Amateurs and Experts

Responding here to Christian who found some elitism in my objections to Vid Snacks’ banner headline:

The killer intersection, however, lies in whether or not any proponent of any given medium/technology is seeking the same end-game as ‘you’. If our collective goal is to simply maintain an expert-driven culture and educational system, then it would certainly behoove all of us to minimize the very existence of any ‘amateur’ from the discussion. If, on the other hand, we perceive that there is some value (you pick your scale and relative measuring tool) in the ‘process’ of discovery, then we are obligated by the sheer democratic nature of the Net to soften our need for expertise as the sole ticket to the show.

Christian, this could get even more interesting but you’ve gotta do me a favor and take these as sincere:

  • I’m not an expert designer.
  • I’m not even a professional non-expert designer. I don’t get paid for design work.
  • I am, under every definition of the word, an amateur designer.
  • I really really love that tools exist so that adults and kids can create videos and photos ad infinitum with zero marginal cost.

Disagree with me on those terms and not on this mistaken presumption that my fellow gray-bearded experts and I are concerned we’re gonna have more competitors on our turf if amateur communities like Vid Snacks proliferate.

What concerns me is clarity.

My “end-game” is a world where people across ages and cultures communicate with each other better, more clearly, a world where people can express complicated ideas with a maximum of clarity and art.

So what bums me out about this cult(ure) of the amateur (of which I am a member), is that there are methods tried and true, dating back centuries, dating back to the golden ratio and before, methods for simplifying the complicated, for clarifying the unclear and, by and large, they’re ignored in this culture. With limited exception, I don’t think people in these insular communities (like Vid Snacks, for example) care.

The relevant conversations I see in my aggregator are of two varieties:

  1. check out this new tool.
  2. check out what cool thing this other amateur in my learning network has created using this tool.

Those are both great but the one conversation I rarely see (so rarely it’s tempting to use the word “never”) is:

  1. check out what this person outside my learning network has made with the tools I’m using. it is so much clearer than anything I’ve tried to make. how has she done this?

I don’t know if that person is one of your “experts” but I know there are people (web design: Khoi Vinh; presentation: Garr Reynolds; motion graphics: Andrew Kramer; photography: David Hobby; screenwriting: John August) who can speak so clearly in these 21st-century languages, people (experts? beats me.) who make their tools and methods freely and quickly available from their websites and weblogs.

Where I split from my crowd of amateurs is I can’t find enough hours in the day to consume their work. I can’t stop deconstructing how they’ve made [complicated thesis x] so very clear. I feel like a schmuck taking Tim to task back there for his run-on sentence of an introductory video but its very existence perplexes me here on an Internet which daily – from Ze Frank on down to LonelyGirl – has modeled great, clear, edited video.

But when amateurs create content for amateurs, that sort of oversight is an acceptable part of the conversation.

Which is fine to an extent – I mean, everyone just seems so happy creating and posting their videos in that community; who am I to interfere? – but eventually one of these amateurs or, more tragically, one of their students will want to express something beautiful, messy, and complicated through video (let’s say) to an audience larger than and outside of Ning. They’ll want to express it with clarity but it’ll be impossible.

They’ll be able to explain simple concepts to large audiences.

They’ll be able to explain complicated concepts to small audiences.

But if they and their teachers aren’t immersing themselves constantly in better, clearer work than their own (made by experts? doesn’t matter. it’s just clearer) work which for the first time in history is available freely and quickly, how in that vacuum can they rise to any greater occasion?

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Dan — Your sincerity has NEVER been in contention. To points 1-4 above (re: tools, design, amateur, et al), there is NO doubt that you are both a constant learner and an unapologetically rigorous seeker of knowledge with the expressed goal of ever-improving your design sensibilities, techniques, and outcomes. On both fronts, my head dips forward out of respect and admiration.

