A Teachable Moment
A few years back, after helping raise my son as a work-at-home dad and realizing just how much I enjoyed the entire experience, I decided to pursue a Master of Arts in Teaching. At the time, I could not imagine a more fulfilling career. Having been a creative my entire adult life, I thought it’d be fun to apply that creativity to teaching. My goal was to make learning fun and experiential—the opposite of my own educational experience.
While in school, I learned I loved everything about my new profession—particularly the concept of the Master Teacher. Master Teaching, you see, is based on the belief that every child can be successful once you truly understand his or her learning style and abilities, and then differentiate teaching to maximize each of his or her strengths and mitigate each of his or her weaknesses. It requires generating lesson plans for the individual student rather than a class as a whole.
Spoiler alert: Although coming within six hours of graduation and maintaining a perfect 4.0 throughout grad school—as you’ve probably noticed, I am not a teacher, nor anticipate ever becoming one (in the traditional sense).
But one thing I did learn, other than a treasure-trove of invaluable life lessons, was that many of the techniques a Master Teacher employs to address the unique and diverse learning styles of a classroom full of students from varying walks of life, income groups, circumstances, genders, sexual identities, and ethnicities—can be applied in other areas as well. Not the least of which: live events.
After all, many of the same factors coming between students and learning are identical to those keeping your event attendees from truly engaging with your agenda.
Take VARK , for example. One of the first of many acronyms you learn in teaching, VARK was first coined by pioneering teacher Neil Fleming of New Zealand, who theorized people learn best in one of four ways: Visual, Auditory, Reading/writing, and Kinesthetic (physical activity).
He suggested that by incorporating each of these “modalities,” as he called them, into every presentation, presenters were certain to address every attendee in the way he or she learns best. What’s more, there’s nothing that says an attendee who learns best with one modality would not benefit from the others as well. Of course, Mr. Fleming called “attendees,” “students” and “presenters,” “teachers,” but I took some creative liberties to hasten than correlation to your event.
You also learn Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It suggests that before learning can occur, each tier of a 5-tier pyramid of increasing necessities must be met. The base of the pyramid holds our most primal needs of food, water, warmth, shelter, rest and other physiological basics—without which, participants will be preoccupied with meeting these most basic needs before being able to focus on learning, or in your case, your event.
Once those needs are met, your psyche sets to work on clearing the next tier of Maslow’s pyramid, safety and security. It’s here students and your event participants need to know they are in a safe place, both physically and emotionally. They need assurances their participation won’t cause them harm. Once that hurdle is cleared, people naturally turn to whether they feel a sense of belonging. Are they loved, part of a community, and feel comfortable in their group?
Once satisfied, people advance to the next tier, where they seek to satiate their innate desire for self-esteem. They want to feel a sense of accomplishment and prestige and won’t move on to the final tier until they get it.
Finally, having satisfied every last one of those nagging worries of the tiers below, only then could they move on to self-actualization—realizing their personal potential. It’s at this stage that attendees can finally focus on your event and come away with all the takeaways you intended.
Another staple of modern teaching that perfectly dovetails with event design is experiential learning—or learning from experience. It’s believed to be far more engaging and effective than just about every other technique. One of the primary benefits of experiential learning, or so the theory has it, is that when we learn by actually doing, it fosters personal reflection, which can lead to further invention. By comparing and contrasting what we experience with what we “know,” we’re able to create abstract concepts and apply those to form a better understanding of the world around us. The more you can encourage event attendees to arrive at the conclusion you intend rather than simply provide it to them, the far more likely the learning will stick with them and have meaning long after the event has ended.
It was armed with this knowledge and as much teaching theory my professors could impart into me that I entered my first foray into teaching an actual class.
I was tasked with teaching kindergartners spatial geometry. As one of my rubrics, I needed to build an understanding of objects in relation to one another, conveying the meaning of “in front of,” “inside,” “behind,” “on top of,” “next to,” “on the bottom of,” “underneath,” and “beside.”
I couldn’t wait. On the day of my big teaching debut, I donned a pirate hat, complete with flowing dreadlocks adorned with beads and bobbles and a golden frill that would’ve been the envy of Jack Sparrow. I carried a treasure chest under my arm, filled to the brim with individual baglets of plastic gemstones and gold doubloons and assured my students in my best pirate voice, “Arghh mateys, thar’s treasure to be had for each and every one of you scallywags if you can complete this simple task. You’ll find it on this here treasure map (pointing to the map) if you listen carefully and do as I say.”
Before embarking on the map, I demonstrated each position using a stuffed pirate bear and the treasure chest. I had students repeat “above” as I held the bear above the chest, going through all the positions of my rubric until my students knew it by rote. Not surprisingly, each student answered my queries in perfect pirate pitch.
“Argh, Mr. Dunn, could you remind me what ‘behind’ is, because, argh, I forgot.”
Once satisfied they’d mastered relative positioning, each student was given a treasure map festooned with islands, quicksand, bridges, shipwrecks, and sea monsters and asked to draw a course as I provided directions “around the shipwreck,” “on top of the bridge,” “under the cannon,” etc.
Following completion of the treasure map, I told my students they’d overcome every obstacle and peril on the map and had indeed earned the treasure; however, “mateys” there was one task still remaining—they’d have to navigate an actual obstacle course I had surreptitiously placed around the room. This was the kinesthetic reinforcement of my lesson. They’d experience, “in front of,” “behind,” “on top of,” “next to,” “on the bottom of,” “underneath,” “through” and “beside” as it related to themselves. “Argh, mateys, begin yer quest by going under the first row of desks! Next, walk beside the long blue tunnel. When you get to its end go through the tunnel.” Finally, “you’ll find yer treasure beside me, your capt..er…teacher.”
“Argh!!!” the students yelled in unison as they emerged from the tunnel and lined up beside me for their prize.
“Yes!!” I thought to myself. “Now, that was exactly the lesson I wanted to teach!”
After my lesson, I met with my mentor teacher and school advisor to go over my first time in front of a classroom, where I expected to get some gold doubloons of my own. All smiles, I sat down at one of the kindergartener-scaled desks and awaited my feedback.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk, Mr. Dunn. You totally lost control of your classroom today,” my advisor said, shaking her head in disapproval.
“No,” I protested, “that’s what I wanted. I wanted them to that enthusiastic. That was part of the plan. I wanted them to know how fun learning could be.”
“Mr. Dunn, you lost control of your classroom, the noise disrupted the neighboring classes, and it could’ve been dangerous when all the children came forward all at once for their prize.”
Ultimately, my pirate lesson marked both the high-and low-watermark of my teaching career. Evidently, the lessons I wanted to teach were not the ones the powers-that-be wanted taught. Although, I did take solace in the fact that, to a student, from pre-test to post-test showed dramatic improvement across the board.
But, alas, clearly, I wasn’t ready to become a teacher. Or maybe it was teaching that was not ready for me.