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.

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