Be the Battery

Duracell Bunny“There’s only one thing more contagious than enthusiasm, and that’s a lack of it” (Bligh, 2000). I think we have all experienced at one point or another, a lecturer, a colleague or a friend even, who at that point, insists on sucking the life from the room as they mope through a  discussion topic, struggling to string two vaguely enthusiastic or stimulating sentences together. The fictional high school teacher who hates their subject matter, the ‘man’, their wife; they’re over worked, underpaid and don’t we know about it. When you finally break free from the negative clutches of these people, you are mentally exhausted. Even the most optimistic, upbeat people will struggle to remain positive through an hour of such a tortuous existence. In my role in the RAF (I know, I know, yes the RAF again) my team had an unofficial motto, it was “be the battery”. In other words that meant “make your enthusiasm infectious” (I often use this phrase). Our job was to generate interest in a career which of course, can be inherently dangerous. Our workshops were designed to be energetic, challenging, thought provoking and most of all, fun. Our approach was to start each session, ‘charged up’ and ready for the students to draw from us. Can you imagine if I as the leader introduced myself, and the outcomes in a manner that was unenthusiastic and cumbersome? What about if I then meandered my way into the session like a bear in a green uniform, slowly awakening from hibernation? Would I have EVER stimulated the mind of a potential candidate? No, they would remember “that miserable military guy that came to my school and taught us nothing”.

In chapter 6 of  The Skillful Teacher, Brookfield discussed the concept of lecturing creatively. Why do we lecture? What is the difference between lecturing and guided discussion? Brookfield tells us that the “only unifying characteristic [of a lecture] is that it involves sustained periods of teacher talk”. It stands to reason that if such “teacher talk” were not expressive, dynamic, energetic or thoughtful, it would not stimulate, let alone motivate the learner. Surely our primary purpose as a teacher is to promote learning in the best way that we can? If we therefore are unable to motivate the learner, aren’t we are doing our students and our profession an injustice? That said, lets not forget that we also should be wary of the ‘conversional obsession’ trap (see post below) and that there will occasionally be learners who simply don’t have the desire to learn (at that time), and that sometimes we need to focus our attention to the greater good. Brookfield quotes Birch, Batten, Manley and Smith, 2012 & Birch, Batten, Wright, Manley and Smith, 2014 to remind us that students look for:

Clarity of voice and expression.

Eye contact.

Gestures or cues that stress an important idea or signal a new theme is about to be considered.

As obvious as this may sound, if I recall some of my lecture experiences as a member of the audience, often these simple attributes are missed. During daily conversation I find it incredibly frustrating if I am faced with a mumbling, eye wanderer; imagine that in front of 100 wide eyed students. Of course one would expect for lecturers in front of so many students to be at the top of their ‘game’ but certainly there are good and bad speakers at every level. I am not proclaiming to be the model speaker but being from a rural and ,military background, these attributes are definitely things that I have put a considerable amount of effort into improving.

So, why do we lecture again? Brookfield tells us to establish a broad outline of a body of material. To explain with frequent examples, concepts that learners struggle to understand. To introduce alternate perspersectives…to model intellectual behaviors you wish to encourage in students. And lastly, to encourage learners interest in a topic. He goes on to discuss a number of techniques that we can employ to liven our lectures, in particular I want to talk about two; the first (being a advocate of fancy dress’) is “using spatial separation for speaking in tongues”. Research suggests that learning is effected by a number of elements such as time spent of a subject, the position of the teacher, eye contact, student proximity, variation to name but a few. The “spatial separation” activity “shows the student how the same idea….can be interpreted in different ways. Brookfield suggests posting signs around the teaching space that signify different viewpoints of a topic. Starting in the centre of the area, you discuss the topic. Then as you lecture, you move around the room to each sign in turn and discuss your understanding of the content from only that viewpoint. As you move to a new sign/viewpoint you could also don a hat or something additional that signifies the difference. The thought process is that by providing the learner with something to ‘attach’ their learning to, they may well be able to recall the information more easily.

The second is to “Deliberately introduce alternative perspectives”. Brookfield opens with “the Clint Eastwood chair”. I’d never heard of this, but a quick search presented me with Mr Eastwoods unique 2012 speech; he addressed an imaginary President Obama with his issues since he took up office. If you can act (and I think if you can teach, you can act, even if it is badly), this would be fun for everyone, teacher included. You start just as you would for the previous activity (by discussing the topic) and then sit in the chair (or move to another part of the room) and address the area where you were previously, with an opposing argument, difference in opinion etc.

Both of these activities really captured my imagination for my own classroom, you can not only directly model the learning behaviours and thought processes that you need to see in your students, but you can give the learner grounding for the information “oh thats when he was doing this, or wearing that” “wasn’t that when he argued X against Z from the window sill?”. This variety and enthusiasm takes me neatly full circle; lecturing can quickly become a mass (or mess if you like) of teacher talk. Students minds will inevitably wander at some point, by keeping the lecture ‘fresh’, dynamic an stimulating, we stand a far better chance of keeping them motivated to learn, be infectious, have fun, be the battery!

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