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Learning is up to the learner, but teaching is up to the teacher

 

It’s one thing to teach, and quite another to learn. Learning is up to the learner, not the teacher. Just like the old saying: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

But…here’s the thing: You can make him thirsty!

So the question is, how do we create environments that make learners “thirsty”? In other words, how can we foster learner engagement? Herewith, my personal Top 10. Some are prosaic and some can be incredibly challenging. And that’s a good thing, because we are all learners and we’re all teachers.

1. Start as you mean to go on: Begin every workshop, class, course, etc. with a question. Establishing right at the outset that our learning journey will be collective and collaborative is key, and especially early on I make a point of explicitly praising and otherwise rewarding any and all signs of positive engagement on the part of individuals/groups.

2. Incentivize participation: We want learners to take risks and make mistakes. When a person volunteers for something high risk, reinforce the desired behaviour. I don’t advertise it ahead of time, but whoever comes to the front of the room to do a role play with me is going to go back to his or her seat with some small token. It doesn’t even really matter what it is (think $ store).

3. Provide normative feedback: Using in-class mobile polling or an audience response system (like iClickers) lets learners compare their own knowledge/opinions/beliefs/assumptions with others in the room.

4. Establish relevance: Learners what to know “what’s in it for me?” Creating learning activities that help people bridge curricula to their own lives = good. Co-constructing learning activities that address/solve real-world problems = better.

5. Show your sense of humour: It’s hard to be serious all the time. Make it fun and mix it up! Shared laughter builds group cohesion.

6. Affirm autonomy: Let’s face it. Some days we are more fired up than others about our life’s work, and it’s no different for our students. When individuals or groups just don’t seem to be getting on board, I find that stating out loud (with 100% sincerity and with 0% judgement) that how/when/if folks engage is entirely their choice seems to free up some good energy for engagement.

7. Deploy multiple “engagement channels”: Individuals come to learning environments with a range of different learning preferences and a range of preferred ways of participating and engaging. Some people like the limelight, others need time to process and formulate a thoughtful response, and many are more comfortable sharing in a smaller group. The more choices we can offer about how to participate the better, including: verbal/written, large group/small group, synchronous/asynchronous, classroom-based/online, and more.

8. Evoke affect:  Research about emotion (affect), memory, and implications for learning suggest that teaching needs to go beyond engaging at a purely intellectual (cognitive) level, and touch peoples’ feelings (for example, Sylwester, 1994; and more recent perspectives that encompass academic technology and affective/cognitive learning, Calvo & D’Mello, 2011). Create learning activities that pair new knowledge and skills acquisition with positive affect, like surprise, delight, excitement, curiosity for deeper and more durable learning.

9. Show them you care: Authentic care and concern can go far in building good will and fostering mutual respect and support for one another’s learning and achievement.

10. And last but not least – know when to break the rules (and go ahead and break them). Like the time I called it a day and took the group shopping. 

 

 

Related articles

Five Reasons why Reality TV is not a Waste of Time: How reality TV can inform teaching best practices

Seven Essentials for 21st Century Education and Teaching: Stuff it took me 20 years to learn and I’m still trying to figure out

Rules of Engagement: The “Top 4” preconditions for learner engagement

 

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The “Top 4” Preconditions for Learner Engagement

Educators and presenters are rightly concerned with learner engagement. Creating engaging learning environments was the theme for the conference I attended today, and it made me wonder…what are my own “rules of engagement” in classrooms large and small, real and virtual? Here are my top four:

1. Make it fun

People are generally motivated to pursue activities that offer positive reinforcement, and the opposite is true for aversive experiences. That’s why chocolate + Reality TV often trumps time at the gym. By adding laughter, socializing, exploration and discovery to our facilitation we add engagement.

2. Make it personal

While altruism is a lofty ideal, in practice the most salient learning happens when we directly relate to a concept or skill on our own individual level. These personal connections evoke “aha” moments way more powerfully than relating new skills and ideas to abstract or hypothetical scenarios/applications.

