Monday, September 28, 2015

Effective Pedagogy

I've been offering a two-year facilitation training the last 12 years (eight three-day weekends spaced approximately three months apart). I've delivered this course eight times in its entirety and I'm on the front end of three more rounds—one each in New England (the first weekend was Sept 10-13), Portland OR (the first weekend is scheduled for Dec 3-6), and North Carolina (the first weekend is slated for Jan 14-17).

In addition to this, I've been busy training my successors in administrative work for the Fellowship for Intentional Community, which roles I'll be handing over by the end of the year. 

Taken all together, I've become obsessed with what constitutes effective teaching.

One Size Does Not Fit All
People have widely different learning styles. Taking that into account means creating multiple on-ramps to learning. (The default approach for most of us is to offer a lesson in the way we like to learn, and it is only a coincidence when that works well for the student.)

o  Some like to see the instructor ride a bucking bronco once and then be given a chance to get on the horse themselves. Learning for them is mostly experiential.

o  Some need to thoroughly understand the theory and rationale for what the teacher is offering. They will not be comfortable attempting to execute the technique until they "get it" in their head first.

o  Some need to watch a thing multiple times, in a variety of situations, before their body can assimilate the lesson to the point where they're willing to test drive the model. 

o  Some prefer that the various steps involved in execution be broken down into discrete micro-lessons, and they won't be comfortable trying to put it all together until they've had a chance to take the engine apat and put it all back together.

In addition to the above, people tend to sort into three kinds of primary learning styles: aural, (which I am), visual, and kinesthetic. So teachers are challenged to provide the same information through different modes of presentations.

But it's worse than that.

When the Spirit Is Strong But the Flesh Is Weak
In addition to student learning preferences, the savvy teacher needs to be aware of trigger points, style preferences, and blind spots—both on the part of the student and the teacher.

—Trigger points
This could be specific (as in the teacher reminding the student of their mother, who they detest) or generic (I'm suspicious of being taught by someone steeped in privilege: for example, an older, straight, well-educated white male—like me).

The question of privilege gets pretty interesting. How much is being projected onto the teacher; and how much does the teacher have a blind spot? There is always a power gradient between teacher and student; to what extent is that healthy and appropriate (based on the teacher's expertise) and to what extent is it amplified in an unhelpful way (based on privilege)? As far as I'm concerned it is on the teacher (as the person in the superior power position) to develop sensitivity to this possibility and make room for the examination.

Going the other way, the student could remind the teacher of someone with whom they have unresolved tensions, or the student could have a personality that is grating for the teacher (whiny and timid drives me bananas).

In all of these cases, the instructor needs to be able to see what's happening and offer adjustments. While that doesn't guarantee success—all possible dyads are not meant to work together—it's on the teacher to take the initiative.

—Style preferences
This is mostly a diversity issue. Naturally enough, teachers tend to instruct in their own style. But that may not match up well with the student's open portals for receiving lessons.

This can be about pace, volume, degree of passion, mode of transmission (intellectual, emotional, body-centered, spiritual, intuitive), stamina, range (variety of delivery), and vocabulary. Is the teaching didactic, story-based, or experienced-based? There are a lot of choices, and none is a best practice; you have to adapt to your students.

—Blind spots 
All of us have tendencies (perhaps to teach through role plays instead of lectures, or to see the right side of the room better than the left). Because I'm primarily an aural learner, I've had to train myself to think in terms of developing visual aids in support of what I'm teaching—it doesn't come naturally to me.

While some blind spots can be overcome (such as my developing visual teaching aids), the most important thing is to learn what they are and to be open to having it pointed out when they come up. This is about working to keep clear feedback channels. 

When you discover a blind spot in a student, the inspired teacher sees it as an opportunity. To what extent is the student aware of it? Are they willing to talk about it (alone or in the class)? Are they open to working on it with you (if so, with what parameters)?

• • •
Once you start delving into the wonderful and multi-faceted world of teaching, you have to shake your head at how little teachers are paid and respected in our culture. We'd rather venerate lawyers and business tycoons. What a country.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Working Distress: How Many in the Pool at a Time?

I've recently been in dialog with a colleague over the issue of how tightly to control the conversation when unpacking emotional distress.

There are a number of models out there for working constructively with conflict and no agreement about what constitutes a best practice. So this is a live issue. Nonetheless, I have a definite opinion about this particular point.

Over the years I have come to the view that once you're clearly in the territory of working tensions, then it's highly advantageous to limit the focus to the principal players (preferably a dyad, but occasionally a threesome), drilling down on a specific incident that highlights the tensions, and keeping it there until they reach a natural stopping place. In contrast, my counterpart is more open to allowing others to add their reactions to what's happening as this examination progresses. (The idea being that "what's alive in the room" is a shifting thing and that following the energy is often a productive strategy.)

