Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How much?

We're almost to the end of the semester. Soon it will be time for the evaluations again. I can't wait!

We did a couple of things a little differently this semester, so it will be interesting to see what, if anything, that changes in the reviews we get.

The main things I've been thinking about:

How much does someone need to know in order to be able to do the things they need to do?
How much intellectual understanding is necessary, and why?
How does the progression of the class change, depending on the goal of the class?
What level of precision is reasonable to expect in 12 weeks, and how is that affected by whether or not the student will be continuing?

The university PE classes have always been sort of the "odd man out" in our overall program. These people will almost all NOT be continuing students. They take one class, for a semester, get their credit, and move on. They aren't really dedicated to the sword, and most of them don't want to put in the effort such dedication would require. They want to pass the class, maybe. They want to be able to say they "fenced in college."

For the most part, that's fine. In the fire service, this class would be at the "awareness level." Learn enough about it that you can recognize it, know what it is, and know who to call for additional help, but no real training to deal directly with the situation. These students will have seen a little fencing, learned a little about it, tried it on for a day or two (like a level A hazmat suit) to see how it feels, but they aren't likely to ever need to use it.

We show them a lot of things, but don't expect much, if any, technical precision in any of it. Enough that they aren't an immediate danger to themselves or others, but not enough that they can perform any of the techniques at anything close to what they would need to defend themselves. We simply don't have the time to do that, nor do they have the interest, most of them, to sustain that level of training.

Our introductory class elsewhere has a slightly different purpose. It is designed to give the student enough exposure that they can decide whether or not this is something they are interested in enough to continue. It is also designed to support and be preparation for the continuing classes that follow it.

What this means is that we require a higher level of precision, right from the start. We introduce things more slowly, giving more time to work on each skill before moving to the next. If we didn't do that, we'd have people slogging through a bunch of uncoordinated movements, none of which would build towards the goal of learning to fence. We still need to have things move along relatively rapidly, in order to reach that goal of helping people decide whether this is for them. It is a different balance of information/precision than the PE classes.

Once a student finishes the introductory class, and chooses to continue, indicating that they have made a commitment to fencing, the continuing classes move at a MUCH slower pace than any of the introductory classes. NOW, we're trying to gain skill. This requires much repetition, and time to integrate each skill. There is no point to moving ahead more quickly, since the results would be counterproductive.

Back to the classes this past semester and my questions.

How much does a PE student need to understand, in order to do what they need to do?

That has to start with an agreement of what they need to be able to do, and the answer is... not much.

What I would like the class to be able to do:

1. Not hurt anyone.
2. Have some semblance of moving without undue distress, and without falling over.
3. Try a few things with the blade that suggest the skills of fencing.
4. Have fun doing it.
5. Gain an appreciation of what is involved in being able to do this at a high level of skill.

Some of these are easy to evaluate, others take some consideration.

The first one- not hurting anyone - is easy to evaluate.

The second one takes some decisions about what that means. At what level will I make corrections, and what will I "let slide"?

As we introduce each skill, we give a lot of feedback, both to the group as a whole (because they all make similar mistakes) and to each student (to point out to them specific things they need to focus on). We describe and demonstrate each skill, facilitate practicing it, and keep reminding them of the details. Most students, after some practice, will begin to incorporate the skill, and begin to self-correct. But not all of them. Some will, even at the end of the semester, still make fundamental errors, things we have pointed out and corrected over and over and over, either unwilling or unable to make any changes.

In the PE classes, as long as they aren't dangerous, we don't care. We don't have the time to continue to give individual corrections to someone who is not invested enough to make changes. At that point, people who are making an effort- and that is easy to see- will continue to get as much individual feedback as we can provide. Those who are phoning it in can do whatever they do, as long as it's not a safety issue. They will get reminders, but they will be broad concepts, not specific details, since they can't process any details for skills they aren't even beginning to do.

In the other intro classes, we continue to try to give a lot of feedback, to a point. Some students will clearly not be making an effort- but they also usually stop showing up to class. In these classes, they aren't concerned about a grade, so if they decide they aren't interested, they just quit. Anyone who still shows up is making at least that much effort, and almost all of the time, will be making improvement in each class. Those who are not- and there are usually one or two- are probably there because their parents make them go. We'll give them some reminders in each class, but if they don't respond, then they just don't.

Once we are past the intro level classes, we give individualized feedback for all students, as much as we can, with the expectation that they will focus on the feedback and make corrections.

When I was a student, rather than teaching, I was hugely impressed by the Master's skill at being able to give individual feedback to every student, at exactly the level they needed in order to work on exactly what they needed to work on. Turns out that although it certainly takes effort and energy, it isn't hard to do, with a body of knowledge that has a clear progression of skills.

The third class goal- trying a few things. That's simple. We do that.
And the fourth, have some fun, that's pretty clear, too.

But the fifth one... gaining an appreciation of what is involved. I'm not sure we ever really meet that goal. Some appreciation, sure. Real appreciation- I don't think it's possible at this level because there is no frame of reference. I need to think about that one some.

