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Moving online – the dark side of watching others.

April 18, 2020

I have been teaching people cosmetic science stuff for almost as long as I have been doing it myself, a good twenty plus years. While that seems weird now I say it, that I started off teaching even BEFORE I really knew how to explain the intricacies of what happens in a cream when this chemical meets that, it really isn’t weird at all.  Those of us who teach in the true sense of the word know that teaching isn’t really about what you know or what you say, it’s about what you can inspire others to DO.

It’s that knowledge that has led me to here.  A place where I’ve been a little stuck between wanting to do something to solve a problem that we currently have in the world and knowing that the easiest way to jump on and do that will probably be the worst way possible.  What I’m talking about here is online classes, the type of class where you sit back in the comfort of your own home, maybe even in your own time and just watch an expert (or at least someone you perceive to be an expert) at work with the view to having that knowledge permeate your body through the screen and infuse your cells with this new ability.  Easy, perfect, sweet and convenient.


When I’m in my lab I often listen to podcasts that I download from the inter webs.  One of my favourites is called ‘Hidden Brain’ where host Shankar Vedantam introduces his listeners to a wide variety of thought pinging topics, probing social issues, psychology, history, the human condition, society and everything in-between.  The podcasts official marketing spiel describes it as ‘using science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships’.  Perfect for listening to as my hands are busy mixing up potions.

As is often the case with life, you are presented with what you need at just the right time if you happen to be paying attention (and quietly seeking and looking in the right places I suspect) and this week was no different.  I ended up with podcast running through my ear balls:  ‘Close Enough: The Lure of Living Through Others‘.

If you do have time to give that a listen do as it is quite interesting. If not, the gist of it is that watching others, especially ‘experts’ was found in scientific studies to result in people feeling overconfident in their own abilities.  Basically you watch others build a shed from discarded pallets, you think you can do the same, you find some pallets and you then feel like smashing up the whole house when your pallet shed falls down, you end up in the emergency room and instead of costing you a few dollars, the whole project nearly cost you your life.   Turns out same thing happens with cosmetic science.  Everything looks easy on the internet,  things don’t often go wrong or if they do it’s a simple fix to get it back on track, the product doesn’t grow mould and everyone thinks its ‘the best thing they ever tried in their life’.  Only those of us that have laboratories and do this for a living know this to be bullshit and that’s my problem.

So, life in the Coronaverse means we can’t travel to courses any more. I was actually supposed to be running a course today, ironically this particular course has been postponed twice already because of scheduling issues and now, this third time is completely out of our hands.  Only maybe it isn’t, maybe I can just put it all online and voila, job done, everyone happy.

But I really don’t believe that…

Putting up a set of slides and recipes and narrating them before posting them online is one thing, actually taking the time to re-frame and organise that same content in a way that allows now isolated students to gain confidence and feel adequately supported so that they can  take what is taught and apply it in their own creative ways is another thing entirely.  I’ve been studying science teaching as a masters degree for a year now and can absolutely attest to the fact that it’s student’s (any age of student) misconceptions  that trip them up and if you can’t see them (because you as the teacher aren’t watching their faces as you teach), can’t anticipate them (as you’ve never sat with someone who is learning this stuff before) or can’t challenge them at that point where you spot a teachable moment then you are not teaching at all, you are just ‘chalk-and-talking’ which is more lecturing than teaching, the type of lecturing that trains students to expect knowledge to be injected into their brains by you, their guru, with minimum fuss and effort.  Not best practice, not at all.

But this week felt like crunch time. The customers kept shouting out for something, I really do want to do something, something good and meaningful and the business could really appreciate something too but the answer remains what? What do I do?

With that in mind I turn my attention to how I signed off a couple of help desk customer emails this week:

‘Remember, creative cosmetic science is only 20% thinking and 80% doing until you know you are in the right ball-park.

Then it’s 40% thinking (to refine your idea) and 60% doing – the polish.

Finally you get to the 80% thinking and 20% doing with your sanity checking, box ticking and scale-up prep’

and that’s when I got my answer.

I need to make sure my courses remain hands-on.

I need to keep my core modus operandi in mind – and that’s one of narrative teaching – I can’t leave that to chance and chance is what I’ll be leaning on if I don’t actively design the ‘big picture’ narrative into my online courses. Slides and data just aren’t enough.

Finally I have to maintain enough contact with my students that I can challenge them, wherever they are. So it feels like I’m with them and noticing them, feeling their questions bubbling inside them and inviting them to share them with me.  That is hard to do through a screen but not impossible, I’m good at this, I know I can do it.

So that, my friends is that.  I’m going to give online teaching a go but I’m going to do it my way and my way doesn’t involve you sitting back with popcorn while you watch me,  nope, in my classes I’ll be inspiring you and then I’ll be sitting back and watching you with my two beady eyes and my probing questions at the ready 🙂

Have you done any hands-on virtual classes? How did they go for you? What did you study and did you feel you learned anything?  I’m interested to know your experience as I’m not that good at online learning myself, I find it really plays havoc with my ADHD but that’s because of the way most of it is taught. But you are not me so maybe I’m alone in my struggles.

Anyway, watch this space and get your laboratory beakers and spatulas polished and ready because I’m coming to teach you a lesson hahahahahahahaha (and hopefully there will be no swearing in it 😉

Amanda x


2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2020 11:02 am

    Sign me up!

  2. Pamela Gardner permalink
    June 9, 2020 3:08 am

    Amanda, brilliant post as usual!

    I really like your sign off on the help desk customer emails and I think it sums up how the process of my learning has evolved over the decades.

    I took a Financial Accounting credit class at the local community college last year, and the instructor started the class with a comment similar to yours, but not quite as in depth. I think your elegant learning system summary applies to many areas of study and is a very important concept to internalize the subject at hand.


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