Turning inside out

Caveat:   If you’re not an educator, this post may not be of much interest!  🙂

How many of you have children?     Hands go up.

Do your children know how to walk?        Hands go up.

How did they learn to walk?

Silence. ….  (What does this have to do with teaching? )   I  imagined their thoughts.

How did they learn to walk?    What did they do first?

Silence …  (What is going on?   Where’s the workshop that I came for?  Am I in the wrong place?)

Think back,  from the moment what was your child doing to prepare to walk?

Copying?      A tremulous voice called out.

Not at first.       A lot of surprised faces.

What did they do FIRST to learn to walk?

Imitate?       A cautious whisper.

What do they do before that?

Rolling over?      Someone else had decided to take their chances.   In fact, quite a few people were calling out ideas.   All of which were acknowledged as good guesses but rejected for the task at hand.

What do they do before that?

By this point, everyone was curious.  Even the people who had entered the room, sat down, and adopted the impassive face everyone wears when sitting in a formal situation to listen to  formal presenter in Nepal had perked up, some were leaning forward in their seats, alert, waiting to see what would happen next.  Of course, some were still reluctant to speak.  After all, making mistakes in a classroom is frowned upon.

By now, I imagined that some of their running internal commentaries were going something like this….

What’s with this shaved-head-white-person wearing a kurti and suruwale (traditional split-sided dress with pants) anyway?    I thought she was going to do a presentation about innovative teaching methods.   

Others, however, were getting into the swing of things.  They were getting used to my accent.  They’d figured out that I didn’t expect them to get the right answer right away.  That their task, as strange as it might seem, was to figure out, for however long it took, what the answer was.   They also now wanted to know for themselves, not just because someone was asking, what the truth was.   I mean, what could kids possibly be doing before they start imitating the adults around them?

I wait….  Finally, it comes…

Watching people walk?

YES!    And we are off an running.  Sometimes it takes 5” for a group to get to this recognition, sometimes 15”.

I write EXPERIENCE at the top of the board.  And under it, I write “People walking.”  Below that, the picture of a big eye… watching.

This is a child’s first experience of walking – seeing people walk around them.  Mama walks.  Papa walks. Grandma walks.  Grandpa walks.  Everyone walks…

Of course, this is only the beginning of the discovery process regarding how people learn naturally.  We still have to struggle our way through figuring out that their children have to next notice and remember what they see.  That they then have to think about what it means, and what this might means for them, and finally decide that they want to try before they ever start trying to imitate.   All of this is, of course, done naturally and unconsciously by every child born on this planet.

How do you learn your mother tongue?  Do you go to school?

No, we do it in the same way that we learn how to walk.     Ah……Now they get it.

In fact, this is how we learn to to anything.  We learn through our experience by first having an experience, noticing and remembering it, thinking about it, figuring out what we think is going on, what we need to do if we are going to do it ourselves, then decided to try to do it for ourselves.   What we see when someone starts learning a skill is the result of complex internal reflective and conceptual cognitive processes which eventually leads us to successfully do it on our own.

Some types of learning require very little intelligence or creativity, such as memorizing a phone number or an address.   Others shake us to our core and leave us asking questions of ourselves that we had never asked before for the simple reason that  we had not been seeing the world from a vantage where those questions were relevant.

We’re walking along one day as usual, and suddenly a wind whips around us and knocks us flat.  When we start to get back up, we realize that we can’t do it the way we did it before because something in us has changed.   We are now aware of something that we simply did not see before.  What worked just fine for us yesterday is suddenly revealed to be possibly (or definitely) inadequate, undesirable, false.   A unfamiliar urgency emerges from our deepest core — the impetus to change how we do things because our view of ourselves and the world has just shifted.  We have just slid into a new frame of perception, a new realty.  It is as exciting as it is frightening.  It is at this nexus where the the possibility of something else suddenly pops into view,  collapsing the world as we know it and demanding that we re-examine who we are, that true learning begins.

