Think of someone that you feel is (or would be) incredibly interesting to hear speak. Picture that person being tremendously knowledgeable, and someone who does things that are incredibly germane to your current situation--where you are at in your career, where you are at in your school, or your classroom. Imagine that each example they gave and each story they told ended in you vigorously nodding your head in agreement and scribbling down notes at a furious pace. Pretend that you are shushing even your best friend sitting beside you so that you can catch every last sound bite and syllable before you jump up to give them a raucous ovation. Do you have that person in mind? Does that person exist for you?
If that person does exist (and they certainly could, as I have one or two in mind), for how long could you sit and listen? An hour? Two or three hours? An entire day? And to that end, how long could you LEARN from them?
Because when I look in the mirror each morning, I come to the same conclusion about myself: "You know what, you just aren't that interesting."
Now don't get me wrong, I find myself to be quite amusing. Personally, I really enjoy my stories. I feel as though I am reasonably well read. I can doctor up one heck of a Powerpoint slide, and have a couple of really cool YouTube videos that will dazzle the few people in the room that have not seen them before. I am pretty sure that several people have snorted and guffawed during my sessions. But really and truly, I can probably keep a group of adults on task for about as many minutes as I have fingers before they are thinking about the blinking light on their phones or what they need to do later that day. Because the truth of the matter is, the likelihood of me satisfying more than one or two conditions from the first paragraph of this post are actually quite low.
And I am fine with that. Because I truly believe that "you learn the work by doing the work."
This phrase would be a familiar refrain to anyone. And I am not just referring to educators--I would guess that in occupations ranging from a steelworker, to a doctor, to a chef in a restaurant, even to a parent--you need to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty in order for deep learning to occur (and as a relatively new parent, I certainly have learned that the hard way!).
So what if we made it a primary objective in education to spend as little time as possible talking to our learners and as much time available out getting them to DO the work? And when I am speaking about learners, I am referring to students AND adults. To our kids, and our teachers, administrators, and senior staff.
This is not to say that direct instruction does not have its place--it does, and when done well, this method can be quite effective. If you don't believe me, read this presentation of Visible Learning by John Hattie: you will see that direct instruction ranks 24th out of 130 factors that influence students achievement in terms of effectiveness. And when I am at a conference or attending a professional development session, there are times that I really want to tune in to the great minds and educational visionaries and listen to how they think. I sincerely find those sessions fascinating, and tend to walk away feeling invigorated.
On Friday and Saturday, I had the pleasure of listening to some great keynotes and panel discussions from educational futurist Simon Breakspear and from Connected Principal George Couros. From knowing George through Twitter and from previous presentations and as well as from reading Simon's bio, I was equally excited to see both speakers.
Simon had a number of key ideas that resonated with me. He reinforced the idea that we get better not by doing more, but by doing things differently. He encouraged us as school administrators to encourage wild ideas, risk-taking and curiosity from our students and our faculties. He talked about the "equity imperative"--how we need to keep every student on our agenda all of the time. And perhaps most important for me, he described "educational ecosystems", in which need to construct learning situations that are specific to our students, our teachers, our parents, and our communities, (he even mentioned our budgets!) because we do have differing ecosystems from school to school.
George also pushed my thinking, but more on an emotional level. He illustrated the power that social media can have on creating positive and deep interpersonal connections: his message spoke to me as an educator, but also as a human being and as a father to my children.
But coming back to my initial point, Simon and George certainly engaged me as a listener. But I do think it is exceedingly difficult for anyone (especially yours truly) to keep a group of learners "locked in" for a very long period of time or evoke meaningful and deep learning without
- deliberate strategies to engage those learners, along with
- lateral accountability mechanisms to require (yes, require) their participation and require the learning of the concepts and skills being presented.
And furthermore, I think any presenter can do this with any audience of any size. I believe this because of the idea of lateral accountability--the accountability to the people around you. If I am speaking to five hundred people, of course each of those people can't be accountable to me, and moreover, why would they? But they certainly can be accountable to the five or six people around them. They can certainly do an activity with the two people beside them. The person beside them can report the results of that activity to a third party, thus ensuring that they had to listen in the first place. Two small groups can compare their thoughts on a case study with each other. People can (gasp!) turn to someone they don't know, talk to them, and learn from them. It just takes a very conscious and highly purposeful effort to construct the activities and the time within a presentation to do so.
To paraphrase Douglas Fisher, author of Productive Group Work--How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork and Promote Understanding, we can maximize the interactions in the room. We can maximize the interactions between the participants themselves, and maximize the interactions between the participants and the content and ideas that we are presenting. Because the assumption that we must make is that we are presenting ideas and information that we want people to learn. And if we want people to learn, should we not utilize practices that we know require learning? Maybe I am crazy. But one thing is for sure.
I'm just not that interesting.
And I need every one of those strategies I can get. If you have strategies that you feel are particularly engaging for presentations, please share--I truly want to make my presentations better.
This was my presentation from BCPVPA Connecting Leaders 2013--thanks for any ideas you have.