3. Make it real

At its very best, presenting to groups more closely resembles a conversation than a performance. When we can be our authentic, playful, idiosyncratic selves in front of hundreds of people, that fosters connectedness (another word for engagement). If the audience sees our real, true self, that gives permission for them to be real too.

4. Make it safe

We’re only learning when we’re struggling. If it’s easy, that’s because we already know! The journey toward mastery involves making ourselves vulnerable; and our deepest instincts tell us that we can only permit our vulnerability when we feel safe. As a facilitator, I can help make it safe by modeling my own willingness to take risks or make mistakes, by creating opportunities for connectedness with other learners, and by fostering a climate of unconditional respect and acceptance.

When I think about what it really means to teach and learn, engagement is everything. Engagement is like oxygen: teaching feels as natural as breathing when it’s present, and teaching is as painful (and scary) as choking when engagement is absent. Nothing happens without it, and everything is possible when it’s there.

Related:

Deep Learning

Who was your favorite teacher?

3 Classroom Essentials: Education, inspiration and fun

Transformative learning in the conceptual age

Education is…

Neon game

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Follow these 10 tips for good grades…and improved learning

 

1. Read the course syllabus carefully. Keep it handy throughout the term and check it weekly to be sure you’ve completed all of the required readings and assignments.

 

2. Anticipate that there will be stressful periods in the academic term. Put assignment due dates into your calendar, and set interim goals for completing larger projects. If you don’t have or use a personal calendar, now is the time to get started to help you plan ahead.

 

3. Make a point of contributing in every class, even if it’s just to ask (versus answer) a question. This helps the instructor get to know you personally and signals that you’re actively involved and trying hard.

 

4. Take notes, even if the instructor posts slide decks to the course website. Notes help you absorb new information, and they complement slide decks and readings. Note-taking is an important skill and takes practice; the more you do it, the more effective and useful your notes will be for you.

 

5. Check in with the instructor if you aren’t sure of anything. Better to find out ahead of time, than via a low grade due to a misunderstanding on your part about course content or assignments. Don’t be shy – faculty genuinely want their students to succeed and are eager to help.

 

6. If you are emailing your instructor, be sure to communicate like a professional. That means using correct spelling and a somewhat formal tone. (Also, keep in mind that if you send the faculty an email Friday afternoon you might not hear back until the following Monday.)

 

7. Before submitting ANY written work, double (triple) check your spelling, grammar, syntax, formatting. If writing is not your strength, access a tutor to help with editing.

 

8. Keep in mind that if you’re struggling in the course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We all struggle when we’re learning new things. And learning new stuff is why you’re in school.

 

9. If you are REALLY struggling, ask for help. Is it because of the course content? Other things happening in your life? Time management? A health or mental health problem? There are lots of supports available to students through educational institutions and in the community – but they only work if you access them.

 

10. Last but not least, follow three simple steps for success in school (and in life).

 

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presenter’s five worst nightmares

Here they are – my top five, in no particular order because all can be equally harrowing:

1. Being unprepared: Not so much unprepared with respect to content, but being disconnected to the learners and their needs. It is possible to get caught off guard with a group whose expectations are not a match with the topic or what I’ve prepared. Like the time with a group whose manager made them all come to my workshop, and unknown to me they were collectively engaged in a major power-struggle with said manager. Not fun being caught in the middle of all that.

2. A complete A/V fail: I once arrived to present to 300 practitioners, and as the speaker was introducing me, one of the organizers casually mentioned that the projector wasn’t working but should be up and running in an hour or so.

Me: “No problem, we’ll just go with the handouts.”

Organizer: “Handouts? Oh…I knew I forgot something…”

Me: !

Speaker: “…and in conclusion, it is my pleasure to introduce our presenter….”

A live demonstration of the therapy mode I was presenting on bridged us to the arrival of the tech person. But if there had been no tech person?

3. A cancelled flight to a talk that has been booked a year in advance, for which lots of people have prepared with care and attention to detail. Last week’s flight out – on time, no less – on the biggest snowstorm of the year was an actual miracle.