    As for your respectful request that I (or anyone) not disagree with you “on this mistaken presumption that my fellow gray-bearded experts and I are concerned we’re gonna have more competitors on our turf”, I can only say that there is a marked difference between the audience’s take-away’s when reading the original post on Vid Snacks and your follow-up. The first is — forgive me — reactionary for the purpose of reaction, holds no punches as to disappointment without conceding even a hint of synthesis of opinion, and clearly draws a line in the sand via charged language, examples, and biases. NOTHING wrong with that, my friend. Truly. We’re all grown-ups here and we are allowed to strike with whatever hand we select.

    On the other hand, the second post — aka “the follow-up” — achieves marvelously in terms of the one thing you are seeking from the multi-media presenters: “clarity”. And this benefits all concerned.

    Your argument and expectations are clearly dilineated on a number of fronts. Your tone is measured, respectful, and professional. And your long-term goals (esp. point #3 re: “how has she done this?”) are worth all of our calm consideration.

    Heck, even if it’s ‘just me’, I’m listening, appreciating the chance to look through your lens, and have much to learn by your passionate expectations. Especially when the ultimate point isn’t about finding a straw man to set fire because we are quick with our typed tongues…but it turns out to be about the ‘opportunity’ for all of us to seek intentional conviction in the execution/design/presentation of our best ideas in public (rather than just shouting for the sake of a free 2.0 podium of sorts).

    I have a great deal of interest in your final points here, Dan. You wrote about the student who will want to eventually express something to a significant audience (beyond a trendy echo-chamber, if you will) but may lack the skill sets or visionary instincts to seek true presentation acuity:

    “They’ll want to express it with clarity but it’ll be impossible.

    They’ll be able to explain simple concepts to large audiences.

    They’ll be able to explain complicated concepts to small audiences.

    But if they and their teachers aren’t immersing themselves constantly in better, clearer work than their own (made by experts? doesn’t matter. it’s just clearer) work which for the first time in history is available freely and quickly, how in that vacuum can they rise to any greater occasion?”

    My responses:

    1. Once ‘clarity’ of expression (aka ‘presentation’) becomes the primary goal in school, we will be afforded a tremendous can of worms to crank open, you and I. Hope it’ll be in our lifetime. Look forward to your leadership when that moment arrives. Sadly, content acquisition remains remarkably 1-dimensional when it comes to expression/delivery.

    2. Education — historically — has never taught ‘presentation’ or ‘managing audience’ (one-way or two-way) as a vital skill. It’s often value-added, but it is rarely (never?) the key desire. Public speaking classes, a cute science fair poster-talk, or the ubiquitous student council election moment notwithlegitstanding, ‘presentation’ is a radically novel concept at play these days…and the raw expectation that ‘how’ we present will matter as much as ‘what’ we present is something that is a bit Gallileo-like in terms of reversing the predominate sun-around-the-earth tendencies of education. In otherwords, there’s a bit of inherent blasphemy in your vision (although I dig it).

    3. All speakers are assured real-world success when they can deliver “simple concepts to large audiences” (consider your local uber-church, your local motivation seminar, your local news hour, etc.). Great story tellers and soap box ministers have always known this formula was the surest way to engage the largest audience. As someone who spent much of the last 3+ years speaking to a wide array of professional audiences about school design/architecture, emerging technology, the future of learning, and all the messy stuff in between, it would have been foolish of me to under-estimate the power of conveying “simple concepts to large audiences” on a regular basis (or, turning complex patterns of ideas into simple concepts). The goal of a speaker is not to prove that they are the smartest; it is to prove that the audience can engage the topic ‘come Monday’ without the speaker being present…and allow for remarkable customization on the back-end.

    4. Same holds true for “complicated concepts for small audiences”. Not a weakness, this is in fact equally valuable for any professional presenter (on stage, in film, or in graphic print) to grasp and be able to accomplish well. There is a reason why the ‘art house’ movie roll has a smaller demographic reach than the mainstream mega-plex film selection.

    5. Yes, for the first time in history, extraordinary tools are available easily and freely. This does not suggest, however, that the goals of being exceptionally agile in message or image is the end-goal for the majority that seek to use them. Remember, just ‘getting on stage’ is the most frightening choice that most trained professionals will ever face. Even the worst bullet point PPt takes most adults insane couage to ‘deliver’, no matter how expert or interested they may be. And never forget that for the majority of people, just having an audience (or imagining that they have one) via blogging, podcasting, vodcasting, etc. is a radical extension of what may otherwise be a more humble life at home and at the workplace. Grace is not the goal. Not drowning often is.

