January 6, 2008

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Teaching the attitude

J- was getting frustrated by the game of chess she was playing with her dad. She couldn’t see any good moves. Her pieces were all tangled up, and she didn’t know what to do.

It’s interesting watching another human being learn how to think strategically. She’s not quite there yet, as she has a hard time thinking of what her dad’s response would be. I remember being like that, and I remember the chess drills I did in order to learn how to see ahead.

So instead of writing the blog post that I meant to write today, I took some time to teach her. No, I didn’t coach her during the game. Instead, we wiped the board clean and I set out some pieces for one of the simplest drills, King and Rook vs King. I’d shown her this before. She’d successfully completed it with some coaching. It would be good for reinforcing the idea of thinking ahead.

She was moving the pieces somewhat randomly (although legally, of course). So I started counting to 50 moves, the limit on end-game
dilly-dallying in tournament play. When I was getting close to 50, she We reached a draw during the first drill. Then I showed her how she needed to decide which side of the board she would force my king to stay on, and how that rook could keep my king there, then drive it backwards once it had the support of her king.

We did another drill, with plenty of sound effects. “I’m going to get you!” I exclaimed as my solitary king pursued her rook, step by step.
She squealed and moved her rook to the other side. “Uh oh,” I said when my king had nowhere to go but in front of hers. “Noooo!”, I cried
as her rook forced mine against the board. She checkmated my king with a little prompting.

We went back and forth a few times before she caught on that she needed to sometimes “waste” a move. When she could checkmate my king with no prompting, I reinforced the idea (“Pick which side of the board you’re going to squish my king against, and focus on forcing my king back”) and replaced her rook with a queen. I showed her how a queen can checkmate faster than a rook. She checkmated me handily, and finished the session thrilled with what she could do.

Why am I telling this story? I think it hints at why and how I teach. A lot of what I’m doing right now can be considered teaching, even
though it looks different: my social media consulting with IBM, the book that I’m writing on Emacs… But I’m not teaching facts or
procedures. I care about shaping attitude and so that I can unlock potential. I talk to people about blogging and bookmarking because I
want to influence their attitude towards collaboration, and because I want to see what they’ll do (so that I can learn from them too!). I
talk about Emacs, but what’s important to me is the “if I can tweak this, what else can I do with it?” kind of feeling that will unlock
the rest of Emacs for other people.

So part of what I do is think of exercises or examples that will help people feel that intrinsic joy. For J and chess today, it was the feeling of purposeful movement and of knowing what she was doing. That’s what I hoped to teach her. How can I do this better?

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