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Tricks for teaching technical topics

Do you need tricks for teaching technical topics?

I’ve spent a lot of my life teaching different topics. In high school, I was a french tutor. In university, I was teaching music. Now I teach a lot of technical topics mostly around TouchDesigner, which is such a varied piece of software that it involves explaining everything from procedural 3D modelling to Python coding to audio analysis. There are strategies I’ve learned over the years that I find really help when teaching technical topics. They can keep your audience engaged, attentive, and on track to have a pleasant experience. Here’s three tips I recommend for everyone teaching technical topics.

Practice your session

I know I give a lot of “duh” advice, but there’s a reason I do. Have you ever been to a workshop that went way over time or that finished really early and the teacher was trying to find a way to either skip a bunch of material or make up a bunch to fill remaining time? This is almost always because the teacher made a plan of what they are going t teach but didn’t do a live practice session. Without doing the run through even for yourself, you can’t begin to know what pace you need to teach out, how much time you have to roam around and help people that fall behind, or if you have enough/too much content. Now I’m guilty of this even to this day, when I’m teaching workshops during busy projects, it can be hard to carve out the time to do a few hours of running through your workshop out loud. The times I do, I’m always thankful I did, and the times I don’t I’m usually a little under content or have a bit too much content. I put this first because it’s easy, everyone should do it, and it greatly increases the quality of your teaching.

Make visual diagrams

Diagrams can make complex topics easier to follow and understand. In most cases, diagrams are used to break down a specific topic or workflow into bite-sized chunks. I’ll start by saying, you should try to include diagrams when you can. If they’re easy to digest, they will help keep your group of students on pace and retaining information. But this point is about a specific visual diagram that is very useful for teaching technical topics: a topic/workflow map. We’re all familiar with visual diagrams like this:

teaching technical topics
diagram with 3d and arrows and planes and stuff

These can be helpful when explaining a specific topic or thing, but what most people have trouble with is breaking down complex topics into manageable steps they need to perform to get from beginning to end. I’ve had a lot of success creating slides and breakdowns like this one and referring to them often through the course of a presentation:

teaching technical topics

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If you just say “let’s use a Leap Motion and Twitter API to build some generative word clouds” to a room full of students, many would not know where to begin or even how to approach getting through it all. To them, this project we’re working on is like trying to hike a mountain trail without a path, you’re kind of just walking on the giant rock hoping you don’t hit a dead end or worse. What a simple slide like this does is give them a path to walk on. When teaching technical topics, students may or may not know how to achieve all the steps on their own, but they now have a general path to follow through the workshop. I have a slide like this in a lot of talks and I refer back to it regularly.

There are many benefits I’ve noticed like:

  1. Less random questions that I would answer with “yes just hold on a few minutes, we’re coming up to that next!”
  2. More consistent pace for students, since their minds wander less when there’s a relatively built up path
  3. It allows stronger students to work ahead in the right direction and then they can help support their neighbours. Without a map like this, stronger students ends up doing random stuff until they’re bored.
  4. Gives the teacher nice checkpoints for taking small breaks/fielding questions

Don’t say “um”

This is a habitual thing of people teaching technical topics. Most people don’t even realize they’re saying “um” between words or whenever they need a moment, they just fill the uncomfortable silence with some sound until they’re ready to continue. When you stop saying “um”, you’ll immediately sound much more prepared, even if you aren’t! The trick I found to getting around saying “um” is to just replace the habit of filling spaces with sound with a new habit of taking a breath when you need to fill space. It might feel weird at first because you’ll be taking breaths in the middle of sentences and you will probably feel a bit like William Shatner, but stick with it, and you’ll find you’ll soon have replaced “um” with taking a breath. Then over time you’ll just become comfortable with silences and won’t really need to do anything at all.

Wrap up

These three things should be fairly easy to do, they don’t require a complete re-engineering of your curriculum or materials. If you’re able to get them into your teaching, you’ll feel the difference immediately and wonder how you ever did without these things. The “um” trick will take longer, but making a quick topic map slide or practicing your session are two things you can start doing right now.