by Roger Rees
“As Teachers Are We Wise?” G Bateson, Mind and Nature 1979
This article relates my experiences as a lecturer in Further Education and particularly in applying my learning from NLP and DBM.
I think most of us who are teachers do regard ourselves as wise. If we reflect on this it is probably knowledge of our subject areas that makes us feel this way. This can produce an interesting irony. We can mostly gauge our level of understanding in comparison to others. Therefore in a way the greater the gap between our understanding and that which we manage to convey to our students the greater will be our sense of being wise.
However, for most teachers, in my experience, it is also important to succeed in ‘teaching’. For many this is as important to their identity as being knowledgeable. When we have students or groups with whom we feel we are unsuccessful we may question how good we are as teachers, or whether we actually know as mush as we thought.
Much more usually we identify the problem as being with the students. For example we often identify them as being lazy or stupid or not academic. This way of thinking is institutionalised in most sectors of education and is a more comfortable way to deal with what would otherwise be our lack of success. Surprisingly this is also a comfortable way to think for many students since it is removes any real pressure to stretch themselves. I remember covering for a colleague who had prepared a group to do oral presentations. After these had gone disastrously I thought it would be useful for them to look at ways of improving their approach. When I suggested this they were very opposed to the idea. They were adamant that they were simply too ‘thick’ to do anything so complex and explained that you were either born with the ability or you weren’t. When I incredulously told other staff many of them agreed with the student.
Many staff complain about the habits which students have ‘picked up’. They are usually referring to slumping on the desk or swearing. The most important habits that reflect the ways in which students and staff engage in learning are rarely considered in any rigorous way.
One of the main reasons that I decided to undertake NLP training was that I was very aware of the limitations of my students and of my teaching but did not know what to do to improve either. What I had done in the past was to try to improve my knowledge of the content of courses further. The training that I have done with Sensory Systems led me to make considerable changes in how I think about learning and in my approach to teaching. Most important of all I have considered what students learn through the ways in which their experience is patterned during their time in education.
Since starting teaching I had believed in a rather vague way that experiential learning was the most successful form. In other words I felt that to stand up and tell people what they should think and know was not the best way to help them learn. My ideas had developed from reading the work of Freire* among others who emphasised that didactic approaches to teaching (telling people what they should think and know) are likely to lead to students being passive and externally reliant in their learning.
Experiential or Student-Centred-Learning is the other major form of teaching and learning based on the principle that in place of traditional didactic approaches students should be encouraged to learn through their own experience and develop their own ways of thinking. Often this involves a lot of activities, open discussion and student involvement in the design of the curriculum. It is the method of teaching which has been most widely accepted by educationalists for some time and recently has been condemned as being to blame for nearly every perceived problem in education. In practice it takes many forms when applied in classrooms and in fact has only ever predominated in isolated pockets of education.
My experience of applying this principle to my teaching was mixed and had much in common with colleagues who had a similar commitment. When students enjoyed the activity they were engaged in, the lessons were generally enjoyable and successful. If, for some reason, they did not find the activity enjoyable they did not persevere on the basis that they would learn something. In fact there was a general concern among students, and other staff, that without large quantities of notes and without being told things formally then there was no learning taking place.
I still believed this approach to teaching and learning to be the ‘right’ one but increasingly became pessimistic about applying it successfully. I therefore began to compromise by including more and more didactic teaching and by focusing more on the entertainment value of exercises than their educational value. This brought me into line with the thinking of most other teachers that a mixed or an eclectic approach to teaching was desirable.
My experience of Student-Centred-Learning when studying teacher training was also mainly a negative one. Usually after an exploratory exercise the trainer would tell the group what it was that we should have learned. When first training with Sensory Systems I increasingly noticed that I had developed the limiting habit of coasting through exercises, waiting to be told what to have experienced. Through the course of my Practitioner and Master Practitioner Training I started to appreciate some of the value of building learning through experience. In fact having just completed Sensory Systems Trainers Training I was still surprised at how often I was using experiences from my Practitioner training and adding new ways of understanding and applying them.
