Effective teaching in the jungle?

I read Jane Vella “Learning to listen, learning to teach” (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass 2002) earlier in the summer in which she sets out 12 principles of effective learning. Vella’s book and the principles it sets out (which are part of a trajectory which includes ‘Training for Transformation’ and Paulo Freire) have played a key role in thinking about training in a wide variety of contexts.  One of the key lessons from the book is that adult learning is best achieved in dialogue. Now back in Nauta I’ve continued to think about them (dialogue with them) and consider how what we are doing measures against them.

  1. Needs assessment (the participation of the learners in naming what is to be learned.) The question of who decides what is needed is important. As an outsider it is easy to think I know the answer, importing ideas from seminary and church leadership training elsewhere. But beyond that there are several other layers; there are those more senior leaders that we work with who have ideas about what is needed which may not match what the students themselves think. In addition, many are aware of what happens elsewhere (for example in Lima) and think the answer must be to copy them. Nevertheless we continue to probe, question and listen as we try to get a better understanding of what our students actually want and need.
  2. Safety (in the environment and the process). For the most part the things that are considered best practice in adult learning are very different from the things people are used to here (which is an extension of the way things are done in primary school). While such ideas are helpful for adult learning including too many of them creates too big a challenge for our students and so we need to mix more familiar things in. Hopefully we do so in a way that helps our students to both feel safe but also aids reinforcement and accountability (discussed below).
  3. Sound relationships (between teacher and learner and among learners). Increasingly our focus is on mentoring, both in the informal learning that takes place during training weeks and during the visits we make to the students. It also helps that two of us are still learning to speak Spanish and thus can see that we are also students.
  4. Sequence and reinforcement. The way we have developed the curriculum means that our focus is on developing key skills (rather than acquiring knowledge) and both through constant repetition and introducing a new aspect each month we enable students to develop at their own pace. This is especially important for those with lower literacy levels.
  5. Praxis (action with reflection / learning by doing). This is probably the hardest so far. Ideally we would make more use of problem centred learning styles (and I hope by the time I leave we will be doing so). Nevertheless we include practical tasks which provide learning opportunity and much of the Biblical material we cover is done through Bible Study rather than lectures.
  6. Respect for learners as decision makers. (If learners do not feel respected by the teacher, they will not learn what they might learn.) We try to keep to the rule of not doing for the students what they can do for themselves and to respect their knowledge and experience. In any event when we visit them in their communities we are in their hands for food, safety etc. All of which builds trust.
  7. Ideas, feelings and actions. (Cognitive, affective, and psychomotor aspects of learning.) We have a way to go yet but through our use of group work, drama, creating posters / drawing images and exercises we try to include these different aspects of learning).
  8. (If a skill or attitude is not immediately useful to an adult, it is probably not being learned as effectively as possible). We try hard to think together about how the things we cover can be used in their contexts (and to allow their context and the things that arise from it to shape what we do) but the fact we continue to be challenged by this shows we’ve yet to really grasp all of step 1.
  9. Clear roles and role development. (A teacher, as a facilitator of learning, can be intent upon a dialogue with an adult learner, but if the learner sees the teacher as “the professor” with whom there is no possibility of disagreement, no questioning, no challenge, the dialogue is dead in the water. Adult learners need reinforcement of the human equality between teacher and student and among students.) We want to create discussion though the culture here makes it hard for a teacher to be a facilitator of learning rather than the expert who is not to be questioned. However, we hope that by modelling this among the trainers and by including things to help students think how they can teach others we can begin this process so that there is a move towards that sense of us ‘being in this together’.
  10. We make group work integral to our course and, particularly in Bible Studies, encourage students to help each other.
  11. (Without engagement, there is no learning! The engagement of learners is not only an indication that they are learning, it is how they learn.) We’ve changed the structure of the days so that there are more breaks to make it easier for students to stay engaged and judging by the way they use some of the materials and ideas back in their home situations we are making good progress here.
  12. Accountability (How do they know they know what they have learned?). By giving people practical opportunities to use skills they learn (for example through preaching and through role play) we hope to help students see they are growing as pastors and leaders. Nevertheless only the students can apply what they learn to their own situations.

During this trip I’m really trying to work on getting a deeper understanding of needs as this is key to course development. But we are also working together on helping all the trainers have a better understanding and experience of these different elements of effective learning. The real work of developing training and trainers is bigger than I can do in my short time here but I hope that we can encourage a process or at least create that dialogue.

PS: Picture is of students role-playing a couple visiting the pastor to talk about their desire to be married in church. Interestingly they chose to do this round the table and not with three chairs in the space I’d created in the room.

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