I don’t really know how much my actual teaching has changed over the years.   What has changed is my understanding of what I do and why I do it.   I used to always say that I worked with what I called the “light bulb principle”, the idea that I as a teacher had to figure out how to bring students to that moment of Ah-ha!! So that‘s it!   I can’t tell them what the ah-ha is.  If I do, it is not a true ah-ha.    No, I have to set the scene, provide enough context, and then ask the right questions.   The power of an ah-ha moment in learning arises through the process of discovering something for oneself.

I am still hoping to provoke ah-ha moments, but I realize that I cannot necessarily predict what the ah-ha will be in a cross-cultural setting in the same way that I can working with Americans.    In fact,  since there is no course syllabus, no exam based on required learning outcomes, I am free to simply provide an experience of learning and teaching and see what conclusions teachers draw from the experience and then foster their application in a new context.  There are always a multitude of different things going on in a classroom and it is difficult to pay equal attention to them all.   People notice what they are ready to see, I just try to provide as rich a landscape of possibility as I can for them to experience.

I have been giving workshops in Nepal on “innovative teaching techniques”.   That is what brings people to the table.  But in actuality, I am not really interested in teaching  innovative techniques for their own sake.  I am using them only as tools to awaken them to the possibilities of education.   Without an accompanying change in how one views the learning-teaching process, techniques on their own really don’t change the quality of education.    You can do any technique in a teacher-centered way or in a learner-centered way.  The only difference between the two is the focus of your attention when you do it and how you measure success.

I am interested provoking change in educational systems that dampen our children’s natural curiosity and ability to learn from the world around them.   And this means getting people to see their roles as teachers differently than is commonly found in a traditional educational setting where learning is viewed as a process of memorizing and reproducing previously existing knowledge as characterized in textbooks.  Once they see learning in another way, their teaching techniques will change automatically.

I’ve done 16 daylong trainings now in Nepal, working with mostly secondary grade teachers.  I designed a “menu” of 60″ minute training sessions on various topics that came up in an online needs assessment that I did.

Doing a needs assessment is always a good idea but, in this case, there were a few flaws with my plan:  (1) Not everyone had email and, in fact, the people who had it are also the people who have had more access to teacher training opportunities.  So their interests were really not illustrative of the majority.   (2)   The people answering the questions (non-native speakers) needed to be able to understand my questions.  And some of the responses showed that at least some of them did not.  And the all-time catch-22:  (3)  I needed to have a better understanding of the context in order to ask the right questions, but I couldn’t get an understanding of the context without asking something.

The first 8 trainings went well, relatively flawlessly, in fact, given that I had no prior knowledge of the context, or experience with Nepalese English teachers.  Everyone was happy, I enjoyed myself.  They got to experience someone who welcomes mistakes as a source of learning.  Someone who wanders around the classroom making sure that everyone is participating and understanding.   Someone who asks questions ad infinitum instead of lecturing.   Someone who laughs at herself and them, who has fun with the process of teaching and invites them to feel the same about learning.  Someone who never got angry, who never gave up, and someone who demanded participation and focused attention from everyone, all day.   Someone who loves to teach and who loves to learn.  Someone who, time and time again, would ask another student to give his or her colleague figured out what s/he was working on in his or her own time rather than jumping in to provide the answer.    Someone who repeated things over and over again until everyone “got” it, whether it be instructions or the pronunciation of a new word.  All of this was completely unfamiliar to everyone in every workshop.   Ah yes, even more,  the someone who was doing all this was old.  Ah-ha moments abounded, and some of them were not anything that I anticipated.  But would they result in a change in teaching for the individuals concerned?

