Know your audience

Next week, I’m flying down to a small resort town in South-East Europe to train some South-East Europeans about the European Union. They will then train other South-East Europeans about the EU, using the materials and techniques that I share with them.

It’s a bit of a new departure for me, even if the principles behind it are much like those of teaching in a university setting. However, during my preparation for the training, I have become much more aware of another universal aspect of teaching, namely knowing your audience.

The organisers have asked me to produce powerpoint slides before I go, so that they can print them up and have a resource which participants can refer to later, which seems fair enough. But I’m also aware that even with their CVs in front of me now, it will only be when I’m in the room with them that I’ll know what it is they want and how I will be able to give it to them.

This is what all teaching is like, but in a university setting we can make much more assertive assumptions about our students, based on their status within a programme of study, their likely prior experience and their future use of their learning (on this latter, this means primarily the assessment we’ll give them). Thus we can pitch the material with more confidence, relatively secure in the knowledge that most people in the room will be well-served by it.

In my case now, I have to make some guesses about how individuals’ (sometimes very extensive) experience will relate to my sessions and how it might be useful to them in their future work. Added to this is the extra dimension that I want to share as wide a range of pedagogies as possible with them, so that they can see a range of possibilities, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Of course, my motives don’t only stop there. I’m conscious that even with my exciting and lively style, sitting in the same room for two 4 hour blocks each day for 4 days is likely to chaff at some point. That means keeping people active, giving them a stake in the activities and generally maintaining a positive atmosphere. That’s not easy at the best of times, so I’m going to have to explore some extra thoughts I’ve having to make it work more smoothly.

But back to the general point. If we don’t know why our students are there and what they are trying to achieve, then we will risk giving them something that works on its own terms, but isn’t what they want or need. Just as we’ve all read essays from students that don’t answer the question we’ve asked – and found that frustrating – so too we need to be alive to the too-often implicit dialogue that our classes constitute. That means preparing in advance, talking with students before and during teaching and – most importantly – been prepared to make adjustments to our teaching where necessary.

Fine words, but I’ll tell how it goes when I return.