The group came together again on another Wednesday evening to work through the next Seedbed module on Writing (skills). We covered the stages of writing, various formats and purpose/audience we write for; sparked discussion about spelling and misunderstood the phrase ‘running dictation’, thereby, leaving us all breathless.
During all the practical stuff of writing learning materials, members of the group brought forward a number of revealing observations.
The quickest learner, the loudest one, the one who finishes first isn’t always the best learner in the group. How surprising it is still to find even among experienced tutors a certain level of anxiety, not grasping a point while thinking others are racing ahead. I explained how, when placed in a small group with people I didn’t know well or yet trust, I need to reassure myself I’m not stupid. Some of us, after all, are thinkers (theorists or reflectivists) as well as doers (activists). We like to take time over an issue.
Speaking up for reflective learners, I extolled proudly how I often came up with a crucial piece of the problem to solve it (actually, not that often, If I’m honest) but it does happen from time to time. Once, I went on a singing weekend. We had a problem in that how could we position ourselves without blocking the pianist? Several suggestions were made but none were satisfactory till I saw the simplest thing. Why not move the piano away from the wall and we could all stand around it. Simple and effective!
So, thinking I should call the task I’d set the group to an end now. They were coming up with creative ideas for writing using a selection of random objects, including a green dragon, a red fire engine and, oh, the Eiffel tower. But I remembered I’d given them a finish time and so decided to allow the exercise to run. While the two groups which finished ahead of time were waiting, they started ‘chatting’. It seemed to me they were actually getting to know one another better. The atmosphere felt a more relaxed, still studious. I felt more relaxed inside too. A nice feeling, ‘Ahh, this is going well, isn’t it?’ Do other tutors talk to themselves while teaching, I wonder? At some point, we mentioned that tutors are always running a backing track which acts as part editor, part judge of the lesson in progress.
It’s not always possible to know if someone has a disability or a barrier holding them back. My eldest son, for example, has an acquired head injury, is studying at university and needs extra time to break information and knowledge down into more manageable chunks for him to make sense of it.
Someone else has a stammer. This was certainly not obvious to the rest of us but she said it could hold her back.Thinking about it afterwards, how great then that she was the one who volunteered to read the ‘running dictation’ out at pace!
Or what if English is not your first language? Anyone who has tried to speak a foreign language abroad will know how draining it is over an extended period of time. Exciting, stimulating, even inspriring but also very, very tiring. What if someone is translating from English into their first language, then back again into English before replying?
This led us on to talking about the power of language. If decisions are being made in one language and some of the participants do not feel included, can this increase their sense of frustration and isolation? I’m not only thinking about language but also register and accent here. People using the same language can still be divided because of their educaton or class background.
One learner recounted a meeting where local people met with their community representatives. The process was going in a relatively stilted manner. Sometime later, they decided to use interpreters and what a difference it made. People were speaking, thinking and listening more fluently. They felt more involved in arriving at decisions which affected their lives. The results were much more satisfying and longer lasting.
One word jumps out at me, confidence. How important is this? Yet, it doesn’t just happen. The tutor needs to build trust between individuals, get them working together, allow time for their insights and skills to emerge. This may lead to sharing ‘deeper’ thoughts, making us all more aware.
I’d also given the group the choice of who they worked with. I sat back and it was interesting to watch, amusing too. They swopped around for the next activity. Giving them the decision was making them think.
At a completely different meeting, a skills for life curriculum meeting, one member spoke of the goal of ESOL classes being to raise levels in reading, writing and speaking and listening. While this is necessary, I hope this is not all our tutors do. By breaking down barriers, building trust and cooperation through various games and activities, by allowing learners to make more and more of their own decisions, the tutor builds confidence, raises awareness, increases expectations. Students start to hold people to account, including the tutor. Isn’t this what we as tutors and staff ought to be aiming for?