it’s not theory, it’s how to fish

I recently taught a workshop on using Microsoft Office, and my instruction was began with a conceptual understanding of how software applications like Word and PowerPoint work. Not everyone took to this; one of the workshop participants responded in a post-workshop survey that there needed to be less theory and more hands-on work. Actually, it wasn’t a theory at all; it was literally how the program works (hint: it’s not a glorified typewriter), and I connected that idea to the types of things that they might want to do with documents.

Originally, I was just going to pick a set of features to highlight and show them how to use it (which I still did to an extent), but everyone has different needs. How could I instruct in a way that would make this useful to a wide swath of audiences without biasing particular types of uses?

In the past, I would show someone how to use a specific feature, but given all the different configurations and updates every two years to a program like Microsoft Word, that “knowledge” easily became obsolete (remember when people had hissy fits about the addition of the Ribbon in 2007?). My students would eventually come back after an update and ask me how to get back to that same feature. After a while, it occurred to me that it’s more important that they understand its underlying principles (i.e. each or sets of “things” in Word as its own set of properties that can be customized to govern where it’s positioned and how it appears). Knowing how it works better equips and empowers people to solve problems and effectively use features.

Still, there was a minority who objected to my instructional approach (admittedly, there were times when I unintentionally moved too quickly through a demonstration). They wanted a step-by-step walk-through of functions; the only problem is that there is no right way to do things. There are many ways of doing things, and that flexibility is a blessing and a curse (which any regular user knows of software programs: “how did I do that, and how do I turn it off? or how do I repeat that?”).

But I can see why they demanded that sort of ordered instruction; it’s something solid to latch on and provides a clear path toward an outcome, which is their ultimate concern—just as if they were building a couch or assembling any other type of furniture. Except building a digital document is not the same as building furniture (and contrary to popular belief, I would not unnecessarily complicate building a couch).  What makes my documents beautiful isn’t that I’m following step-by-step instructions; it comes from a deeper understanding of the hownot just the superficial manipulation of visual icons. What allows me to use it like a master isn’t the memorization of steps, but internalizing the rules that govern its operation.

Some see my so-called theory of Microsoft Office as the abstraction, but in this case, it’s what they see that’s the abstraction.

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