Learning from Teaching

CgV3SvnW8AQNSAZIt’s going to sound very pretentious, but all this travel is very disorientating. Exactly one week ago, I was sat in a seminar room in Hong Kong, helping people design simulation games, something that now feels simultaneously very familiar and very distant.

Amanda and I have posted already about these workshops (here), but given some of the things I’ve been doing since then, I wanted to pick up on a broader theme, namely of how we ourselves learn from the teaching we do.

Last night, I was in London, taking part in a panel discussion about Britain and the EU, as part of my other work, with an audience of school children. And that sentence already contains my first error.

I’ve spent most of the past year talking about this issue, to the media, to academics, to family members and everyone else. Yet I’ll confess that I forgot my basic pedagogic good sense when preparing for the event.

I’m very happy that the audience was not only informed, but also willing to articulate their views. I’m also happy that the audience’s views were not quite those that might be expected. My only problem was that I didn’t really think through the consequences of that for when I spoke.

On several occasions, our responses to questions from the floor were predicated on an assumption about what the questioner thought the answer should be. And on several occasions, we had to re-visit our answers as it was explained to us that we’d got the wrong end of the stick. Nothing earth-shattering, but just we’d not got our context sorted out.

Likewise, in Hong Kong a key part of our work was precisely about understanding the local situation and the needs of those taking part. Indeed, most of last week’s session on simulation design was precisely about dealing with some very specific situations indeed.

The lesson then is one that I already know: work with those you’re trying to teach, not across them. Assumptions are natural things to make and they can save some time, but they also come with pitfalls aplenty. Indeed, we could go further and say that assumptions can limit the benefits you can bring to others, which isn’t good for either side.

So how might we go about dealing with this?

The first step has to be one of self-awareness. Yes, I know that I’ve got good student evaluations, published research on pedagogy and a bunch of awards for my teaching, but I don’t think that means that automatically everything I do is brilliant: quite the opposite. If anything, I tend to work on the basis that I need to work more on things to make them better – it’s why I love writing on this blog, because it forces me to unpack my thinking and engage with others. The simple fact that you’re reading this suggests that you are at least open to the notion that you might have something to learn from others too.

If you’re self-aware, then you’re going to be open to the notion that you might be making assumptions. So try articulating them, to yourself or to others. For Hong Kong, Amanda and I spent a considerable amount of time talking through what we might do, how that might fit and how we might cope with different situations arising. For my panel last night, I didn’t really do any of that. Maybe if I’d have written down my working assumptions instead, I might have adopted a different approach that would have more easily accommodated the actual environment.

And that’s the next point: adaptability. To adapt my usual mantra, it’s not what you teach, it’s what people learn. It doesn’t matter if my approach is one grounded in years of experience and pedagogic research: if it doesn’t work with a particular group, then it doesn’t work with a particular group. Of course, good practice almost always includes the idea that you need to keep touching base with your students, to check that they’re still with you. However, that also involves some preparation about how you’re going to adapt if they’ve lost the thread or aren’t connecting. Sometimes that’s just a matter of re-phrasing something, but other times it’s about completely re-casting your session. Hence, you need to be ready both to identify and to act on that.

In the end, I think we managed to make the necessary adjustments last night and certainly we got a load of positive feedback afterwards. However, it’s a reminder that things aren’t always simple, especially when they look like they might be simple.

Let’s hope I can remember that next time.