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Effectiveness as a learning facilitator ("teacher") relies on two things in particular: discarding the notion that learners are in any way "wrong" or faulty because they lack the knowledge, understanding, skills, attitudes and values that you can deliver for them—if they were not lacking those things they would have no need of us "teachers"—and drawing on one's own experience/s as a hesitant, shy, cautious, blundering and ineffective learner, whether formerly or ongoing.

The first of these attitudinal maneuvers may prove harder to achieve than seems at first sight to be the case. I can hear you say that, of course, you know that students don't already know what you are going to "teach" them, but it is only with much heart searching and close reading of student feedback evaluations that one can notice the places where that underlying irritation or disappointment lingers and hides and, unfortunately, appears in expressions, gestures, asides, and other body language—if not in speech.

I am intending to indicate by the quotation marks around the words "teach" and "teacher" that my thinking, which is in line with that of my institution, has moved away from belief in effective teaching and towards a student-centered focus on effective learning. After all, each of us could prepare and present a faultless session that delivered a well-tuned curriculum via the best methods and approaches, taking account of all the different learning styles and multiple intelligence profiles we expect to be present in the room, but, if the students do not engage with the material, no learning will occur. I will, therefore, align my remarks around their learning, as opposed to our teaching.

Instead of creating one's session from the position of someone who knows a significant amount about the topic, one has to create for each topic one delivers an entry point for the learner who knows nothing about the topic, like a doorway into it from outside the knowledge, and usually from some other form or area of knowledge that is likely to be familiar to the student. Such doorways may well need to be designed differently to accommodate the visual, the aural, and the kinesthetic learners in the group so any session could well require several different entry points.

That entry point may be a physical object that prompts an activity: an artifact, some newspaper articles (for beginning students) or journal articles, or some resource from a web site. It could also be a common memory that we are certain all the students have from a news item, or a scene from film, It might be some expertise that one of their number has and is willing to share. Whatever it is, its relevance to "where they are" is key.

I often ask my trainee teachers whether they conceive of their prepared lessons as treasure hunts that they have laid out and prepared clues for, guided tours of museums where they explain exhibits and answer questions, group orienteering in a forest where they have a master map from which they have created simpler maps and signposts to lead their less knowledgeable companions though the experience, or something from another form of life-learning experience. I am consistently amazed at how few of them can answer that question without being given some reflection and group discussion time. I wonder now just how many academic teachers have considered their "teaching" style from this angle.

Students born after 1980 approach the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and judgment in ways quite other to those taken by older learners. They are not so willing to sit still and be quiet and to learn from the "sage on the stage" or to read "authoritative" texts on the subject. They believe in their own powers as learners. It is not that they do not need "teachers," rather that they need their "teachers" in a different way. Typically, they show the following characteristics:

1. They understand the environment of technology without having to think about it.

2. They are hyper-communicators, multi-taskers, and goal oriented along multiple tracks.

3. They learn differently than students did fifteen years ago and as a result feel disconnected from schools that were designed for another time.

4. They respond to sensory input differently than older, pre-1980 students. (Research indicates the seemingly constant exposure to multiple, overlapping sights and sounds has affected the neural pathways of digital students' brains.)

5. They require multi-sensory input to retain information and to be able to put it to use.

6. They show strong independence, and their unprecedented access to information also gives them the power to acquire the knowledge necessary to confront information they feel may not be correct.

7. They show emotional and intellectual openness.

8. They live and breathe innovation, constantly looking for ways to do things better.

9. When it comes to technology, they initially focus not on how it works but how to work it. [1]

When I found this series of pointers, I realized that I had recognized some of them already and had already made some changes in my "teaching" to match with them; I expect you will find that you have done so also. However, having the list proved very useful to me, for this year I have first-year students again, after several years teaching only second- and third-year students and postgraduates.

I found that I had recognized in my students points 1-6 and 9, and could appreciate where I had adapted my approaches to provide learning experiences that targeted their style. I realized that the sad part of point 3 was and is true for many of them, and this really motivated me to change, for making learning harder than it need be has never been my aim.

So I applied to myself rubrics that I had previously given to my teaching trainees:

Identify your own controlling metaphor for how to grab and hold the students' attention: be like a lighthouse, a flickering candle, a magnet, a black hole, a fireworks display, a lion, a conductor of an orchestra, a cabaret clown, etc.

Remind yourself that the following activities are not "teaching": bossing students about, telling them what to think, getting them to copy things out unaltered by passing through their minds, leaving them totally to themselves to get on with things, having low expectations, ignoring their appropriate requests, telling them they're not as good as last year's class, etc.

Remind yourself that the following are good: providing learning opportunities with vivid and relevant experiences, having high expectations of effort, genuine co-operation, friendly participation, enthusiasm, cheerfulness, curiosity because you have prepared activities, tasks, worksheets, experiments, experiences, role plays, etc., that are differentiated, teasing/challenging, intriguing (yet not overwhelming).

Remind yourself that good classroom management involves maximizing every student's learning opportunities via planned control of:

-teaching time (pace, transitions, highs and lows of concentration, excitement, enjoyment);
-organization (resources, room layout, furniture);
-hindrances (poor ventilation and lighting, blocked vision);
-enhancers (things to study or achievements to celebrate);
-sharing the "air waves" (e.g., who's in charge of the discussion: you or them);
-being with them, on their behalf, and against the difficulties they encounter, (even though these are not difficulties to you any more).

Finally, how does one harness one's own difficulties as a learner to the task of facilitating students in achieving the desired learning outcomes?

In some ways I am lucky in this aspect for I am a committed and happy horse-rider, though not at all proficient, even after fifty years' experience. I am not a good shape for horse riding; I wobble instead of sitting still and deep, and if the horse does not wish to co-operate with that and forgive my blunders, we get nowhere. I give the activity 100% and still do not succeed. It breaks my heart at times, but because I love it and am determined, I persevere.

When planning and when "teaching," I use my weekly memories of this to fuel my understanding of how students learn and of how they react to success, stalling, or failure. I know that emotions disable or freeze learning; I experience it myself over and over again. I believe that bringing the pain of that into my preparation makes me a more effective facilitator of others' learning.

It means that now I always provide resources and tasks at different levels and of different sorts in each session such that everyone can succeed—at least some of the time. I know how much that matters. It is a great commonplace that when we tell ourselves or others the story of our day, we are always the "star" of the story and everyone else is less wise, charming, or kind than ourselves. As learning facilitators, I firmly believe, that we should make it as easy as possible for the students' stories to be true when they portray themselves as "stars" in their own life story.

Heather McKay, author of Sabbath and Synagogue: The Question of Sabbath Worship in Ancient Judaism (Brill, 2001), teaches at Edge Hill College of Higher Education in Ormskirk, Lancashire, UK.

[1] Curtis, Greg, IT Director, Zurich International School, Envisioning the Future

Educause NLII New Learners / New Roles (NLII 2004 Key Theme)

Citation: Heather McKay, " Effective Learning Facilitation," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Oct 2004]. Online:


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