This semester, one of the things we did differently has to do with how much theoretical knowledge we presented in the PE classes. We skipped some stuff we have introduced in all the previous semesters, information that is critical to understand if you really want to learn to fence. It was an experiment. It felt... awkward. Odd. Incomplete. But that is probably because I have ALWAYS had that included, whether in a class I've taken, or one I've taught. Force of habit, or of expectations. My question became whether the CLASS missed that material, or if only I did.

The answer surprised me somewhat.

Looking at their level of understanding, compared to previous years, they clearly understand way less. We didn't teach it to them.

But looking at their level of physical performance... it was the same, and in some cases, slightly better. Granted, "slightly better" is probably a score of 5% rather than 4%. They don't have any real skill to speak of, so there is not a lot to compare. The important thing is that their skill level was NOT worse. This suggests- but does not prove- that the information we omitted was not necessary at this level.

I suspect that their level of enjoyment of the class is unchanged. They can't miss what they don't know exists. I will be interested to see if we get any clues from the evaluations about the overall level of enjoyment of the class, compared to previous semesters.

It might be worth continuing this experiment. Do they actually enjoy the class more, and feel like they have gotten more out of it, if we don't clutter their brains with too much theory? Do they WANT to understand more (quite possible), but need to understand less? Is it more important for them to experience the scientific nature of the way everything works together, theoretically, or is it more important that they make some broad movement attempts, and feel how that feels?

They answer, of course, is yes. Or no. Or it depends. All of the above, and none of it.

It's ALL important, and necessary, for someone who wants to be able to fence at a high level of skill- and why would anyone want to do it any other way?

But it is, perhaps, not all important for a PE class.

I need a larger sample size to begin to evaluate this.
And I need to get past my own biases and preferences and intellectual overattachments, too.

I mean, really. Look at this overly long vomitosis of wordiness. I overanalyze everything.

Maybe, just maybe, NONE of the theory, none of the explanation, is really important, in the grand scheme of things.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What's Your Number?

A week or two ago, I wrote a short article for our local newsletter thing, about having house number signs that are readable from the road, at night. It started out:

Imagine this.
It's 3:30am.
You're woken by the loud beeping from your pager,
and a voice in the night telling you that there is an emergency.

It went on to weave a tale of being unable to find the number, having to slow down, trying to avoid missing the number and having to find a place to turn around. In the story, the person stopped breathing before anyone could find the house.

This morning, the pager went off at 4:30.
I jumped out of bed, grabbed my watch, hopped into my clothes and shoes and headed out the door.

As we drive down the road, I, as the passenger, was looking for house numbers. I knew approximately where the house would be, but not exactly.

I saw number 1537.
The next readable number was 1395.

The house we were looking for was 1401.

We missed it. Had to find a place to turn around.

Fortunately, our outcome was better than in my original story. The patient turned out okay.

But it so easily could have been otherwise.

We drove back by that stretch of road this morning. I wanted to see what the numbers were, what I had missed, if I should have seen one that I didn't. The answer is that no, I didn't miss anything. In that stretch of road, there are no readable house numbers. Lots of houses with black mailboxes- some, but not all, across the road from the driveways- with tiny numbers, or no numbers at all.

We only get one chance to see the number. We can look at a mailbox, at the house, or at a sign at the end of the driveway, but we don't get to look at more than one place. If what we look at doesn't have it, we're on to the next house. Sometimes, it's hard to even see the house, if you can see it at all.

This is an old, old story in emergency services, the need for visible, readable house numbers. Some places require people to have their numbers painted on the curb, and repainted each year. I think that's a great idea. But out here, there aren't curbs. Some places, the houses are pretty close together, and the streets are well lit. Out here, there are long stretches of dirt roads with no lighting at all. And the distance between houses varies widely, from feet to miles. Likewise, the numbers are not a predictable amount apart- and sometimes, aren't even in order! One road near my house, the numbers go 548, 592, 560, 602. Fortunately, I drive by there several times a day most days, so I know about it.

My point in mentioning it is not only to encourage people to put large, reflective, white-on-dark number signs at the end of their driveways (not across the street on the mailbox!!), although I would be pleased if everyone did that.

It's to question why it is, how it can be possible, that so many houses do NOT have numbers that can be read from a vehicle driving down the road.

There are a few varieties. Let's look at each one.

1. Numbers on mailbox, but too small to see. I think these people assume the numbers are there for the postal service. The thing is, the mail truck stops at every house most days, so it is easy for them to see the small numbers, from a stopped position right by the mailbox. And they know what the next number will be, because it's printed on the mail they are delivering. So small numbers are no big deal.

2. Numbers on the end of the mailbox, not on the sides. Likewise, great for the mailman, not possible to see from a distance.

