“Example isn’t another way to teach, it is the only way to teach,” is a quote credited to Einstein.
Inductive logic works with specific examples to lead to general theory – a form of reasoning that makes generalizations based on individual instances. However, if my curiosity is not aroused, why would I apply my reasoning?
Examples are representative cases for a concept or theme. We have to take a bunch of examples and identify commonalities in structure and behavior to understand the concept behind the topic we are learning. If the teacher and students do not get to this step, implicitly or explicitly, then the approach becomes counterproductive. Examples are taken as the themes and they harm rather than help. They diminish the spirit of inquiry and limit the scope of learning.
I use several everyday life examples to explain concepts in software design. While explaining adapter pattern to postgraduate students, I spent two fleeting minutes with an example of an adaptor to an electrical socket on the wall that would help using different kinds of plugs. Then I spent two hours explaining the software adapters with design diagrams and code. Answering a question in the final examination, a large number of students have drawn and explained a socket & plug adaptor – as a complete answer to software adapter. If the answer is taken out of context, none would guess it to be part of a course on software design. Now I wish that I could have given the dictionary meaning of the word as “a device that enables something to be used in a way different from that for which it was intended or makes different pieces of apparatus compatible” rather than giving a real-life example. The students would have found it easier to understand and remember the software examples than this definition.
We show a three-storey building to a child and explain that a multi-storey building has several floors connected by stairs and lifts. Later we ask the child to explain a multi-storey building. The first thing the child says is that it has 3 floors. We laugh out and explain again the concept of a multi-story building with a different example and more concepts.
The prescribed text book for the PG course explained layered architecture with an example of OSI model for network protocol with 7 layers. Several students answered that all the layered applications would have exactly 7 layers – neither more nor less. This is not different from a child assuming that all the multi-storey buildings would have 3 stories. But, this is not a laughing matter in a college.
Hasty generalisation is a logical fallacy. Discrete examples makes learning easier only if we reflect on the core attributes of the examples. If we do not dig a level deeper and remain at superficial level, the examples do not help.
“Start with a story” is another advice to the teachers. I am now cautious about telling stories in class rooms fearing that the message behind the story may be lost and it would be considered for entertainment only.
Cases are stories with messages – meaning of information in real-life situation. Many books evolve with case studies. For about a century, Business Schools have been emphasising on case study based learning resulting in popular case study based management books. Eliyahu Goldratt introduced his Theory of Constraints with a novel named “Goal” and developed the theory with a few more works of fiction. Harvard Business Review sells more copies for the excellent case studies.
However, case studies make the books thick and put a demand on the student to map the case to underlying concepts. Teachers and students spend most of the learning hours to understand the case and are left with very little time to get the underlying concepts. They are unable to understand the same concept told in another story unless explained again. They look for ducks because a book in Head Fist Series works around stories of ducks or they cannot think of a transaction model without an ATM.
I am uncomfortable with elaborate case studies, which takes 20 pages to arrive at a point that could be discussed in a page. Designing a good case study is an art. If the learner has to spend more time in understanding the context and the story, more effort is spent with the case and less with its theme. If the case is very simple, it cannot represent the context and solution well. The solution often appears to be overkill with a simplistic case.
If we learn slavishly, it is difficult to develop critical thinking which is necessary to understand case studies. If our learning system depends on cook-books, expected questions, sample answers, coaching for examination, and focus on scores, learning cannot be fun. How can a teacher be satisfied if the students don’t enjoy learning?
Sadly, students are seldom prepared. They have many things, most not related to studies, on their minds in college. They soon find that the teacher will cover the topic anyway. So they sit back, furiously take notes, and in a frenzy stuff in short-term memory for the exam. Who needs the knowledge after the examination? “Preparation for a class? What’s that? Get a life—there’s a party on. “
When opinion polls and survey results are almost unanimous about the gains of examples and case studies, what has gone wrong? I do not know where I have gone wrong that I do not find a match in my real-life cases.