Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Three Approaches to Public Speaking and Teaching

I've been lurking at the local "franchise" of the Perspectives program for which I often serve as an instructor. These classes are hosted by local churches across the country and around the world. Each class invites 14-15 different people to come and teach, each on a different week of the class. The class that's taking place nearest me this semester didn't invite me to be one of their instructors, but after sulking for a day or two I realized this might be a good semester for me to give extra time to listening, learning, and observing how other people do things. So when I can make it, I'm going to class.

A few of the speakers we had are in high demand. They came with books and CDs to sell and smooth, well-rehearsed presentations. These, though, were also the speakers who came with a disinclination to hear from or interact with the students. While they did a great job, in my mind they fell a bit short in honoring those they came to serve. Several even asked the coordinators to call off the other things scheduled for class on the days when they were with us. Anything that might have been designed to include the students in prayer, worship, discussion, or response was canceled in order to give more time to the "speaker."

I like a good lecture, and I think I lecture well myself. But if this class is designed to turn people's lives upside down, I think we need to ask: what approaches best engage and connect with the people who take these classes? What approaches accomplish the stated goals of the course? Do lecturing and entertaining fall short of the best we can provide?

I don't want to be too hard on instructors, especially in a context like this where they come and go. The responsibility for integration lies more with the the class coordinators, who can (if they choose) get to know their students and help frame the whole experience. Some really embrace the role and add a lot of value to the whole course for their students. But it usually doesn't happen accidentally.

The course design includes several good tools to help individual students process the material and reflect on its implications for their own lives. There's a text and study guide, reflective homework questions that are graded and handed back, and a major project to complete. I'd love to see students participating in an online discussion forum as well, but I don't think there is one. In this class, no in-class discussion forum either. I've seen very few of these classes use the small-group structure that was common when I first took the course in the 1990's. I've also noticed fewer and fewer class sessions seem to include any notetaking handouts, taking notes seems discouraged.

If all the class content "integration" happens on an individual level and/or through assignments on the syllabus instead of in the classroom, the 50 percent or so of the students "auditing" the class don't tend to benefit from them. They may choose to do the reading, but don't get much (if any) reward or feedback for it. The instructors learn to assume the students haven't done the reading! So I think we're falling on short on integrating what happens in the classroom with the text as well as with the actual goals of the program. I can see some ways this could be fixed, but it's not an easy ship to turn.

As an instructor trying to work within the system, I ask: What can instructors do to increase the "stickiness" and transforming power of the material we teach? 

Teaching Methods:

2. Lecturing: Some of the instructors mostly lectured, covering and illustrating key principles and providing a framework for organizing and understanding the material most significant to their topic/lesson. I appreciated the thoughtfulness in this approach: you can be sure that those using this technique are going to tell the students what they want to know; that they will "cover" the lesson and do it justice.

This approach is the least risky of the three. But sometimes it seemed a bit dry and academic.

Even those who preferred to do all the talking themselves made at least some kind of attempt to answer students' questions. Most, however, gave up when their "does anyone have any questions?" brought stony silence. Once they'd covered their material, they would dismiss the class as much as half an hour early. I guess that's better than going over, but somehow I felt cheated.

1. Teaching: A few of our instructors, including the several seminary professors, took a more of a workshop or seminar approach. They taught. Typically they would share a case study, hypothetical situation, or discussion question to elicit students' personal experience or engage their imagination/problem-solving abilities. They set aside time for personal reflection or group discussion, and provide a means for reporting back. Even if students are cautious about talking, they make extra effort to draw them in.

This can work great, and hypothetically I would consider it the "best" of the three techniques I'll describe. But often it falls flat - particularly when participants do not know the instructor or one another, and haven't been subtly trained to participate in this way. Each instructor only gets one "go" at this; they don't have time to create the class's culture of engagement. Even the most skillful of teachers may fail when they try to "teach" in someone else's class. Sometimes the students get frustrated; if they came to hear the instructor share his/her wisdom. They don't like being thrown back on themselves and expected to pool their ignorance.

3. Storytelling: Other instructors told a lot of stories. One guy in particular opened his session by explaining that he was going to teach by telling stories, "because all the studies show that's how people learn best!" He was one who'd asked the coordinator to cancel as much previously-scheduled programming as possible in order to give him time to tell his story the way he wanted to. He also promised us we'd remember more of his lesson than all the others unless the other instructors had told stories. Kind of a bold statement, I thought - though, I'd heard him speak before and knew he was a compelling storyteller. Over the next couple of hours, he shared his personal experiences - and nothing else.

His stories were right in line with the objectives of the lesson he was teaching. Yet, other than his invitation to the students to laugh, cry (or buy the stuff he was selling), he didn't give the students ways to participate. I guess they could enter into the story and identify with him as a storyteller, but if they didn't, there would be nothing there for them. He felt he needed the whole time we were together to tell his story. Little or no provision for questions, response, or interaction. So you can see why I have some reservations about this approach. I guess only time will tell if he was right: if his lesson is the one everyone remembers (as he claimed they would). Is that a good goal?

As a teacher - and as a writer - I use all three of these techniques - I lecture, I teach, I tell stories. But I'm not sure I use them and balance them very deliberately. I don't give a lot of thought to what technique is appropriate to the environments in which I teach and write, other than the significant accommodations I make for the differing class sizes and - as much as I can anticipate them - group cultures. Sometimes I fall short because I'm trying to do it all, or expecting one approach to accomplish that for which another approach is better suited.

I find the storytelling approach, handled well, often the most fun for both student and teacher/writer. I can see why the guys who tell their own stories are the ones in highest demand. But I don't think storytelling stands alone. This is especially true when what trying to catalyze a movement or to train people who will train others. Yes, personal stories are "sticky," but they are often not transferable. If my goal is to equip others to pass on what I teach them, the application of the principles in their own context matters more than how I've applied them in mine.

If you want to teach people who will go out and teach others, the stories you tell should be ones they can turn around and tell others as well as you told them. When I train trainers, I replace many of my personal-experience stories with stories from the Bible and other literature, parables, metaphors, etc. Nothing others can't imitate.

>> Will you help me out? As a student - maybe even in Perspectives classes - what works best for you, and why do you think that is? As a teacher - maybe even in Perspectives classes - what teaching style(s) do you use? To what extent does your approach depend on your material, personality, status, culture, or context? What (besides glazed eyes) tells you it's time to take a different tack?


Dianne said...

As a former student, particularly of Perspectives classes, the lessons I remember the best are the ones that had challenging content. The ones that challenged my assumptions, no matter what category, were the ones that held my attention best and were most formative. The means of delivery wasn't as important as the actual content. Some good speakers told stories in conjunction with a clear outline and objectives. It didn't matter all that much, as long as they tied it back into the primary lesson/objective at some point. Students will engage only as much as they want to, whether auditing or taking it for credit.

KatHat said...

I like to think of myself more as a "facilitator of learning" than a teacher. I like to engage the students as much as possible for memorable learning. Just sitting and soaking is not always memorable. Doing something with the information heard is. My first hour tends to be more group work & hands on. The second half ends up being more lecture. Although I usually receive good reviews by students & coordinators, they always want to hear more of my own experience. I've found that challenging to put within the history lessons that I normally teach, but I'm still learning!