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Teaching Skills Teaching Skills > How to Teach > Theory of Learning Series > Part 7 Information Overwhelm
Summary: Beware of overteaching - Our minds can only take so much in at once

Information Overwhelm

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Lets look a bit closer at how we deal with information.

We talked in an earlier article about 'Contacting the Subject'. In terms of information processing this is perhaps best thought of as 'Confronting' the information pertaining to a subject.

We live in a world where we are almost constantly bombarded with information. Almost all this information is useless to us. To protect our minds from overload we set up filters that stop most of the information from penetrating further. It's as though our minds are set on 'Reject this information' by default.

When we deliberately set about studying a subject, however, we throw a switch to select: 'Inspect and evaluate this information'. But, the process of inspection and evaluation is not a simple one. So the mind will quickly protect itself against being fed more information than it can easily inspect and evaluate at one time.

Here is a classic example from real life teaching experience. To illustrate it I am using parenthesis (brackets) to show how the student is processing what the tutor is telling him:

Tutor: 'Welcome to your first guitar lesson'
(That's good - he's friendly and he knows this is my first lesson)

Tutor: 'Ok! Pick up your guitar'
(Great - this is what I've come here for)

Tutor: 'Right, before we start - let me tell you a bit about the instrument'
(Fair enough, that could be useful)

Tutor: 'Stringed instruments have been around for thousands of years...
(er .. not sure if i need to know this...)

Tutor: '...in fact there are no less than 4,768 references to them in the Bible Old Testament ...'
(oh no .. I've come to the wrong place..)

Tutor: '.... and over the years, they have been made from a variety of different materials such as gourds, tree trunks, cows intestines...'
(hope i get back home in time to watch 'The Simpsons..)

It's important to understand that it is not the 'Quality' of the information thats at fault here. Its more a question of 'pertinence to the student at a given time'. It's their first lesson - all they want to do is 'play the thing!'. Later on it may well be interesting to the student to learn a little more about the instrument's background.

When teaching, it is important to recognise the outward signs that tell you that your student has gone into 'Information Overwhelm' mode and that the switch has been tripped back to its default 'Reject this information' setting. These signs vary, but they will include: Yawning, fidgetting, looking out the window, eyes glazing over, slumping in chair, giving unconvincing automatic acknowledgements (..yeah..yeah..right...ok..yeah ).

The instant you notice any such manifestations you need to realise that you have triggered 'Information Overwhelm' in your student and there is then really only one way to get the lesson back on track: STOP EXPLAINING and START GETTING THE STUDENT TO DO SOMETHING.

So back to our real-life example:

Let's say that you are halfway through that very interesting quote about lyres and balalaikas from the book of Psalms when you can't help noticing that your student's eyes have glazed over and they're softly whistling the theme tune to 'The Simpsons' under their breath...

Tutor: Ok! So let's play our first chord
(hello, what? where am I? wassappening?)

Tutor: Okay press down that string with that finger there ..
(hey i'm having a guitar lesson)

Tutor: Ok, now that finger there ...and that one there. Now strum that with that hand..
(wow! I'm about to play guitar!!!)

Tutor: That's it, press a little harder.. now strum it again..that's called a G chord..
(cool! that sounds almost musical - wow this is fun.)

...and you're back on track.

Notice you are still giving information, but it is information that the student instantly evaluates as useful and will therefore do something with.

So beware of Information overwhelm - stay focussed and stay oriented to ACTION - not your action, but the students' - people learn most from DOING not from listening.

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Related Pages
.   How learning got a bad name for itself
.   Motivation Moves Mountains
.   Contact with the Subject
.   Mental Processing
.   Assimilating
.   Relative Importance
.   Information Retention
.   Making and Breaking habits
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