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Solving the ‘expert blind spot’

A man in a gray shirt and a purple tie stands outside holding a Rubik's Cube.
Benjamin Haywood, assistant director of the Faculty Development Center.

Ben Haywood kept a Rubik’s Cube in his fridge at home for six weeks during the 2020 winter break. You can imagine it sitting there, between a jar of pickles and the OJ.

Haywood, assistant director of the Faculty Development Center, wasn’t on a new plastic diet. He kept the cube chilled to remind him to pick the darned thing up and practice trying to solve it, a multi-colored condiment of frustration. Reach for the pickles, grab the cube and give it a twist.

He was practicing what he was preaching. Haywood had worked with his counterpart at Denison University in Ohio to create a six-week training program to teach faculty to solve the cube in five minutes or less. Its underlying purpose was to remind faculty how hard it is to learn something for the first time. After mastering a chosen field and teaching the basics of it over and over again for years, faculty can develop an “expert blind spot” around the needs and perspectives of a new learner.

Haywood and Lew Ludwig, director of Denison’s Center for Learning and Teaching, added a wager to fuel competition: Haywood bet South Carolina peanut brittle that a higher percentage of Furman faculty would meet the challenge, and Ludwig put up Ohio buckeyes (the candy, not the seed) that Denison would win. About 15 faculty members from each school signed up.

Wall Street Journal higher education reporter Melissa Korn learned about the project and wrote a front-page story about it here. (The newspaper requires a subscription for full access.)

Caroline Davis, a lecturer in theater and education, says she’s always up for a challenge. She signed up after reading an email about it from Haywood.

“I was thinking about it in relationship to my teaching of acting,” Davis says, who started acting at age 5 and has been teaching intro to acting for several years. “This would be a good way to remember what it’s like to be frustrated by not being good at something right away.

A lot of the things I get frustrated at my students about are things I tend to do, too. Your inclination is to avoid it or think it’s stupid until you figure it out.”

Ludwig, who has taught calculus since 1993, has held little challenges for himself, like learning to juggle and, two years ago, learning to solve the Rubik’s Cube. He credits Haywood with creating a great outline of the project for faculty to follow. “Ben is a master of organization,” he says.

The faculty who participated got a set of instructions and study resources each week, and they signed onto a message board to leave questions and respond to prompts about how the experience might inform their own teaching. Some of the faculty got very competitive, some were data nerds about tracking their progress, others just had fun with it, and more than a few got frustrated with the instructions or with their inability to follow them. Some, like Haywood and his cool idea, dreamed up ways to help themselves.

“Due to their expertise, academics are used to appearing as if they know things and have it all together,” Haywood says. “We were reminded that we’re still human, too, and that it’s OK not to have all the answers. That helps us build empathy with new learners in the classroom.”

There was a long, live, virtual discussion at the end of the six weeks, and the faculty who met the five-minute time limit posted videos of themselves solving the cube.

Davis, who learned to solve the cube in less than three minutes (watch her video here) took some of the lessons into the classroom. At the start of the spring semester, she asked her intro to acting students to present to the class something they once had struggled to learn but ultimately mastered.

“Every student, when given the opportunity to show something that they’re expert in, really stepped up and were passionate and animated,” she says. “It made them feel safer to mess up later on because they’ve already shown us what they’re good at. It was a beautiful day.”

Davis says the project was also “such a great way to bond with others who are taking an active role in their own pedagogy and teaching. I’m really grateful for the Faculty Development Center to develop new opportunities for growth. It’s really rewarding.”

Haywood was one of the two-thirds of faculty participants who ultimately learned to solve the cube in five minutes, and although Denison just edged out Furman in the final tally, each school sent the other their respective spoils out of good sportsmanship.

Now he and Ludwig have developed a facilitation guide for the program and are preparing to present the initiative to their national Professional and Organizational Development Network, a professional group for educational developers, in hopes that the idea spreads to other schools. So, in the end, both schools, and anyone who picked up a cube, are winners.

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