Friday, February 26, 2010

Let the Teacher Beware

Over Christmas vacation our brother-in-law Dan introduced me to the book Taking Learning to Task: Creative Strategies for Teaching Adults by Jane Vella. It starts out,

Socrates knew it. Jesus knew it. The Buddha knew it. Every open question asked as the peripatetic crowd in white togas strolled around Athens, every parable put to the crowds at the lakeside…was a learning task. These great teachers set great learning tasks because they knew the power of dialogue.

I was hooked. While Tim and our nephews played for hours outside I took copious notes on Vella.

For years we have seen ourselves as “facilitators” rather than “teachers” or “speakers” and we always try to include a variety of learning styles in our training, but on the first page Vella showed me that what we’ve used have been “teaching tasks” instead of “learning tasks.” As she says, “When I prepared teaching tasks, I was not inviting dialogue. I was structuring my monologue.”

So far I’ve taught four classes at the EJ structured around learning tasks and I’m thrilled by the difference I’ve seen in level of student’s engagement with the material. The following pictures give you an idea of the environment we create.

Now if you are involved in adult education and you’re thinking about getting this book, its only fair to warn you: a learning centered approach is full of challenges. For one thing, it’s difficult and time-consuming to prepare good learning tasks. It also develops people’s capacity to think for themselves. This might not sound like a challenge, however some of our students come from authoritarian environments where personal opinion is not valued. As Vella says,

This learning-centered approach has the delightful quality of uncovering domination and oppressive purposes. A dominating manager quickly discovers that you are the wrong educator to strengthen his control over the workers or staff.

As this third semester of the EJ Institute for youth workers nears the halfway point, many of the problems that plagued us last year are being alleviated by the new staff, but we're constantly reminded that this project requires more wisdom than what we have.

1 comment:

gatheringwonder said...

fabulous - this book has changed the way I teach - so glad you guys have also found it helpful - so excited for the work you are doing!