Yeah, I have that song in my head today.
“One can wish upon a star; two can make a wish come true.”
Here’s why (other than the obvious – it’s a great song, so upbeat and joyful!):
I’m a teacher.
Always have been. And I know that if my learners don’t learn, that’s on me – it’s my responsibility to improve my teaching. Lately though, I’ve been rethinking that stance.
I’ve taught everything from algebra to piano lessons. I’ve taught people how to engage audiences, visualize data, design PowerPoint slides, compose surveys, and understand the impact of their programs. I’ve also spent decades studying other teachers*, professional development providers, presenters, TED speakers and others who facilitate learning with groups of adults and have notebooks filled with my observations and conclusions.
I’ve posed good questions to guide my observations such as:
- What appears to make teaching (or presenting) effective?
- What do students (or audience members) seem to be reacting favorably to?
- What’s happening to make me think that this learning will stick?
…and I think I’ve found some answers.
Add to this all that has been studied and published on the characteristics of a good presentation, what constitutes high quality professional learning, and the traits and strategies presenters need in order to engage audiences, make them think, and help them learn.
The thing is, it’s not enough.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve taken courses and workshops, attended conferences, webinars and corporate retreats, and walked away thinking you learned a ton from great presentations. But, somewhere down the road, you tried to remember what you learned or tried to apply the skill you thought you had, only to discover it wasn’t there. Whatever you thought you learned somehow got washed away, stuck among the synapses nestled up next to your 4th grade BFF’s favorite color, the quadratic formula, and the name of the bass player from that band you used to love so much.
A teacher can’t do it all.
A teacher (or presenter) can go to great lengths incorporating strategies to ensure that learners learn, and there are certainly “best practices” that can be embedded in presentations that engage audiences. Presenters can successfully and effectively engage their participants and all but ensure that audience members pay attention, interact, and even grasp the material they’re presenting.
But there’s another side to this story.
The best presentation, course, or professional learning experience, with the best instructor, the best learning environment, the best activities, assignments, and assessments, isn’t enough to ensure that learning will happen and will stick around enough that people will be able to meaningfully use it.
Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning how to learn. — Loris Malaguzzi
We, as learners, are the other side of the story. We have a deep responsibility to ourselves to ensure that what we endeavor to learn sticks around, and in the long run helps us grow and improve. After all, why else are we learning?
Retrieval practice – using strategies such as self-testing and deliberately calling back what you have learned — is likely the best way to strengthen learning and ensure it lasts.
Retrieval practice is the weight room for learning.
Retrieval practice can be as simple as looking up from the book you’re reading, or taking a break from coursework and closing your eyes to reflect on what you just learned. Don’t let yourself off the hook though! Take the time to describe to yourself in words and sentences what you just learned. Do this as if you’re sharing your new knowledge with a friend (or just go and share with a friend!). Or, if you’re learning a skill, take time out from learning to practice it.
Other strategies include making a set of flashcards (and then using them!) or creating a survey or test (doesn’t really matter what you call it) with questions that you’ll attempt to answer later on.
But it only works if you do the heavy lifting.
Remember, if you’re the learner, you’re the other side of the story. Your teachers have done their job. Now it’s your turn. I won’t lie. It’s hard work. Retrieval practice is powerful, but like any exercise, it must be done to achieve any worthwhile outcomes.
It’s fun to make the flashcards and quizzes, but it’s work to actually use them > look up what you missed > and use them again… and again. When it starts to feel uncomfortable or gets boring and you start to feel like quitting, ask yourself these questions:
- How important is this to me?
- How much do I really want to know and understand this material?
- Why do I need to know this material?
And my new favorite question that keeps me on track when I’m working hard and feel like stopping is,
If not now, when?
*In my early career as a special education teacher, I frequently co-taught with others, giving me the opportunity to observe their teaching. Later on I mentored hundreds of new teachers, again observing their teaching. In earning four degrees, I encountered many, many professors, and as an avid consumer of professional development I’ve had hundreds of instructors.