Educational Paramedics

A colleague and I just wrapped up a couple of days of instructor training for RStudio staff, and one of the things I learned from participants’ questions is how little I still know about teaching outside a classroom of some kind. Many of them are in customer support roles where they teach in short, intensive bursts (typically 10 minutes to half an hour). Their audience may have very specific questions or may need general background information to build a better mental model of what their problem is and how to solve it. To complicate matters further, their audience will also often include a wide spread of abilities: it’s common to have novices, competent practitioners, and experts in the audience at the same time.

After a bit of back and forth, we came up with an analogy that we hope is useful. A classroom teacher is like a doctor who has time to take a patient history and to talk about diet, exercise, and other things that will only pay off in the long run. People in customer support roles are more like paramedics: they have to deal with whatever situation they find themselves in and their learners are often working under tight time constraints.

I don’t know what to teach someone in that situation about teaching. Cognitive load theory, formative assessment, and everything else I normally cover is probably useful, in the same way that what doctors are taught about physiology is probably useful to a paramedic, but I’m pretty sure that other things ought to take precedence—I just don’t know what. If anyone knows of literature on this kind of teaching, I’d be very grateful for pointers.

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