4. Noise in the hotel the night before a talk: I’ve learned through experience to politely express the following wish list when checking in:

Away from the elevator (it’s like living on a quiet cul-de-sac versus a major thoroughfare)

No door to an adjoining room (interior doors aren’t nearly as soundproof as walls)

Upper floor (for some reason the partiers tend to be congregated on lower floors).

The worst was that night in Brazil having to pack up and change rooms at 1:00 AM because the folks next door had lots to say (though I don’t understand Portuguese), really loud voices, and no signs of flagging.

5. A boring presentation: It takes so much time, effort and commitment to get a group together, and it’s such an important opportunity to inspire and motivate change. Keeping things fresh, engaging, relevant and fun is a lot of work, but the alternative is bad news for everyone – presenter and group.

Chicago Millennium Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Earn it, care about it, and tell me a story

 

Although I have never attended a Dale Carnegie seminar on public speaking, I have found that his books are a treasure trove of wisdom and experience. While he did not discover the importance of connecting with an audience through authentic and personally-informed communication, Carnegie was able to convey these ideas in a powerful and compelling way.

In particular, three of Carnegie’s stand-out tips for a successful presentation are worth emphasizing:

1. Earn the right to talk about your subject. To me this idea captures the credibility that comes from experience, knowledge and practice. A high-stakes example is delivering a workshop on presentation and teaching skills, something I always approach with trepidation. Presenting about presenting, and teaching about teaching, means that as a facilitator, my own modeling of the subject needs to be outstanding in order to earn the group’s respect and engagement. I don’t think I’d be able to be successful in this without the years of experience I have spent “in the trenches” (e.g., this article on presenting in less-than-optimal surroundings).

2. Make sure that you are passionate – that you truly care – about your topic. My personal experience in the transformational impact that learner involvement and group energy can have makes it easy for me to convey my excitement about dynamic group facilitation and teaching. I know that transforming practice can make a meaningful difference in peoples’ personal and professional lives and careers, and that inspires me to want to inspire others.

3. Use clear and relatable illustrative stories to underline your key points. We are all hard-wired to respond to stories, and what better than our own experiences to communicate real-life applications and meaning behind important concepts or strategies?

I recently witnessed the impact of an inspirational teacher in my teenager’s volitional commitment to complete one hour of physics homework per day over the holidays. Did I mention that this is unprecedented and has been sustained with zero prompting on my part? The determination to master a complex and challenging subject is largely due to an outstanding teacher’s effectiveness in sparking interest and motivation in his students. From the teenager’s reports, this high school teacher brings years of experience in the field, loves everything to do with physics, and is not wanting for intriguing and off-the-wall examples.

What a powerful testimonial to the continuing relevance of Carnegie’s presentation tips: Subject mastery you’ve truly earned, passion for the topic, and good stories can all add up to a stellar experience for both audience and presenter.

conference badges

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. (Albert Einstein)

 

 

Conference abstracts – a brief description of the research or skills that you plan to present at an academic or industry gathering – can be tricky. There are parsimonious word limits within which you must put your best foot forward, yet you need to include enough detail to convey the value and differentiation of what you are proposing for the selection committee. It’s a bit like advertising copy: the idea is to grab the customer right from the start, and then convincingly demonstrate why your product is necessary and desirable. With concision, clarity and simplicity.

 

I use four key questions to guide my abstract-writing. This keeps me focused on articulating what the value-add will be to both the conference and the audience, since value-add is what the selection committee really cares about (while wading through reams of submissions).

 

Here they are –  my four guiding questions (accompanied by supplementary explanatory questions):

 

  1. Why is it relevant to the audience? (Why should they care?)
  2. What are the key components (points/data/major findings) of your talk/session? (What do you bring to the table?)
  3. What instructional strategies will you use? (Is this going to be boring or amazing?)
  4. What will people take away? (How will this session make the world just a tiny bit better?)

 

I have been on both sides (submitting and reviewing abstracts), and in my experience, if you can satisfactorily answer the above questions in a brief and well-written abstract, your chances of success will be greatly increased.

 

 

Bonus tip: Conferences have varying formatting requirements, word limits, and submission guidelines. Make sure to check all of this on the conference website before agonizing over your submission.

 

Good luck!

 

 

 

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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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