When applying what I was learning to what I wanted my students to be experiencing I was able to identify the limitations in how I was going about my teaching and develop strategies to improve the potential experience for my students. I now understood from my own experience some of the ways in which we can limit our learning. During our time in education along with the content of courses we have learned habits and beliefs about ourselves and others. Most of my students had learned to be passive and externally reliant. I also appreciated how students felt very uncomfortable when confused or not certain and why they would often react by blaming themselves for being stupid or blaming the teacher. I had direct experience myself of these feelings and thoughts.
This understanding allowed me to work out from knowing what I wanted my students to learn how best to teach based now on much clearer ideas of why it could work. I started off courses by dealing with the concerns which students might have. I did this in the content of the lessons and the process they went through. For example in early lessons I would help students to recognise some of the limiting beliefs they had formed about learning. I would usually do this through an exploration of connections made in language. Examples which came up often were:
“I don’t understand because I’m stupid”
“I don’t understand therefore I’m stupid”
“You can’t spell so you must be stupid or lazy”
While doing this the classes were organised in such a way that the students were also beginning to recognise that it was acceptable not to know all the answers and that it could be enjoyable to look at things in new ways.
Although by no means always a smooth process my students learning improved enormously. This was particularly the case with adult groups for whom the motivation to learn and to learn about themselves in particular was greater. Because I understood more about the process that I wanted my students to go through I was much more able to be flexible. Therefore when things did not go according to plan I did not resort to blaming my limitations, the students or the idea of experiential learning. Instead, I was able to find different ways of achieving my objectives which fitted with the particular group and the syllabus being covered.
My main goal was initially to help students to become more aware of how they could learn more successfully and to encourage them to feel comfortable in dealing with new ways of thinking. In the longer term I wanted them to improve their ability to not simply take in what I or others told them but o increasingly search for their own evidence and to abstract general points from this. I had always been aware that the main abilities which marked out ‘A’ and ‘B’ students at ‘A’ and GCSE Level were the ability to abstract conclusions, and to refer to how they had drawn them. Also as Donaldson suggests the skill of a[plying previous learning in new contexts is vital to how successful we are.** I had previously found it difficult to help people improve these skills and had therefore resorted to didactically telling them that they ‘should’ do this. Now I was able to make this the main process through which my students learned.
The experiences which I went through are in many ways similar to those of education and, I believe business, as a whole. That is I applied a method because I had come to believe it was the right one. When it did not produce the results expected I rationalised this in a number of ways. After compromising the extent and ways in which I applied it I would almost certainly have returned to an old approach or found a new one. It was only through gaining a greater understanding of how and why experiential learning could work, through my own experience of it, that I was able to identify the problems in how I was applying it. Instead of abandoning an approach to teaching without ever really applying it I was therefore able to use my experience of what did not work to make my teaching more successful and more developmental and responsive to what actually occurred in my classes.
At the moment for a variety of reasons education in this country is moving away from the application of student centred approaches and back towards traditional ones. Didactic styles of teaching can be useful for conveying facts and procedures and this seems likely to increasingly be the role of education. My experience suggests that genuine experiential learning, on the other hand, can allow people to develop skills which can help them enormously in improving how they learn and in their everyday lives. It seems to me that if we allow the idea of student centred learning to be abandoned as a principle before it has ever really been applied in practise then our education system will be the poorer.
Roger worked as a lecturer in Further Education for over five years. During this time his main specialisms were Media and Communication Studies though he was also involved in working with students with behavioural difficulties.
Before that he had worked in the media as a comedy writer. He is now a freelance researcher and consultant working in advertising research amongst other areas. He has applied his experience in education as both a consultant and trainer. He has run a number of workshops at the DBM conferences on the application of DBM to anti-racist teaching, sport and personal development.
He is a Certified Trainer of NLP.
* Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Paulo Freire.
** Children’s Minds. Margaret Donaldson.