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What does it take to be a wizard inside and outside the classroom?

1. Get excited

Everything in the world is inherently interesting. And everything in the world can be made incredibly boring. If I’m passionate about what I’m teaching, chances are some of that will rub off. This isn’t necessarily a challenge for new professors – or those teaching a course for the first time. When everything is fresh for both faculty and students, teaching is an adventure. Maybe it’s not so much getting excited about what you are teaching, as staying excited – after five years, ten years, or longer. Exploring new and innovative ways to get learners involved and promote their autonomy over their own learning, and fearlessly interrogating our approaches to course content and the processes of teaching, can help to keep us in that ‘beginner’s mindset’.

 

2. Overcommunicate

This one is a ‘quick-win’ – not difficult to implement, and has a major impact on students’ experience in a course. Students’ lives, like ours, are complicated, busy, and sometimes chaotic. People don’t always attend to our in-class communications or instructions, and/or email, and/or written (print) communication, and/or online course announcements, and/or classroom handouts. The more channels we can mobilize to share information with our students about upcoming assignments, due dates, key information or course resources, the greater the chance that our message will filter through the “white noise” of multiple, competing pressures and priorities.

 

3. Respond to student queries ASAP

This follows from Point 2, above. For good or ill, people increasingly expect (and value) prompt replies to their questions or concerns, especially via email. And students seem to equate an instructor’s response time with instructor engagement and caring (‘instructional immediacy’). A speedy reply is not always possible, and email communication can be delicate at times, but I try to live by the “24 hour or less” rule and interestingly, students make particular note of how helpful this responsiveness is to them in their comments on course evaluations.

 

4. Provide the back-story

I’ve found that when students feel like an assignment, an academic decision, a policy, or a course expectation is unfair or unwelcome, it’s usually because they’re not satisfied that there is a good rationale behind it. The trick is, how to communicate this without coming across as defensive, or worse, officious? I’ve found that the elicit-provide-elicit framework in Motivational Interviewing has been helpful in providing information to students. In short, the framework starts with (a) eliciting the student’s understanding of why they think I am proceeding in a certain way; (b) providing a brief (very brief – not a lecture) explanation from my perspective; (c) elicit the student’s response (“What do you make of that? How does this fit for you?”). Reflective listening is an ancillary skill that helps learners feel heard and understood, and makes sure that I am able to engage with accurate empathy.

 

5. Don’t work harder than your students

Learning is active. It takes effort, involvement and application. If I’m at the front of the room lecturing and the group is passively listening, who’s working harder? It’s a challenge to create dynamic learning activities that engage students in co-constructing meaning, wrestling with new ideas, and practicing new skills. Admittedly, high quality curriculum design generally takes considerable work at the front end – so perhaps it’s more accurate to say “Don’t work harder than your students in the classroom”.

 

And yes, highly effective teachers have more than these five habits – but after close to two decades, I have found them a strong foundation and a good starting point. Enjoy the journey!

 

This post is adapted from a previous post , January, 2015

 

 

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?”

 

Start your first class with a question … and a promise

As in any group of diverse individuals, learners come with varying identities, histories, levels of motivation, prior knowledge and experiences, as well as different wants, needs and openness to change. This means that teaching is inherently as much about process as it is content. By that I mean holding a dual focus on how people learn, participate and engage (process), as well as the substantive knowledge, skills and information required to meet your course’s learning outcomes (content).

In fact, I suggest that the process may be even more important than the content, given the rapidly changing landscape of professional practice across virtually all disciplines. The proliferation of knowledge in any given field is so vast and accelerating that the skills of curating, critiquing and assessing knowledge, and bridging knowledge to application, are the most important capabilities students can master. In other words, students most need to learn how to learn. 

It is tempting to approach teaching from a content mastery perspective versus from a “deep learning” perspective. Resist the temptation! By all means, prepare lesson plans, lecture notes and course reading lists. But create a space in the lesson plan for students’ own self-discovery, peer-to-peer collaboration, applied/experiential learning and exploration. Include as many questions as answers in your lecture notes. And approach your students as equal partners in the learning process: you have expertise and professional or scientific knowledge in your field of study, and they are experts in their own lives, including their hopes and dreams for the future.

Whether I am teaching in a face-to-face or an online classroom, I like to start the first class of every semester with a question and a promise.

Here’s the question: “What are you curious about? You’ve enrolled in this class on [insert course title]. What would you most like to learn more about?”

This sets up the expectation that each student has a voice in their own learning, and that they are at the centre of the work we will do together. It also reminds students that the course is more than just another grade or credit towards their diploma. They will actually get to learn about things that interest, excite and inspire them!

And here’s my promise: “My cornerstone commitment to you is my intention for this class to be among the top tier of courses that you have ever taken. I am committed to supporting your success in an outstanding learning experience – so I am eager to hear your feedback as we go, to help me deliver on this promise to you.”

