Being ineffective is never fun. But if we teach ineffectively it’s even worse – it’s hard work, disheartening, and tiring. One of the things that can have us teach ineffectively is not communicating with a student in a way that makes sense to them, and that they can get.
Another way of saying this is that, when we teach ineffectively, we teach from where we are rather than where they are. If we taught from where they are they (and we) would get better results. This may sound like a strange thing to say because most of the time it seems like we are teaching from where they are. If they can juggle a 3-ball cascade, we teach them an over the top throw. If they can kick up to a handstand, we teach them a handstand forward roll. This is simply an appropriate progression for what they can do; but it is not teaching them from where they are.
When I talk about teaching from where they are, I am not talking about teaching to a particular learning style. Lots has been written about the various styles of learning – especially what’s probably the most commonly known theory of auditory, visual and kinesthetic learning – and although learning styles can inform you of “where they are”, their learning style doesn’t determine where they are and certainly isn’t the whole BOW.
Where are they?
Each of us has a certain view of the world – our own thoughts, ideas, beliefs, rules, biases, etc. Our world view includes our beliefs about ourselves, what we can/can’t do, who we are/aren’t, what we like/dislike, etc. Our world view gives us our interpretation and understanding of what we experience. If you believe something is dangerous or risky you probably won’t do it or will at least be hesitant doing it.
“People’s actions are always perfectly correlated to the way the world occurs for them.” – Werner Erhard
An aerialist will happily perform high up in the air, with no safety harness and no safety mat. Joe and Jane Public – with no experience, training or background in aerial – would likely think twice before going on a rope at height without safety measures. The activity is the same; their world view is different.
It’s also important to understand that while we each have different world views, one world view isn’t better than another world view; it’s just different. Looking at a tree from the north isn’t inherently better than looking at it from the east – it’s just a different view.
It’s important to recognise a student’s world view – how they are thinking about and experiencing whatever it is they are attempting/approaching – and actually put ourselves there and see the world from their perspective.
Teaching from Over There
There’s a classic family story that my dad occasionally likes to tell from when I was about 2 or 3 years old and starting to learn to catch. My grandpa told me to “keep my eye on the ball.” So I did. I picked up the ball and held it against my face.
“Keep your eye on the ball” makes perfect sense to an adult when we think about catching. A 3 year old has a different, more literal, understanding. They haven’t fully developed the ability to think in metaphor so it isn’t useful to use a metaphor when teaching them. At that moment, while giving me the instruction, my grandpa wasn’t in my world. “Watch the ball” may have been a simpler, clearer instruction that would have made sense to 3 year old me in my world.
When teaching, if we can see the world through our students’ eyes, we can communicate to them from their world. Everything we say will make much more sense to them than if we are communicating from our world.
I remember teaching gymnastics a few years ago at a local club. Another coach was having difficulty getting a 3 year old girl to put her teddy bear down and join in. After a minute or two, I went over to see if I could help. The girl told me that her teddy bear had broken its leg. Now, obviously teddy bears don’t actually get hurt. They’re not real animals and they don’t have bones. My colleague’s view was that the girl should just put the bear down and join in – but that wasn’t working – and the girl was stubbornly excluding herself from her class.
I know that for a 3 year old, the teddy bear is just as real as anything or anyone else. Stuffed animals have personalities; they have likes/dislikes, they get hurt, enjoy activities and are very real and actual friends. Young children don’t differentiate between reality and imaginary in the same way as an adult and knowing this can be a very powerful tool.
So how do you deal with a teddy bear with a broken leg? Well, what would you do if your friend had a broken leg? You’d take them to hospital. So that’s what I did. I picked up the nearest hula hoop, put it on the floor, told the girl that the hula hoop was the hospital and that she should take the teddy to the hospital to see the doctor. I told her the doctor would fix the teddy’s broken leg while she did her gymnastics. Immediately she sat the teddy in the hula hoop hospital, stood up and joined in with the gymnastics. My colleague looked at me, shocked at how quickly and easily I’d dealt with it.
