Understanding Teaching Interactions

What are the cognitive mechanisms supporting the transmission of technical skills?

People are capable of highly skilled motor actions, from snowboarding and ballroom dancing to everyday behaviours like driving a car or tying shoelaces. None of these are things that most of us can come up with on our own. Our only chance of learning some actions is to find someone who can already do it and learn from watching.

Observational social learning

While there have been substantial advances in understanding how such skilled actions are learned through social learning mechanisms, this literature has typically focussed only on the learner and how they imitate or emulate the actions of an observed model. Much less is known about the role of the model: in particular, how skilled actions are actively taught.

Many skilled actions are not actually learned individually or through purely observational learning, but through active engagement with more skilled models who are willing to tolerate students and, in some special cases, even eager to pass on knowledge. These teachers are skilled individuals who “produce behaviour with the intent to facilitate learning in another”1, and through this behaviour learners can acquire skills they could not arrive at on their own, and they can do so quickly, with clear understanding of the expected outcomes, and with minimal risk.

My research topic relates to how teachers and learners adapt their behaviour to achieve learning outcomes, and in particular how they do this in the context of live interactions, where issues of communication, coordination, and common ground can all raise opportunities - and challenges - for learning. Understanding the dynamics and mechanisms at play in these interactions has important implications for skill learning, motor cognition, and the cultural evolution of skills and techniques.

Currently, I am particularly interested in the use of trial-to-trial motor variability in teaching interactions, and the kinds of information this can be used to communicate to a learner.