3. Sign, but across the road from the house. Better. And it's convenient to put it on the mailbox post. But sometimes, it's not as clear as you might think what house that mailbox goes with, especially if there are several next to each other. Plus, it is usually the passenger who is looking for numbers, not the driver, and that puts the number on the far side of the road, more difficult to see. It also causes swivel-head, trying to figure out where the mailbox is, which side to look at.

4. Number on the house, big as day. Great, for confirming that indeed, this is the house that goes with that number. Or for when you are visiting a friend, and have directions to the house, but need to be sure it is the right one. Easy to see- once you have driven into the driveway. Trouble is, we won't be driving in that driveway before we know the number. So we won't see it.

5. Number sign, at the end of the driveway, but parallel to the road, rather than perpendicular. Again, good for confirmation, but not possible to see while driving. Some of these I've seen are on lovely decorative posts. Nice to look at maybe, but not helpful.

6. Number obstructed by something. Often by the mailbox flag, or the newspaper tube. Yes, it's easy for YOU to see that number, because you already know what it is. Not so easy for us.

The question remains, why do people do these things? Why is it that they sometimes put considerable effort into how they mark their houses, but choose to do things that aren't appropriate?

I think most of these people believe they have done an adequate job. After all, THEY know what the number is, and where it is, and they see it every time they drive in their driveway. It works fine for the mail delivery, and for friends coming over, so what's the problem? No one else has any trouble finding their house. The FedEx guy hasn't ever complained.

I think the problem is one of perspective.
Coming from the perspective of already knowing the number, any of those variations are easy to see.
But from the perspective of in the dark, in an emergency, trying to find which house is the right one, none of them work well at all.

Most people don't ever HAVE that emergency perspective, and happily so.

Most people, when they need to find a house number, slow down and look. I'm sure most people have been behind a driver doing just that, more than once. You can tell exactly what they are doing. From that perspective, as long as there IS a number, somewhere, it all works out fine.

The important thing that this all illustrates is how easy it is for people to have different perspectives, sometimes dramatically so. How one person can believe that something has been done, and done well, and another can see it as entirely useless.

And I'm not only talking about house number signs.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Six Degrees?

One of the reasons I wanted to be an EMT is so that I can be there for people in my community, ready and able to help them at a moment's notice. I want to be a familiar face in times of trouble, so that it won't always feel like a sudden houseful of strangers.

I didn't realize just HOW familiar things would end up. Or how very small the world is around here.

A couple of weeks ago, we responded to a major trauma; a pick-up truck rollover with one person trapped and the other ejected.

Turns out that one of the first drivers to come upon the scene and stop was a woman whose niece is the girlfriend of one of the patients. Another one of the first people to stop was a firefighter from a neighboring town, who happens to also be an ER doc down the road a ways- who knows the patients.

I found out the next day that one of the members of our department goes to church with the grandmother of my patient.
And another member of the department told me that he is her ex-husband's cousin.
And just last night, discovered from a woman who assisted in my EMT class last summer, that my patient is the father of a good friend of her son's.

A couple of days ago, I had a repairman here fixing my water pump, who suggested I might know his father-in-law. And indeed, I do. He's one of my favorites of the fine older folks in town we see from time to time.

Met a guy at an incident last week who was good friends with the father of a guy I dated in high school.
Met a FF/EMT yesterday (out here assisting in a search) who went to high school with my sister.

I've had my father as a patient. Taken care of both parents of a friend of my daughter's. Seen numerous parents of people I've gone to school with. I've lost count.

And even people I don't know, there are connections. We had a patient last week who didn't make it, and the announcement at her college was made by... the husband of my best friend from junior high. The same former best friend whose son took his firefighter 1 class with my son.

The concept of "six degrees of separation" has become popular in the past several years.

Around here, if you get TWO degrees of separation, it's unusual. And I doubt anyone makes it to three. Everybody knows everybody, or knows someone who does.

I think it adds to both the stress, and the satisfaction, of the job. It feels great to help out folks you know, or whom folks you know, know. And it feels crappy not to be able to help them. Two sides of the same coin. Add to that the feeling that once we meet them, EVERY patient becomes "someone we know." No anonymous EMS out here.

There's an EMS book out there, by Michael Perry, called Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. No kidding.

It gives a whole new feel to the landscape, as we drive past place after place where we've been. A litany develops. That's the house where the woman fell, then the one where we had the stroke patient, and then that really sweet guy who died last year, remember him? And there was the alarm activation that really was an alarm doing its job, saving the people and the house. And the house where the single Mom was home alone with her baby and got really sick and we needed to help find emergency childcare, and that house is so-and-so's Mom. And this is the one where we couldn't get the patient to hang up her cellphone. It goes on and on. Accidents, fires, sickness, injuries, and the occasional baby, all paint a very intimate picture of a place.

Maybe I'll post more from that little book I found last year, the history of one of the local fire departments. Turns out, especially in a small town, that the history of a place IS the history of the fire department. That's who witnesses all the major events, the major changes, along with a long string of more personal events. And those are the people who end up knowing nearly everybody.