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How do you want to travel?

 

Lately I’ve been thinking about individual accountability for engaging in learning, and the delicacy in creating a climate where each person in the room feels as invested in the value and success of the course as the instructor does. This means focusing on the process (how learners decide to engage – or not) as well as the content (syllabus or curriculum).

Courses and workshops represent particular journeys for all participants – teacher included. In general, learning facilitators establish and negotiate the content, pacing, climate and structure throughout the course. And yet, learners themselves decide what and how they will learn. Learning can happen in the absence of teaching, and teaching can happen in the absence of learning. The magic happens when the two come together.

Most workshops and courses typically start off with a conversation about:

  • Learning outcomes
  • Course overview or outline
  • Participants’ learning goals
  • Learning assessments.

However, it’s equally important for learners to identify how they will contribute. In other words, reflecting on how they will learn and participate, what might hold them back, and what would make it safe to take risks and participate in ways that can feel downright uncomfortable. I think these questions are crucial precursors to the usual content-focused beginning to workshops and courses, because a conversation about process sets the stage for reciprocity and co-engagement in the learning journey.

It comes down to a conversation about how we (both the instructor and the group) collectively intend to make the journey together. From a facilitation perspective, this means starting out by asking questions like:

  1. Are you (learner) coming to this class as a spectator or as a participant?
  2. What are some possible ways into the content that would resonate for you, and how could you amplify these entry points?
  3. What would it take to make you want to step outside your comfort zone?
  4. If you decided to take some risks in the interest of your own ‘deep learning’, how can the group support you?
  5. How will you translate and adapt ideas, knowledge and skills in order to apply them in practice?

It’s not essential that we ask all five questions, and there are a wealth of other questions we could pose. The key is our intentionality in creating time for all participants to reflect on their roles and on the nature of the voyage they will take with you and with one-another.

And the next time I attend a workshop (or a class, meeting, performance, celebration or other opportunity to actively engage), I will be asking myself: “How do I want to travel?”

 

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The stages of group development can help us see where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re heading

 

Why are some classes a pleasure to teach, while others test every skill and fragment of an instructor’s patience and fortitude? How can things seem to start off so well, and then proceed rapidly downhill? I have found it helpful to remind myself of the stages of group development as a rough heuristic for making sense of the classroom climate over the course of a semester.

 

Having a “big picture” sense of the terrain I am navigating with students gives me a general road map and guide. Where did we start, where are we now, and where do we want to go? These are the questions I am asking in reflecting on my teaching practice. The principles of group dynamics state that groups tend to progress through five specific stages in the process of developing cohesion and productive functioning:

 

  1. Forming: Getting to know each other, as people determine the degree to which there is safety in risk-taking. Groups that get stuck at this stage tend to remain at a superficial level, and there is minimal group cohesion and community. Keep challenging their assumptions and encourage students to step beyond their comfort zone in engaging with one another and with the course material.
  2. Storming: Characterized by interpersonal conflict, as group members test implicit and explicit norms and boundaries. This stage can really stretch our skills as we help the class navigate through rough waters. Hold steady. You (and they) will get through it. And pat yourself on the back for successfully supporting the class’s progress past Phase 1 – that’s not easy to do.
  3. Norming: Developing positive group norms, values and behaviours is the reward for getting through the conflict and challenges of the storming phase. As a community of learners, what values do we stand for? How do we enact them in the classroom? Guiding students to examine and internalize positive group norms shifts some of the heavy work from the instructor to the class.
  4. Performing: This is when it’s easy to remember why you are passionate about teaching. High functioning classrooms happen when students are committed to their own and others’ learning, and are willing to dig deep and make mistakes. Here is the laboratory where transformative learning happens. Congratulations, you earned it.
  5. Adjourning: Saying goodbye can be tough, and guiding the class through this transition means honouring and celebrating their collective experience and acknowledging that this is ending.

And then you get to start all over again!

 

 

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