Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pedagogical Choices

I'm now immersed in the 37-day Ecovillage Education US course. It started July 5 and will run through Aug 11.

In addition to being a teacher for a number of the topics in the Social and Economic dimensions of the training, I have responsibility (along with my partner, Ma'ikwe, who is the lead teacher for this course) for helping to integrate what's being taught. Many of the teachers will not know what others have presented, and it will be up to Ma'ikwe and me to help weave the connections between sessions.

Quandry #1
Teachers develop their own flow and style. At least some of he time, that won't be the same as mine. Thus, there is a potential cost to my stepping in and interrupting their rhythm, and that needs to be weighed when I consider whether the point I have in mind making is sufficiently worthwhile. Tricky.

The comments I might make are of two general kinds: a) an amplification or more nuanced observation about what is being discussed; or b) an integrating comment, tying what was just said to what has been said before, which the teacher may or may not be aware of.

In general, I'm more willing to insist on the latter (which is likely to be missed if I don't speak up) than the former (which is more a question of style—that is, it isn't always obvious that my framing will be any better than the teacher's, or that my ancillary point is that edifying).

Quandry #2
There is a lively conversation among the teachers as to what constitutes effective pedagogy. While the prime directive is what is effective for the student, the answer is surprisingly complex.

Here are some of the nuances: 

 People have different dominant learning styles
While I don't know if this list is complete, I've found it useful to think in terms of three main ways people take in and digest information: aural, visual, and kinesthetic.

Of these, the default mode is aural, where hearing is the main input channel. In the context of meetings you rarely need to worry about this because speaking aloud is one of the main ways we communicate (though I don't want this glib statement to slide by the rich field of body language and facial expressions unnoticed).

With modest attention, it's typically not that hard to provide visual reinforcement for what's happening aloud. That includes posted agendas, scribed highlights of conversations, draft agreements written on a whiteboard, etc. Beyond that, it can be surprisingly helpful to have graphics that help evoke and maintain a productive attitude or mood relative to the topic at hand. Be creative!

The poor stepchild in this trio of learning modes is the kinesthetic, or body knowing. Some people work best through grounding information in their bodies, and the way most meetings are run means that little is offered in their comfort zone. To the extent that groups are aware of this need, it most commonly surfaces in the form of energy or stretch breaks, rather than developing movement options that solicit and massage information germane to the issue at hand. It can be done, but it's a rare facilitator (or teacher) who is savvy to the techniques and the potential that can be unlocked by employing them.

All of that said, the key concept is grokking the need to mix it up, so that you are not always relying on the same teaching techniques. Students benefit from variety and there is no single approach that works best all the time. As an evaluator, I'm coming face-to-face with the question of how to fairly assess the effectiveness of teaching techniques that I don't use much.

People have different paces at which they process informationOne the factors that needs to be taken into account when deciding what teaching style to employ (more on that below) is how much time it allows students to assimilate and process what's been presented. Not everyone proceeds at the same rate, which is not a question of inherent intelligence or ability to grasp complexities.

A more modest version of this question surfaces in the mundane matter of when to call a break. In general, 90 minutes is a serviceable upper limit, though kinesthetic learners will need them more frequently if there's been no movement, and people will run out of gas sooner if they've been working hard emotionally. Going the other way, an examination that's been uplifting or energizing can be parlayed into extended play.

People respond to the environment differently
—Diurnal cycles
Some people love mornings and are pretty much toast after dinner. Others don't hit their stride until the sun is west of the yardarm, and good until midnight. In our training, we meet every morning (except Fridays) and all evenings are free time. While that's not an unusual schedule, it clearer favors the chicken end of the diurnal spectrum: up at first light, and in bed by dark.

—Climate change
The context of the training is that it's happening in Missouri, smack in the midst of summer. That means a hot and muggy ambience. While our student from southern Indiana is doing just fine; the one who came from Oregon is sweltering and struggling to get enough sleep.

—Acclimating to community
In addition to the temperature and humidity, a number of the students are new to community and are experiencing culture shock. How should they greet residents on the path? Is it OK to swim in the pond au naturale? Do people drink coffee (and who do I have to bribe to get a cup)? When all of the teaching staff lives in community, we tend to forget how disorienting it can be to encounter it for the first time.

—Fan noise
I'm not talking about too much cheering (or jeering) when someone's at the free throw line; I'm taking about how hard it can be to hear someone's heartfelt statement with an air conditioner or ceiling fan whirring in the background. We have a handful of students who are naturally soft-spoken and it can be a delicate matter asking some to speak up when sharing a personal tragedy that you didn't quite catch.
 Teaching formats
While there is a rich array of choices in this rgeard, let me walk through four basic choices:

—Small groups (emphasizing student-derived input)
While this tends to take longer to generate useful product (which also tends to be less profound), and limits sharply how much you can cover, it generally results in solid buy-in, and rarely results in anyone falling asleep.

Group discussion
This is more engaging than a lecture, and less diffuse than small group work. It can, however, take considerable skill to draw out the points the teacher wants to emphasize.

This can be riveting (if you select powerful stories that are on point), yet is slower and less direct than lecture and only involves the students to the extent that they can place themselves in the story.

You can cover a lot of ground; yet this is the most tenuous format when it comes to rapport with students. This approach can be highly effective with students who have sufficient familiarity with the territory and the motivation to learn the topic, yet you cannot count on that condition.

—Focus on problems or assets?
One school of pedagogy is that it's better to build on what works (generating and maintaining a more positive atmosphere); another is that it's more effective to focus on issues such that breakthroughs lead to an immediate sense of accomplishment. Which way to go?

In short, it's a puzzlement.

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