Being able to get into your student’s world, see the situation from their perspective, and then speak to them from there, can produce extraordinary results.
Getting into another person’s world
Getting into another person’s world takes practice and it isn’t always easy. By taking a moment to ask yourself the question “how does the world occur to them right now?” you will discover new things to say, new ways to act and maybe even whole new ways of teaching.
The following is by no means comprehensive but here are some questions to consider to help you get into their world:
How old are they?
Very young children see things very simply. They don’t differentiate between reality and imagination in the same way as an adult. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing. If it’s too easy, it’s not worth doing.
Pre-teens and teens have hormones raging; their bodies are changing rapidly; they often don’t know how best to deal with their emotions or feelings. At this stage of life they’re trying to fit in and are forming their adult identities.
Children and young people like to “get on with it” and try things whereas adults often like to conceptualise and understand something before attempting it, and are more concerned with getting hurt (they don’t bounce, they break).
What do they like/dislike about what you are teaching? Why?
Different people enjoy different activities. Some like the mental challenge of juggling, others like the beauty of trapeze. Knowing and understanding your students likes, dislikes and indifferences, can help you tailor your teaching and your lesson planning.
What is their personality like?
Are they extrovert or introvert? Do they like to work independently or with a group? Are they focused or do they like to try things and move on quickly? Knowing your students is an effective way of starting to get into their world – but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because you know them you know how they see the world.
How much experience do they have?
Have they done this before or is it their first attempt? Is it their 100th attempt? Have they done something similar before? Have they been repeatedly unsuccessful at this?
What are they thinking?
What would they be thinking if they are attempting something for the first time? What would they be thinking if they were attempting it for the 100th time?
Sometimes I can “see” my student’s thoughts as they attempt a move. If you can’t “see” their thought, ask them what they are thinking about as they attempt it? (This is obviously easier with teenagers and adults than with young children.) Knowing what they are thinking can sometimes give you a new opportunity to “replace” it with a more useful thought. Eg., “try thinking about X as you do it instead.”
Do they have any fears, concerns or other considerations? What are they?
Do they understand what is being asked of them? Do they think they will get hurt? What do they think will happen? Are they concerned with looking bad in front of other people?
When World Views Collide
When our perspectives are similar enough, your perspective will make sense to me. Standing shoulder to shoulder with someone looking at a tree will produce a similar enough view that your description and my description will likely be almost identical. When this is the case there’s no problem. We’ll see the world in pretty much the same way.
However, if we were to stand on opposite sides of the tree, we could disagree on what the tree looks like (is the tree leaning left or right, etc.). If we don’t see things the same way all manner of undesirable situations can arise.
Here’s the classic example from Abbott & Costello of what happens when you’re not in another person’s world. Notice how Lou Costello goes quickly from enthusiasm for learning the ball players’ names to confusion and then to frustration and annoyance when Bud Abbott is clearly not in his world.
As a circus teacher, if what I say doesn’t fit my student’s world view it won’t make sense to them in their world (just as leaving a teddy bear alone with a broken leg doesn’t make sense to a 3 year old).
If what I say doesn’t make sense, my students will respond (act or behave) in ways that are undesirable (and sometimes unpredictable) in class. They’ll make mistakes or be unwilling to do/try things, get confused, frustrated, annoyed (or worse upset), and possibly even be actively disruptive to the session or other students.
When students are being and acting that way, neither of us will get the results we want. Difficulty, adversity, frustration and annoyance don’t lend themselves to fun, effective learning or teaching.
Be in Their World
When we teach, if we can take a moment to be in our students’ world, see things through their eyes, and understand that their actions make perfect sense from their perspective, teaching and learning can be smooth, easy and effortless.
This is the fifth post in a series of teaching tips. Because there aren’t many teaching resources, trainings, books, or formal mentoring opportunities within the circus industry, the teaching tips are aimed at circus teachers although they are also applicable to any area of teaching.
Cover photo Photo by Rdghalayini under a Creative Commons licence, via Wikimedia Commons