Upon leaving the workshops, people said that would do things differently in their classes in the future.  But I was not convinced.  It is one thing to participate in a workshop that allows you to experience for the first time in your life what it feels like to be in an experiential, inquiry-based,  learner-centered classroom.  It is quite another to go home to your classroom of 50-100 students with the textbook you have just been plowing through one page to the next,  and find the time to suddenly plan your lessons using a model for learning you have just seen for the first time, not to mention try all the new classroom processes that you have just witnessed.  Learning-centered teaching actually requires an ability to pay attention to multiple dimensions of the classroom simultaneously.   Being educated to memorize and to imitate does not prepare someone to suddenly integrate information from multiple sources and make a pedagogically appropriate decision in a few seconds flat.

No matter how much you liked your new experience, it is a long road from the experience itself to figuring out how you can use it to actually using it successfully in a context very dissimilar from the one where you first experienced it, especially if your own education has not prepared you to think critically about the learning-teaching process while you are engaged in it.

In the end, I felt like I had, in  away, betrayed their trust.  I gave them a taste of something different and then just said so long, see what you can do with it on your own.   This isn’t what we do in a language classroom, why should teacher training be any different?   It shouldn’t be.  I realized that I needed to do more to build a bridge between what they did in their classrooms and what I was doing.

I redesigned all the sessions where I introduced various teaching techniques through an experiential language lesson using material from the Ministry of Education textbooks as the basis for lesson content and activities.  It took me awhile to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their books.  The books actually have plenty of good material for a lively, interactive, learning-centered classroom, if you understand the nature of different activities, how to implement them in a learner-centered way, and how to sequence them more effectively than is done in the book.    I assumed that the teachers were familiar with their textbooks.    Another strategic error on my part.

For the next ten trainings, I tried something different.    My idea was to take the familiar — their texts — and use it as the foundation upon which they could create something new by using the familiar in a new way.

Easy-peasy …. I thought…. not so.

Everything went well until the last session of each workshop.   It was a new session that I had developed to help teachers analyze the activities in their textbooks and then try to sequence what they already knew how to do in a way that more closely complemented how people learn naturally.

Each time I did it, I could see that it was still too big of a leap.  First of all, the task of matching activity description to a stage of learning was based on the assumption that they understood the learning activities that they used in the classroom from a meta-level.    That they could, for example, see that both “filling in the blanks with words from the text” and “underline the words you don’t know if the text” were both tasks tasks that asked the students to revisit the text in order to reinforce their remembrance of it.

The fact was that I was asking them to reflect upon the process of teaching as something that is separate from their textbooks, and then to relate that understanding to the activities in their textbooks.   For someone for whom teaching refers to the process of opening a textbook and reading the activities in a textbook and asking students to do them  without reflecting upon why the activities are what they are in the first place, or with an awareness that they are all leading to some specific set of learning outcomes, this is an entirely unfamiliar task.

I realized in the end that what I was actually teaching was not how to use new techniques with their textbooks, but rather I was teaching them how to think critically about their teaching, how to be reflective practitioners.  I was asking them to think about teaching and learning as interrelated processes which they are responsible for orchestrating quite possibly for the first time.   And since I hadn’t really realized that this would be so unfamiliar to them all I had, to some extent, completely missed the boat with all the workshops.

If I had it to do over, I’d offer workshops entitled something like “The Reflective Practitioner”.   I could still do most of the same activities, but my intention for doing them would be more transparent to workshop attendees and the desired learning outcomes would not be not whether they could use a new technique with their textbooks.  Rather it would be whether or not they could talk about their teaching and how it relates to their understanding of learning, and how the activities in their textbooks demonstrate the authors’ perspectives on the teaching-learning process.

Basically, I need to turn myself inside out in order to invite them to turn their inner worlds as teachers upside down.   I needed to somehow provoke the ah-ha that good teaching is not about what you do, rather it is about whether you can think critically and dispassionately about what you do and then use the insights that arise from such reflexivity to guide you to make appropriate adjustments to your teaching so that what you do will respond better to learner needs in the changing landscape of the classroom in each moment as it unfolds.   Good teaching is not a product.  It is a dynamic process of transformation borne out of continually engaging  in critical self-analysis and having the courage to act upon insight as it arises.