Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Teaching and Learning

I've been taking a tai chi class at my health club for about 9 months. I am a slow learner, and most of the time, I'm at peace with that. I've been told repeatedly that it can take a lifetime to truly master tai chi.

I am not accustomed to being a slow learner, so I have tried, as much as possible, to study what it feels like from the inside, and "interview" myself to capture those feelings. Here is some of my "research" to date.

Q: You can't seem to learn even the first 20 moves of the form. Why do you keep coming back?

A: For one thing, it is very relaxing to simply concentrate on moving my body rather than on the million of things that demand my attention and concentration every day in the classroom. Also, I suppose I imagine someday being the kind of person who does tai chi in the park in the early morning. The main reason I keep coming back, though, is that I am getting to know the people in the class and the instructors and I like spending a little time every week with them!

ANALYSIS: The main hook for the struggling learners in my classroom is likely the social piece as well. I need to remember to capitalize on that. It's also good to keep the end vision in sight -- to remember that the work we do in school is aimed well beyond standards and testing and AYP. Our goal is competently (independently) functioning members of our society.

Q: Which of the four instructors' styles works best for you?

A: Well, I can tell you for sure which one works the WORST -- that would be the guy who points out to the whole class that I'm the newest and least capable and I'm the one for whom he has the lowest expectations. (Not in so many words, but just about.) He also spends much of the class talking about tai chi rather than teaching us/leading us in practice of the moves in the form. I usually leave his classes cranky rather than relaxed. If he were the teacher every week, I wouldn't go back.

In third place is the instructor who is not such a great teacher, but he takes a personal interest in every member of the class. He knows my name and a little about me. He spends a little bit too much time talking during class, but I've been able to tell him that I'd rather spend more time practicing the moves and less time listening. And he was grateful (or at least polite) about the feedback.

The top two instructors are the ones who spend the whole class leading us through parts of the form. They pick a series of moves and we do them over and over again. They give the experienced members of the class tips about subtle ways to move their hands and bodies that go right over my head, but they never make the less experienced members of the class feel stupid.

ANALYSIS: Never make learners feel stupid. Totally counterproductive. Enough said.

Repetitive practice of essential skills is not necessarily a bad thing. Hard work on the pieces and parts can make the whole feel stronger. Success on a piece of a big skill fuels the desire to master the entire big skill. Drill of the parts should NEVER constitute ALL of the instruction, or the vision of the big picture will be lost.

Q: Do you practice lots outside of class?

A: For the longest time, I was only invested enough in the class to show up twice a week. Gradually, I built the desire to make more progress than I was able to in class (mostly because I wanted to please the instructor and the class members -- there's that social piece again). The thing that keeps me from practicing lots at home is that I don't know enough yet to practice independently!

ANALYSIS: Assigning homework is tricky. Yes, we want our students to practice what we work on in the classroom, but unless they are independent or close to being independent, that practice might not be attempted or might be a clumsy approximation (not a bad thing, just something to keep in mind). It's more important to make every minute of classroom instruction count than it is to create elaborate homework assignments that come loaded with unrealistic expectations for some of the learners in our classrooms.


  1. Love this post! I practiced Tai Chi for a number of years, but then my teacher moved away and I haven't found another class I like. Needless to say I don't practice much on my own anymore.

    I really like how you have drawn out lessons for teachers on what learners need/seek/thrive on here. Very wise & helpful to me!

  2. As I go through my own learning experiences, I am more empathetic to my treasures and their needs. Whether I was learning to row, new programs at school, or computer sites, my experiences mirrored my treasures learning and frustrations. As learners, we all need/seek/and thrive for similar things.


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