Friday, 30 March 2012

Developing Your Teaching Skills, Cambridge, 23/3/2012

A sunny day in Cambridge isn't the best context for attending a half-day course on developing teaching skills in a windowless room, but I fought through the desire to slack off and sit in the sunshine and went anyway! I'm really quite glad that I did. The sessions offered were engaging and useful, and the mix of imparted information and workshopped exchange of experience has added some useful pointers to integrate into my practice, both in desk-delivered training and future classroom sessions. The presentations I will refer to below can be found on the event Facebook page.

The first session (from Suzanne Griffiths and Clare Humphries of Cranfield University) took a concept I already knew a little about (the learning styles defined by Honey & Mumford) and systematically outlined how they can be integrated into planning and practice to ensure that no learners' preferred style is neglected during the course of a session. The teachers' own learning style is likely to have an impact on the style of session they put together, neglecting the style which they find less useful: I test as A--, R+, T, P+, so am likely to need to make a conscious effort to cater for activist learners. And knowing is half the battle....

Learning Style
Learns best when...
Learns least when...
Excitement/drama involved
Range of activities
Can 'have a go'
Passive learning
Solitary/individual tasks
Required to interpret data
Opportunity to review
Allowed to watch/consider
'Forced into the limelight'
Expected to act without planning
Situations structured
Clear purpose
Listen to/read about ideas/ concepts
Involved in unstructured activities
Tasks emphasising emotions
Obvious link between content and their needs
Can immediately implement learning in practice
Cannot see immediate benefit of content
Subject-matter abstract/theoretical

The table above outlines the pros and cons identified by the presenters. As can be observed, there is no one approach which will satisfy all styles at once: indeed, A and R/T may be cast as complete opposites! To place this in context, a case study was presented which showed how simple (and not-so-simple!) changes to an existing workshop session led to improved qualitative feedback from attendees and tutors alike. Despite having some familiarity with this way of looking at learners, I had never fully considered building their accommodation into lesson planning, let alone the informal training which is delivered via the Information Desk. I feel that, by remaining aware of the different needs of categories of learners, I can ensure that sessions I produce in the future will be more engaging and useful for learners and make me a better teacher.

The second substantial session of the afternoon was facilitated by Chris Powis of the University of Northampton (my alma mater, or at least one of them!), and substantially consisted of workshopping in small groups to plan a session which took the theoretical elements which we fundamentally recognise as being the functions of a teacher and put them into practice in the most foolproof way possible. He began by sharing Squires (1994)'s outline of the functions of a teacher, which were used as the backbone of the task.
A teacher must motivate learners (or at least not demotivate them!), and make them want to learn. They should audit what their students know and what their range of experiences are and utilise these to give the most relevant session possible. They should provide orientation by stating the expected outcomes and parameters of the session, maximising audience engagement. Whilst simply informing learners about new areas of knowledge is important, explaining this new information, providing a wider context for this, is also of vital importance. They should encourage learner exploration of a topic, both within the session and after it, and facilitate learners' development by allowing them space to assimilate and add to the information provided. They should give ample opportunity for learners to exercise their new knowledge, and should appraise the effectiveness of how well this knowledge has been imparted. Finally, they should provide opportunities for reinforcement of the core information provided, allowing for scaffolding of the core learning points.
Using these areas as headings (as they will generally occur in roughly this order, although there is inevitably some bleed and iterative looping between areas such as inform, explain, explore and develop), our group workshopped around meeting a group of learners for the first time. The process was really useful, as well as giving some idea of how different people approach lesson plans - some start from the core content then find the mode which will best suit this, whilst others take the pragmatic approach of identifying limitations such as time allowed and how settled the learners are at their institution and then identify what can effectively be taught and retained by students. The best part for me was picking up little hints and tips for new approaches - ideas which stuck with me include:

  • colour-coding induction information along 'need to know, good to know, nice to know' terms;
  • collecting 'blind feedback' by asking participants to signal with their eyes closed if they had developed knowledge of specific areas by the end of a session, ameliorating any potential embarrassment at admitting areas of weakness and providing a higher rate of targeted feedback than forms and follow-up emails tended to;
  • extending the session beyond the constraints of the allocated timeslot by emailing expected participants before the event asking for specific areas they wanted to focus on, and following up after the event asking if any further information is required and pointing to useful sources cited in-session.
Between these two, more substantial, sessions was a short introduction to the Cepholonian technique (there was no firm consensus on the pronunciation for this, but the general preference was towards a hard-'k'), inspired by an approach used by tour guides on the eponymous Greek yoghurt islands. This consists of a scripted (wholly, partially or minimally) question-and-answer approach, where participants are asked to raise questions on a topic which the teacher then answers. This works as an icebreaker with any size of group, allows for a variety of voices to be heard and can allow for some humour (however groan-worthy) to be introduced through wording and labelling of questions - the set used to deliver this session were a mix of exotic animals and diseases... Allowing a mix of spontaneity and structure which suits the instructor, and including active, theoretical and reflective elements (and, as scripted questions focus in on the information which you want to deliver, it's also pragmatic - full win!). I'm not sure I'd be quite comfortable using it, but it would be worth a try during induction talks or other sessions with a broad-but-shallow range.

Overall, the day was well worth the time and money - definitely better than the sunburn I'd have got if I just stayed outside!

1 comment:

  1. You've just made my day, as one of the ideas I contributed to the brainstorming in Chris Powis's sessions made your list of the memorable (and hopefully useful) - neat! Thank you!