of “12 Steps to Killer Course Content” and weekly tips, click here.

Recording Your Online Course without Losing Your Mind: What to Do When Things Go Wrong

I would like to see anyone, prophet, king or God, convince a thousand cats to do the same thing at the same time.” Neil Gaiman

Recording video—whether it’s for an online course or a simple promo—can be exhilarating. Or it can give you ulcers.

Cats crowded together.   Ideally, whether you are a crew of one or a crew of ten, you’re a practiced, smooth-running machine. More often, however, the recording session is akin to herding cats. Lots of random energy and too much thinking outside the box. The litter box.

Here are some of the things I’ve seen go awry in the studio and some ways to avoid or fix them. Doing a practice run will reveal most of them so you can solve them ahead of time.