    Lower the bar? Depends on why the bar exists in the first place. Even more so, depends if everyone agrees on the same bar for the same reasons.

    Between you and I, Dan, I desperately want all presentations to radically improve by taking advantage of the profound tool sets and info-sharing that is available today. And like you, I’ve spent the last few years in an unapologetic search for knowledge to support my own passions (school design, etc.) and learned first-hand what it means when you follow through on what you propose (my last career is testimony to that, my friend).

    But, slidedeck lampooning a passionate educator (V. Davis, etc.) who may not share the same design sensibilities as you do or spending enormous time/energy paper-shredding a professional who is offering a service many ‘might’ appreciate (Vid Snacks) seems to lower the bar on what I consider to be the best conversation of all:

    Dan Meyer celebrating the possibilities of design (classic golden mean ratios to editing techniques to rap lyric inspiration to graphic design wunderkinds) within the hallowed (and often cinderblock) halls of education.

    Yes, you’ll get some nudge-nudge style points for thinning the weaker members of the herd. The irony, however, may be that the heard your thinning may be more of the arts-n-craft snipe hunt variety than a legitimate big game contender for epic design feasting that serves a wider table.

    When all is said and done — as this post of yours demonstrates from beginning to end — you are an unmatched voice and leader when you focus your energies/insights on helping folks play off of their strengths and authentic interests as a gesture of bold appreciation, rather than spraying graffiti on their backdoors to prove just how much they lack in potential.

    You deserve mad credit for saying the following:

    “My “end-game” is a world where people across ages and cultures communicate with each other better, more clearly, a world where people can express complicated ideas with a maximum of clarity and art.”

    Curious. How can this be achieved in a way that empowers those who do not *** yet *** possess your instincts or abilities or opportunities?

    I think you’re one of the few legit ‘bridge builders’ between traditional education and global presentation, Dan, and hope that in time you’ll realize the exponential power of your message/insights when you seek their success rather than mock their efforts.

    In clarity and art we trust (or find pretty keen).
    Cheers from Texas,

    P.S. Even when I disagree with your content (rarely) or tone (occasionally), I think you need to “keep on keepin’ on”. We’re all the better for it. Far better for it.

  2. Ok, I can’t NOT jump into this discussion. Although I will not be as eloquent as either of the speakers in this discussion, nor do I have as coherent a position to argue, it’s just too close to my gut. First let me say that I have begun in the last 3 months reading many blogs about education and Dan’s is by far my favorite. Secondly I have had the good fortune to meet and interact with Christian lately.
    I think that this is a great example of how “2.0” technology leads to a real discussion of what is important and how to achieve it. I think Christian’s point about allowing everyone to try to build their skills through publishing and helping others is a vital part of the process and it should not be discouraged. However, when you position yourself as someone who is there to help other educators to utilize a new technology you should be modeling it in an effective manner. I agree with Dan that the Vid Snacks piece does not accomplish this. If you want to be part known as the place “Where Kids and Teachers can learn how to make video”, you are placing yourself in a leadership role in some aspect. In that role you should in my opinion be striving to produce something that will emphasize clarity and storytelling. I believe what Dan is trying to say is that a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. YouTube is giving a creative outlet to a great number of individuals to utilize a new technology. However, it is also giving a rise to a destruction of video quality, in my uneducated opinion. We do not need to encourage poor quality work by modeling a poor product without taking the opportunity to make it better.
    To the point of what we present vs. how we present it. I highly doubt that an English teacher would be satisfied with a wonderful set of ideas poorly presented in the written form (much like this post). We are here to encourage our students to become better at writing so that their wonderful ideas would be seen instead of ignored because it was written poorly. I believe that an English teacher who saw another English teacher modeling poor grammar would be reasonable in noting the poor example they are setting for their students. I believe that is what Dan is trying to say here. He seems to be saying that learning how to put something on video is the first step however if you are doing it poorly you may be doing more harm than good. There is a difference between “practice makes perfect” and “perfect practice makes perfect”. If you are not striving to model proper techniques to your students are you truly making them better? I have taken Dan’s ideas on PowerPoints to heart and it is making me reevaluate the way I do mine. If I want my students to have the ability to present well in college and their career it is probably more important that I model that behavior in my presentations everyday than it is for me to have them do one presentation project. What we say and do seems to have much more of an effect on our students that what we teach them in a lot of cases. I would bet that if you asked my students and Dan’s students to do a presentation that his would do a better job because he models a better presentation style in school every day.
    To sum up I agree with you both. We should encourage people to investigate new technology or skills but we should also challenge them to do it correctly. Otherwise we are not leading to the betterment of society. As we say in volleyball, “better the ball”. Your job is to leave whatever you encounter better than it was before you got it. I’m not sure I accomplished this with this post but I tried.
    P.S. I have learned so much from both of you guys that you make me want to be a better teacher as well as a person and I cannot think of a better compliment than that.
    P.S.S Dan and Christian please post more links to people than inspire you, because you guys inspire me.

