October 29, 2005

Learning Environment

Its been a few weeks since I've made an entry on this Blog ... not for the lack of ideas, but time. I did manage to take a vacation over the past month (Lake Tahoe - this picture was taken at dusk).

I've been reading and thinking about the learning environment we create as teachers - and how that has a profound influence on a student's eagerness to learn (or lack thereof). Its no great surprise that many students get turned off at an early age to school - not because they are not bright or talented in some way, but because a teacher or other respected authority criticized the student's performance OR because the student did not initially succeed at a task (while others around him or her did). Even among adult learners, criticism is hard to swallow, makes people defensive, and often turns people off to learning. But given that its our JOB to help people improve their performance and acheive high standards, how do we enhance learning or improve performance without critism? If someone is doing something wrong or in less than an optimal manner, shouldn't we point that out? Yes, sometimes ... and with do caution and care.

I've been listening to yet another audiobook in my car - "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. This a classic book about human relationships and clearly has implications for teaching. The author postulates that there are three fundamental principles for influencing people:

1) Don't criticize, condemn, or complain (... show positive examples of exemplary performance)
2) Given honest, sincere appreciation (... give praise not flattery)
3) Arouse in the other person an eager want (... to learn)

Through these techniques, teachers can steer learners toward the desired outcomes (but not in a manipulative way!) by creating a supportive learning environment - where success is acknowledged and failures are merely new opportunities to learn. Of course, "living" these principles - as teachers and as human beings - is far easier said than done! Becoming aware and constantly mindful of what we say to our students and how we say it is perhaps among the greatest challenges that any teacher (or parent) faces. What we say, of course, is a reflection of what we feel and think. If we find it difficult to avoid criticism or express appreciation, the initial step toward improving the learning environment is altering our own mental framework and attitudes. Needless to say, I haven't perfected these techniques yet. But few, in human history ever have ... so I'm consoled. I'm working to get better at it ... not acheive perfection.

These techniques are not a panacea. Being a good educator requires A LOT more than praising people, smiling, and remembering everyone's name. You actually have to DO something ... like performing a thorough analysis, design and development sound units of instruction, implement it, and conduct a well-planned evaluation.

For a humorous look at "How to Win Friends and Influence People" check out this broadcast from THIS AMERICAN LIFE (November 2, 2001). You'll need RealPlayer to listen to this program.