While this may seem a tad grandiose, the promise simply reflects what every student yearns for in their deepest human heart: an opportunity for transformation, discovery and inspiration. I signal from the very start that I want only the best for the class, that I genuinely care, and that we are in this journey together. By modeling my own highest standards, I set an implicit example and expectation that they will bring their “A” game as well.

In short, I think the most important advice for a new professor is orienting ourselves to supporting students’ learning, versus delivering content. That shift changes everything, including ourselves.

 

street art wizard

 

What does it take to be a wizard inside and outside the classroom?

 

1. Respond to student queries ASAP

For good or ill, people increasingly expect (and value) prompt replies to their questions or concerns, especially via email. And students seem to equate an instructor’s response time with instructor engagement and caring. A speedy reply is not always possible, and email communication can be delicate at times, but I try to live by the “24 hour or less” rule and interestingly, students make particular note of how helpful this responsiveness is to them in comments on the course evaluations.

 

2. Overcommunicate

Students’ lives, like ours, are complicated, busy, and sometimes chaotic. People don’t always attend to our verbal communications or instructions, and/or email, and/or written (print) communication, and/or online announcements. Similarly, the more channels that we can mobilize to share information with our students about upcoming assignments, due dates, key information or course resources, the greater the chance that our message will filter through the “white noise” of multiple, competing pressures and priorities.

 

3. Listen carefully

When students express an issue or concern, chances are –  especially if we’ve been teaching for many years – we’ve heard it (or something very much like it) before. And we’ve also responded many times before. It’s sometimes easy to forget that for this student with this issue it might be the very first time, and every person and every situation is unique. Take the time to listen carefully with a goal of understanding.

 

4. Provide the back-story

I’ve found that when students feel like an assignment, an academic decision, a policy, or a course expectation is unfair or unwelcome, it’s usually because they’re not satisfied that there is a good rationale behind it. The trick is, how to communicate this without coming across as defensive, or worse, officious? I’ve found that the elicit-provide-elicit framework in Motivational Interviewing has been helpful in providing information to students: (a) elicit the student’s understanding of why they think I am proceeding in a certain way; (b) provide a brief explanation from my perspective; (c) elicit the student’s response (“What do you make of that? How does this fit for you?”).

 

5. Get excited

Everything in the world is inherently interesting. And everything in the world can be made incredibly boring. If I’m passionate about what I’m teaching, chances are some of that will rub off.

 

6. Don’t work harder than your students

Learning is active. It takes effort, involvement and application. If I’m at the front of the room lecturing and the group is passively listening, who’s working harder? It’s a challenge to create dynamic learning activities that engage students in co-constructing meaning, wrestling with new ideas, and trying out new skills. Admittedly, high quality curriculum design generally takes more work at the front end – so perhaps it’s more accurate to say “Don’t work harder than your students in the classroom”.

 

And yes, highly effective teachers have more than these six habits – but they’re a pretty good place to start.

 

 road grass sky

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five big lessons learned along the way

 

1. How do you feel when you walk out the door?

I’ve always valued the axiom that people don’t remember what you do or say – they remember how you made them feel. Think about your favorite teacher – what do you remember most from that class? The course content? Or is it the passion, inspiration, affirmation, compassion, kindness and care that he or she offered? For the most part, process is way more important than content in teaching and learning.

 

 

2. Transformational learning is about inspiring change, not transmitting information (no matter how “essential”).

Another axiom: “To teach well we need not say all we know, only what is useful for the pupil to hear”. In other words, no course or continuing professional education workshop is ever long enough for all of the didactic content that we regard as essential. Here’s my most important learning objective, no matter what the content:

At the end of this course the learner will…

Be so energized and inspired by the importance and relevance of this topic that he or she will continue to access knowledge and skills development long after the session has ended.

 

3. It’s not my decision.

Learning is 100% volitional. So is change. No matter how urgently I believe that I know what is best, that’s not really the point. Each individual is the expert on his or her life, including the learning goals and activities that may guide growth and development.

 

4. Change is a process, not an event – and so is learning.

Teaching and learning are really about change. By definition, seeing things from a new perspective involves a fundamental shift in standpoint or beliefs. Sometimes a (brief) interaction and connection doesn’t yield any appreciable indication that I have successfully “taught” anything. Then ten years later I randomly see a former student at the airport and am privileged to hear an inspiring story of transformation – initiated by something that I said or did. We plant seeds and only rarely witness the harvest.

 

5. We’re all protagonists (and want to be treated as such).

No matter how ubiquitous the student concerns, complaints, issues, grade appeals, special requests – each of us is at the centre of our own lives. Individual experience is at once singular and universal: all people are “like all others, some others, and no others” (to paraphrase Murray and Kluckhohn, 1953). It’s about listening (on our part) and – more important – feeling heard (on the other person’s part). Which brings us right back to Point #1.

 

 

So…although these are my top five, as Joni Mitchell famously said:

“People will tell you where they’ve gone, they’ll tell you where to go, but till you get there yourself you never really know.”

 

 

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