  3. Dude, you still teach math? That’s the coolest part of this. From an English teacher or a video arts teacher, I would expect this type of attention to communication skills. But for many math teachers it’s good enough to just understand the math. I want to start a school where every class is a math class but you learn all the other stuff along the way. I’m kidding, but only kinda. I’d need to find 15 more teachers like you.

  4. I almost hesitate to join a conversation like this after the efforts and thought that Christian puts into his responses. (no wonder he hardly blogs, he’s too busy writing comments).

    The only small nugget I’ll add is that I too would not want to be seen as a design expert, although if you begin to talk about it on your blog or in other forums, some will label you with this.

    It’s evident to me that you’re simply playing with design ideas, trying to get it right and sharing from time to time learning you’ve discovered or uncovered. I try to do the same.

    I also think that over time, people will determine for themselves what resources work for them. So if VidSnacks finds an audience, fine. I’m with Stephen Downes in that I’m not sure it needs to be housed in a social network but whatever.

    The point about using experts outside your network is tricky. While there are plenty of exemplars that we should be pointing to, there seems to be more value when you can point to folks inside the network. For example, talking about Ken Burns as a documentary filmmaker provides a great example of flimmaking but if I can point to an educator utilizing some of his techniques (no I don’t mean the “Ken Burns effect”) it often makes the point quicker and more forcefully.

    You are a rare breed in that you’re constantly looking for ways to improve your design. Most educators don’t do that. Right or wrong they don’t and so it’s important to bridge the learning for them.

    Great stuff here as always.

  5. Speaking in terms of actionable steps now, I don’t think my goals are too blasphemous or too far afield what’s possible in publicly-funded education today. While my math class remains (both by my design and the federal government’s) a course of content- and skill-acquisition, there are other classes where design and presentation fit like a glove over existing assignments, classes which exist apart from standard-based exams, classes where design and presentation are the assignments. In other words, as regimented as our math and language classes have become, there are places and moments where students can start exploring design clarity in video / presentation / photo.

    But I don’t know how that’ll happen to any meaningful extent if their teachers can’t at least point them towards good resources. I mean, I get the whole teacher-as-learner-as-teacher thing but if all the teachers and all the learners are clonking their heads in the dark against the same wall, what are we learning or teaching?

    The liability of Vid Snacks (or any community where amateurs affirm amateurs) therefore is that they’ll become so comfortable with each other and so enamored of their own slowly-forming creations, they won’t know they’re only clonking their heads in the dark, far from clarity. Even though (per Dean’s recommendation) it’s easier to learn a skill from someone of your own station and occupation, it’s so necessary to strain upwards and outwards, to bring good from the outside in, if only to keep the community of amateurs from collapsing in on its own lack of ambition.

    Which is why I bring my RSS feeds to my readers, whether that means linking visual essays or commercial work, and I leave behind a [via Information Aesthetics (or whatever)] every time, hoping that someone recognizes the value and subscribes to something new and challenging, something way above his or her head.