So let's set up a hypothetical. Suppose Taylor and Lupe are on a committee together and they drive each other nuts. Taylor wants to reward individual initiative and minimize red tape. Lupe wants to make sure everyone is on board before proceeding and is often not quick to know their own mind. Taylor feels bogged down by Lupe's pace, and Lupe feels pressure to act faster. Both trigger the other.

Let's further suppose that Adrian (another committee member) tends to see things the same way as Taylor, excepting that it's not so much Lupe's slow pace that's the trigger, as it's Lupe's tentativeness and constant worry that someone may have concerns that have not yet been voiced. As far as Adrian can tell, the committee is never ready to make a decision because of Lupe's what ifs. Deliberate is one thing; glacial is another.

Just to even things out, let's further suppose that Chris (also on the committee) tends to take Lupe's side, but not just because they're equally sensitive to the rights of slow thinkers—they're also bothered by the dynamic of Taylor & Adrian ganging up on Lupe, who is soft spoken and struggles to be heard. Chris cares a lot about fairness.

So now we have a fine mess. While I appreciate that real life tends to be even more complicated than I've laid out, this simplified example is enough to make my points.

Let's examine how this might play out if the committee decides it needs help and asks for an outside facilitator to unpack what's going on. For the sake of this example, let's suppose the committee is in charge of outdoor landscaping of common ground in an intentional community.

Because we have to start somewhere, let's say that Taylor steps forward, wanting to discuss a time this past spring when they proposed bringing goats onto the property to eat the high grass as an alternative to mowing, and Lupe acted to slow things down.

In letting them each state what happened and how it felt, suppose the following came out:

—Taylor's Story
Taylor thought they had an elegant, outside-the-box solution to a perennial problem. It had been hard to find the labor to run a Lawnboy, some residents were irritated by the mower noise, and people felt guilty about the fossil fuel use. Why did Lupe need to be a stick in the mud? It was deflating to have their initiative bogged down in process, and they felt like pulling back from the committee. How could it be in the community's best interest to consistently quash fresh ideas?

—Lupe's Story 
Lupe was worried about the damage that goats might do to the shrubbery, flower beds, and gardens. Plus, the bleating might be every bit as noisome as the lawnmower, and goats might wind up being unwanted guests on people's front porches (maybe that's amusing if it happens to your neighbor, but not so funny on your porch). Although the committee had the authority to make this decision without further input from the community, Lupe felt unsure of proceeding without asking the entire community for comments, because no one had been thinking of goats when they established the mandate for the committee. Lupe felt steamrollered by Taylor. While they knew Taylor would have an adverse reaction, they nonetheless felt it was in the group's best interest to go slow on this.

Now we're at the first fork in the road. Do you keep the focus on Taylor and Lupe, or open it up to Adrian and Chris, who are obviously ready to speak (as both feel they have a dog in this fight)?

My instinct is to keep the focus on the dyad to work through two more questions before opening it up:

a) Why does this matter (what's at stake)?

b) What are you willing to do about it (now that you have been heard and have heard others)?

The prime directive here is effecting whatever repair you can to the relationship; attending to damaged trust. This is not about problem-solving—it's setting the stage for problem solving (which cannot proceed well in the face of the distortion that typically characterizes unresolved distress).

My concern is that if you give the microphone to either Chris or Adrian (never mind others who may also have their hand in the air, hoping to be called on), that the concerns will mushroom out of control. To be clear, this is not a judgment about the tension between Taylor and Lupe being more important; it's just that it isn't completed, and it may be difficult (even impossible) to get back to it once you crack open the lid on Pandora's Box of unresolved tensions.

For one thing, how can you allow Adrian to talk at this point without also allowing Chris to talk, and you can see from the way I salted the example, that each time one of them speaks, the topic is going to get more complicated and multi-threaded—all without anyone being "bad" or off topic.

In my experience, it is far better to complete a few dyads well and end on an up-note, than to get a bunch of tensions out on the table and leave them unresolved. For one thing, it's often the case that people with similar concerns don't need to voice them once they witness a constructive exchange with someone carrying water for them. 

The way I think about it, as a facilitator you are performing an operation on the dyad and once surgery is underway, you don't want your attention drawn elsewhere until the operation is complete. It's a safety thing.

I understand that limiting the focus to a single incident with two people means that you may only be touching a small fraction of the unresolved tensions extant. That's OK. You are not trying to muck out the Augean Stables. Rather you are trying to handle one discrete example well, with the notion that if you do that, then you can do as many more as are needed. The key log is demonstrating that you can turn the corner and create hope. That conflict management is doable—all without assigning blame, asking anyone to change their personality, or making anyone feel bad because they had a negative reaction.

