How (not) Learning CSS Reminded Me About Teaching


It’s taken years, but I’ve finally come around to cascading style sheets.

I was introduced to them in the absolutely worst way, when a Dreamweaver update suddenly refused to accept half the commands I was used to putting into my web pages. I couldn’t just make a word red, I had to define its color in a different pane and then apply it to the word.  Half the stuff I wanted could only be coded through the html panel, and half through css.  I had to search around to find a way to accomplish things that used to be simple.

Who were these invisible commisars interfering with my workflow?  What was the point of defining red text, when I would have to do it all over again on the next page?  I wrestled with all this for a few months, and then basically gave up using Dreamweaver.

My brother taught me what css was over Xmas vacation and showed me how to design my fiction website with it, coding in notepad.  That was neat, but didn’t solve my larger problems – that the whole of my academic website, with hundreds of tutorial pages, had been made in pre-css Dreamweaver and now seemed impossible to edit, even though every year I found more that I wanted to change about it.

Then this year, the light finally dawned. I can change every page at once if they all use the same stylesheet!  I can call other people’s css files online (eg Bootstrap)  and use their coding for tricky stuff like popovers! I can’t wait to start rewriting the site this summer.

Learning how to code isn’t my business, though. Teaching is my business. So what can I learn about teaching, or not teaching, from the fact that it took me six years to learn how to code in css in spite of the fact that I spent time coding in css during every one of those six years?  Why did I not learn to do what I was learning to do?

After all, students do this all the time. They perform an analysis in the first hour of class and then have trouble remembering how, or why, they did it in the second hour, or the next class meeting, or the next semester.

Here are some of the reasons that Dreamweaver failed to teach me about css.

  1. I already had a perfectly good way of doing what I wanted to do, and it introduced css as an impediment.
  2. It never explained what the css definitions were for — that what I defined on one page could be applied to any other pages.
  3. It solved a problem I didn’t know I had.  It wasn’t until 4 years later when I got a wide monitor that I realized my web pages kept changing width, and that I needed to correct something on every single page.
  4. It did the interesting work for me.  I couldn’t see the css file, where it was, what it was, or how to apply it to a page.  I couldn’t tweak the css and see how it affected the page.  I could just enter mysterious stuff into the black box and hope the gremlins inside would allow me to design a web page.

I applied some of these insights to my class on heart failure this week.

  1. Students already have a pretty reasonable understanding of heart failure, so why should I complicate it? Instead of my usual focus on distinguishing lots of different kinds of heart failure, I admitted that Right-sided Heart Failure and Left-sided Heart Failure would lead to one another and end up as the congestive heart failure students thought of when they heard the term.
  2. I need to make clear what problem the new categories solve. Instead of introducing systolic and diastolic heart failure right away, as categories students need to understand for some unstated reason, I introduced them after congestive heart failure as ways to tell what underlying problem is causing the failure.
  3. Am I doing all the interesting work for them?  Instead of telling students what murmur would be heard during what valve defect, I  just gave them case studies — patient with CHF and preserved ejection fraction has diastolic murmur over mitral valve.  What’s going on?  Then I had them write their own case studies – choose a valve defect and predict what would happen with the patient.  The class solved some of their peers’ case studies, and we then added the further consequences of the valve defects they chose.

I knew these were better instructional principles.  We all know that. But we drift away from them, over and over again. That’s why faculty should, every now and then, try to learn something that challenges us from people — or programs — who aren’t particularly good teachers: to remind ourselves of what we need to do and why we need to do it.

Otherwise we, like everybody else, can fail to learn what we’ve been doing all along.

An earlier version of this post previously appeared on The Royal Academy at Osyth blog.

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