    Design Contest #2 is coming up too. I feel like the postgame report last time did some good for some people. Gotta talk to you about that soon, man.

    Beyond that, what would you have me do? Aside from neutering my tone and critiquing corporate targets exclusively, of course.

  6. [Applause meter begins to rock and roll a bit here; consider yourself a bit forewarned.]

    You wrote:

    “…it’s so necessary to strain upwards and outwards, to bring good from the outside in, if only to keep the community of amateurs from collapsing in on its own lack of ambition.”

    And I applaud.

    I’ll echo/add the following:

    Learning by its very nature demands that “strain” you mention. And the larger gestalt of outside ideas, examples, expertise, vision, questions, and resources is what lifts us (all) “upwards and outwards”.

    Smiling at the idea of Design Contest #2. Whatever you need, ask away.

    As for the final question, just keep on keepin’ on. Call it “neutering” if you elect. Or consider it simply an “expansion” of more profound “leadership” instincts based less on the craving of a short-term fight and more on the humble confidence of long-range wisdom. As for critiquing corporate targets, I can only smile. There are no imposed limits. Just an opportunity to rise above the fray when you see reasonable daylight. Think of it as a John Galt moment.

    Your appreciative student and Design Contest colleague,

  7. I’m going to jump in and then immediately jump out—you guys can be verbally intimidating!! Hang with me a minute and hopefully you’ll get my point. Why do gifted kids make notoriously poor academic role models in the regular classroom? It’s because their abilities are out of reach for most students. Just one more minute….I’m almost finished here…if we went to an inservice given by our principal we would nod and agree and understand…but if Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking were leading the inservice we may get nothing out of it. There is something to be said for getting instruction and advice from someone who is not too far away from your skill level. Did that make any sense? Mr. Holt at VidSnacks is just like me but he knows more than I do about video. I may learn more from him than I would Stephen Speilberg. Ok, done.

  8. Nancy and Dean weave a similar thread here.

    The intimidation they describe is real and legitimate among new learners and novice practitioners. We shouldn’t satisfy ourselves with that intellectual cowering, though, however legitimate and earned it might be.

    It’s true that if a master craftsman can’t make his knowledge accessible to a novice he isn’t worth much as a teacher. However, we shouldn’t deny him the opportunity (however subconsciously) simply because he doesn’t look or dress like we do.

    Furthermore, I thought a little about Jason’s comment today and wanted to clarify that my reaction to Vid Snacks would have been nowhere near this concerned/strident if these were just weekend hobbyists we were talking about.

    But these are teachers and their lack of ambition has tangible consequences for the students they serve. Moreover, these are teachers who assert that their video offerings represent the future of language, an assertion that I couldn’t leave unquestioned, an assertion that more people should’ve questioned, even if Christian thinks I should’ve been friendlier about it and attached a clearly-worded note to a plate of canapés.

  9. You are dead-right to question anything that uses “the future of [anything]” phrase as a marketing element with only a thread-bare set of evidence (or articulation). Especially if money signs are ever in the hazy backgroud. Never back off from that, Dan, especially if you have some skin on the proverbial table as you do via video editing, presentation savvy, etc.

    As for canapes or crepes or fig newtons delivered on any sort of quaint or elegant serving platter, everyone loves a snack. Especially to wash criticism down.

    As I said ealier — perhaps one of the parts that didn’t gracefully fit with your serve-n-volley instincts — the 2nd post you wrote clearly demonstrates your potential as a voice and leader, Dan. The first, however, shows a potentially snarky instinct that rarely elevates the conversation or inspires real change. You are — of course — free to opt for either or both. Consider it an observation that can be ignored or considered. Your call. I believe you know (and knew) that at first read, although it may not have been as compelling to respond to when you took the gun out of the holster.

    BTW, will there be chocolate milk with the canapes? Or at least the well-justified questioning?

  10. Hey, I’d just like to say that I know Dan personally and everyone should know that on top of all these ideas he has, he’s a good look’n dude!