• • •
The second fork in the road that my colleague suggested is at the point where the dyad is addressing the last question in the sequence: What do you want to do about it? What about inviting the rest of the group to comment on the action steps that the dyad agrees to? 

While I can appreciate that this may make sense if you're focusing on a system response to a patterned dynamic, I am concerned that the impulse to go in that direction has more to do with problem solving than relationship repair, and I'm nervous about conflating the two. 

The interesting case is if the dyad is satisfied with what they come up with, and the outer circle (the rest of the group) wants something else. Under what circumstances, if any, would it make sense to not accept an action plan that satisfied the protagonists? I can't think of any if the lens is relationship repair.

That said, I want to soften my response in two respects. First, the outer ring my have constructive suggestions that the protagonists may like, and should then be free to adopt (the idea here is that we don't need to be hung up on where an idea originates; the test is whether it works for the protagonists). However, in this instance the outer ring folks are not so much stakeholders as they are friendly advisers.

Second, I think it's a great idea to ask the outer ring to reflect on what they witnessed after the dyad work has been closed to their satisfaction. Now the "operation" is over and you're wanting to help inculcate good habits in the group by having them reflect on what worked or could be improved upon.

Taken all together, I like to allow only a small number of folks in the distress pool at any given time—preferably only one dyad and a facilitator. If you find that a number of others are having trouble resisting jumping in the water, I suggest assuring them that their turn is coming; just not now.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Visiting Family

From left to right: Laird, Kyle, Richard, and Alison

For the past five days my youngest sister (Alison) and I have been visiting my middle sister (Kyle) and her husband (Richard) in San Antonio. Above is a picture of the four us on our last night together.

Back in March my siblings (there are five of us all together) and I were moving toward orchestrating a reunion in San Antonio (we had not all been together there since Kyle & Richard’s daughter, Alana, married Kevin in March 2008) this summer to help with a remodeling project in their backyard—converting an idle garage into an apartment they could rent. But those plans got shelved when Richard had a stroke in late April, losing use of his right side.

Miraculously, Kyle happened to come home within minutes of Richard being stricken and was able to get him into emergency treatment stat. Richard has been highly motivated to regain as much function as he can and gradually he’s been recovering use of his right arm. During rehab yesterday, Richard was able to lift a medium-sized ball, which required coordinated use of both his left hand and his right. That was a big breakthrough, and he practices exercises between his twice weekly physical therapy sessions to sustain the forward momentum. Most stroke victims have a window of about two years in which to regain functionality (essentially it’s the brain developing work arounds to replace neural pathways, bypassing blocked sections damaged by the stroke). It’s incredible how clever the brain is, yet patient motivation is a large factor in how far someone recovers.

As it happens, Richard is right-handed, which means that in addition to working to regain functionality on that side, he has to train his undamaged left hand to be more sensitive. It’s a lot of work. As an artist used to expressing himself through drawing, it has been very frustrating.

Reading email updates is nowhere near as helpful as being with Richard for several days to experience how he’s adapting and responding to the wicked curveball life delivered his way. In addition, it was great to see how Kyle is coping (the garage makeover got backburnered in favor of remodeling the back corner of the house to create an ADA bathroom). As hoped, Kyle took advantage of Al and me to handle some of the domestic chores and be available for conversations. It can be quite a strain on the primary care provider (who is also holding down a full-time job) when their partner goes down and many of the routines of 35 years of married life are turned on their head.

As a bonus, Alana & Kevin—and their two boys, Jack (6) and Henry (4)—came over Friday from Galveston and stayed until Sunday, lending youthful energy and willing backs to the main project of the visit: digging out the lean-to back porch that had become Richard’s “resource yard" over the years and was chock-a-block full of stuff of questionable utility and unknown provenance. This was necessary in order to uncover the back door, which was going to be relocated as part of the bathroom overhaul.

It was fun watching Alana, as mother, work patiently yet with clarity with her boisterous boys, expressing support while setting limits at the same time. Kyle commented on how amazed she is to see how competent her daughter is as a working mother (she’s second mate on a deep sea oil rig operating in the Gulf of Mexico)—not because she thought Alana wouldn’t be, but because she wasn’t confident that she was such a great role model (and how else do you learn?).

Kevin & Alana loaded their truck with whatever items they thought they could use back in Galveston, and the rest disappeared overnight when placed curbside beneath a homemade sandwich board sign that advertised “free.” (Whew.) It’s fascinating how one person’s junk becomes another’s treasure. Alison and I both departed Tuesday, leaving Kyle & Richard’s house ready for the contractors.

While we left being no clearer about that postponed family reunion, that's due to ongoing uncertainty about Richard’s capacity. He’s making too much progress to predict how far it will go—which is a nice problem to have.