During the course of these prep sessions my dear friend and colleague, Jane Shea (@mmeshea), has been teaching me / us about "the heavy lifting" in the learning environment and who should be doing it. Heavy Lifting is the participation, thinking and work that needs to be done for learning to occur. Jane is a master at keeping this in mind and designing learning experiences in which her learners are the ones doing the heavy lifting no matter whether they are high school students or teachers under her training. As you can imagine, I am taking lots of notes from Madame Shea! So, this post is all about what I am learning about how to keep the heavy lifting in the hands of the learner.
How do we make sure that our learners do more work than we do in their own learning processes?
LESS IS MORE
First, we have to embrace the idea that less is more. Focusing on the essential elements that our learners have to walk away with and clearing out the clutter takes first priority. This is also the hardest part of the process because as teachers our innate desire is to equip our learners with all the possibilities they might need or see in our subject area, but we have to work hard to suppress that feeling. If we try to teach too much we will overwhelm our learners and no learning will occur at all. In fact, we can cause them to have setbacks. Choosing the essential elements, if we do it well, will let the important questions rise to the surface anyway. For example, if we teach our language students basic family terms by explaining our own family to them when it is time for our students to explain their families to us, any student whose family is structured differently will naturally have to ask for the words that we didn't use when talking about our own because they are essential to their own communication. The heavy lifting of their learning is on them in these ways:
- they have to listen to and make sense of the input I provide about my own family
- they have to apply what they hear to themselves
- they have to inquire about additional vocabulary to fit their own families
- they have to own all of that input and develop a method for curating the information vital to their reaching the learning targets they will be assessed on
What does that mean for me, the teacher? I don't have to prepare a vocabulary list. I don't have to quiz the vocabulary. I don't have to prepare notes for them. Focusing on the essentials rewards me with time to design powerful practice that builds their proficiency.
PRACTICE SHOULD MIMIC THE PRODUCT
As often as possible, the practice we design for our learners should mimic the outcomes we want to see them perform. Of course, scaffolding is an essential tool that ensures they can accomplish the things we want them to do, especially early in the learning experiences, but the more often we can mirror our desired outcomes in what our students do to take in the new information/skill, process or make sense of that new information/skill, practice and begin to personalize that new information/skill the more likely the learning will stick and become a part of their "toolbox". As teachers or trainers, we have to research or design learning experiences that not only have our learners interacting with the content we want them to learn, but model how to learn, how to manage new information, and/or how to use the new skill we are presenting to them. The alternative is to just tell them about the information and/or skill AKA, lecture. The problem with lecturing is this: you are doing the heavy lifting, they are doing next to nothing.
THE ONE LACKING MUSCLES MUST LIFT THE WEIGHTS
What Jane is teaching me about leaving the heavy lifting is that it is really about the learner, not me. While I have always known this to be true, I am having to evaluate when and how I am doing the heavy lifting and then look for ways to transfer that weight onto my learners in new, more potent ways. This is especially true for when I work with adults. As presenters, we often assume that our learners (adults) prefer or can handle us talking to them about a topic, but they are still learners and how they learn is still the same. This means that I have to add more tools to my toolbox to facilitate learning. To do that, I am researching more icebreakers, mini-games, brainstorming strategies and more. As I collect these new resources I realize that when I work with adults I am not only finding high yield ways of presenting new content to them, but I am modeling HOW to teach their students. For example, in my next presentation I want to begin with some reflection on on how we learned our second languages. Immediately after adding this to my presentation outline I heard Madame Shea's voice in my head say, "Amy Lenord, who is doing the heavy lifting?" I realized that as the workshop leader my own reflection is the most powerful only as an addendum after the participants' reflections. I knew then that to control the direction of the conversation we would have regarding their language learning stories I needed to find an activity to focus their reflections on very specific things. Fortunately, I was once a student council sponsor and I often used reflection activities to get our council members to team build. One of those activities is called Life Story during which each participant folds one sheet of paper in half lengthwise, then into thirds to create 6 squares on their paper. The leader has pre-planned content to instruct the participants to draw, write, jot into each square that represents their life story in some way. Some examples are:
- draw a picture of the three items you never leave your house without
- write three words in the box that best describe you
- write down what your worst habit is
In this particular case, I want my participants to fill in the boxes with drawings, symbols, words, lists and more related to the story about how they learned their second language. After my attendees complete the writing portion of My Language Story they will share it with the whole group. My intent is to have them reflect on how they learned a second language, evaluate the results of that program / method, and discuss whether or not those methods are effective. My ulterior motive is to teach a strategy that they can employ in the classroom to scaffold a presentational speaking activity with their students. My own language story is relevant, but their stories are where the learning hides. If I just tell my story, I am preaching and my participants could become defensive, but if they have to reflect on their own stories and share them they cannot dispute the facts and outcomes of those stories. Plus, there is power in numbers. The more their stories have in common, the more likely they group will be willing to move towards being open for new ideas.
WHO'S THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE ROOM? --THE ROOM
Shifting the heavy lifting off of our shoulders and onto our learners' shoulders is a continual, moment by moment process. It is a habit we have to form. We have been brainwashed (through our own learning experiences) to believe that we have to do so much for our students to teach them
when the truth is that the more we do for them, the less they learn. We rob them of learning to be resourceful and collaborative. In order to shift the weight, we have to look for even the smallest opportunities to do so such as when they ask questions. Rather than assume the responsibility for answering every little question they ask, my friend Jane says we should volley it back to the room. The room is smarter than any single individual and if it isn't putting the responsibility for finding the answer on the room builds a cooperative atmosphere in which all the learners are there to each other move towards success. Their learning and success is a shared commodity, so the affective filters are lowered and collaboration becomes the new normal in the learning environment.
If the heavy lifting is where the learning occurs, then the learner has to be the lifter. The power in heavy lifting extends far beyond the content we want our learners to gain for while they interact with that content so many more skills are being acquired than just what relates to the class or presentation. Having learners do the heavy lifting also helps establish the class or team climate by establishing what the learners and teacher are each responsible for. All stakeholders in the learning environment benefit from shifting the heavy lifting and it makes for much richer, deeper learning experiences despite who the learners are.
If you are in need of ideas for how to move the heavy lifting onto your learners' shoulders consider searching for icebreakers, workshop and facilitation strategies, brainstorming techniques and reflection guides and play with ways to employ them in your classes and/or presentations. The more active your learners are, the deeper the learning.
Happy Coaching, friends!