Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach

I have spent much of my adulthood talking in front of groups of people. As a zoo educator, I presented to groups of all ages in numbers ranging from 15 to 700. As a dog training instructor, I taught dozens of adults and families on a weekly basis. Other significant public speaking and opportunities to design adult educational programs came with my next job, as well. I did a good job. I followed the example of speakers I enjoyed and respected. My audiences were engaged and learning. I was doing everything right, right?

In the mid-2000’s, I had the opportunity to attend a class that changed everything I knew about public speaking and adult learning. Global Learning Partner’s Dialogue Education program, and specifically Jane Vella’s “Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach“, was the most eye-opening educational experience I’ve ever had. Throughout the four-day class I experienced a huge shift in everything I knew as an instructor and educator; but what I was learning resonated deeply and I knew it was the right path. The problem is that now I am ruined as an audience member.

Think about the last instructional talk you attended as an adult. Chances are good that the instructor asked questions to the audience as a way to engage them. Chances are also good that the instructor already knew the answer to those questions. I used to do this all the time.

My mind was blown when I was told that I didn’t need to do that. In fact, I shouldn’t ask questions to which I already know the answer. What??? How can I keep my audience engaged without asking them questions? Through Dialogue Education, I learned to ask deeper, open questions that give me proof as an educational facilitator that actual learning is taking place, and help learners process concepts using their own experience and perspectives.

Tonight I attended a wonderful parenting seminar based on a popular program. It was good. I learned a lot. But boy… the instructors kept having the audience parrot back various refrains, or were asking semi-rhetorical questions to the point that it was distracting me from the actual content. I wish they would consider changing their approach to avoid these filler questions. It makes them sound condescending and the questions do not add value to the educational experience.

If you do any public speaking, I challenge you to consider avoiding asking any questions to which you already know the answer. Instead, check out the “Open Questions” handouts on the Global Learning resources page, and see if you can get your audience members’ gears turning on a deeper level.

This is just one dimension in which Dialogue Education changed my approach. The program changed so much about the learning experiences I facilitated. I later went on to take an advanced version of the class, and then I also worked closely with a consultant to design an adult volunteer training program. Then, over the course of several years, I was able to observe the effects of the change in instruction style on the trainee outcomes. I absolutely believe that this style of instruction results in vastly improved learning and retention. I encourage anyone who does any sort of public speaking or instruction to read the book and consider attending an introductory course.

Note: I was not compensated in any way for this post. These opinions are my own.

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Posted in: Blathering