Yes I can? YES YOU CAN!
Yesterday something extraordinary happened.
I was asked to run a session for colleagues at my university on learning and teaching as their first session of a Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching. Planning for this was like swimming in alphabet soup in my mind and gathering words – I knew what I did not want the session to be, but I wasn’t sure how I would or should tailor the session. I knew nothing about the group – who they were, why they were there, what their responsibilities or roles in their jobs were, or what their experience or conception of learning entailed – and all this matters.
In the past I have run sessions where the room is set out as an orchestra and everyone comes in to find that they will be not observing, but playing in that orchestra. Magic. This year though, that felt like hard work. (After yesterday though, I would like the opportunity to do that with this group) What I did instead was to divide them into groups of four and give each group an instrument. Each group had a different remit: one group was explicitly ‘taught’ by me, one group was told to just figure it out however they liked, one group was given roles for everyone – a facilitator, a scribe, someone to make an abstract map (mind map or the like) of the learning and happenings, and one person to be a designated researcher to find resources. Then after an exploratory 15 mins we came back to discuss what happened, and compare the perceptions of the learners and the others in the groups. -and to perform whatever they ‘figured out’. We heard twinkle twinkle from one group, Clair de lune from another (on viola! yes, I gave them a viola!!), and an improvised jazz/percussion piece from another group.
It was impossible in a short 90 min session to convey what they were actually experiencing from a theoretical standpoint.
Experience is a marvellous teacher, but when you are swimming in the water, you cannot also drink it or wash with it. One thing and ‘one think’ (as one of my children used to say) at a time.
I introduced the idea of being allowed. the yes. yes, in fact you can. It might not be marvellous – in fact these squeaky and inconsistent renditions on the instruments were not youtube or instagram material, they were in fact beautifully successful first goes. They were unjudged in terms of critical expectations, and in fact these (what some ears would call failures) were celebrated with a room full of smiles and applause.
We talked about self-efficacy – that’s the ‘Yes I Can’ belief in psychology – how it’s built, and why it is so important for any learner. I asked them all, at the start of the session to think of two things and to write down, or put on their phones, or just to remember whatever they thought of with two topics – how they experience them, what they do, and then the all important question: What’s The Use? The topics I gave were:
- Tax Returns
- A hobby (music, sport, cooking, travel… your choice)
Inevitably tax returns made people groan. Ugh. Have to. Do it to avoid penalty or punishment. Procrastination. Getting or paying for help. Anxiety. Stress. It was nearly all doom and gloom, but there were a few people who said – I don’t have to, and that makes me happy.
The responses about the hobby were nearly all joyful, people told stories about what they do and why – happiness, wellbeing, community, fun, self-development, choice, being with nature, enjoyment. It was harder for people to define what’s the use. They looked with sometimes searching eyes and said, it’s good for me.
These were important as a preface because, after experiencing the learning, when we got to discussing self-efficacy and processes, I could explain how it is important for people who educate to find a way to make the experience of learning move from being viewed as a have to (like the tax return) to something people want to do because actually they want to, it does have a use, and that’s something they must decide.
We talked about barriers to that self-belief, to the basic freedom to believe for yourself and to believe in yourself. Sometimes there are physical things that confirm we have a mismatch of task and skill – I used the example of my cracking my shins on the hurdles in high school. I can attest that the bruises convinced me that I was actually not (at that time) able to jump those. That didn’t mean I could never do it, and had I learned how to move my leg correctly maybe the outcome would have been different, or maybe I was too short and they were too tall for my abilities then. Sometimes though, we allow people or circumstances to define us in ways that have unintended knock-on consequences when they do not have a right to have that influence over us. And I asked – perhaps you can think (only in your minds, not to share) of something you did where started a project and for some reason someone told you that you couldn’t do it, and you believed them. It does happen, so very easily, and the moral of that little exercise was simply to stress the importance of the teacher’s role in both creating experiences and feeding back to students with care, because words matter – and though we have a fleeting interaction with students, teachers matter too.
One woman piped up with – Can I just share something?
I thought, oh no, as she sounded slightly insistent and I wasn’t sure what was coming)- yes…
I played the violin in school and someone told me I couldn’t do it and I’ve carried that with me all my life. I’d read about how it’s too late to learn, and I’ve just seen her (person in her group) play Clair de lune after no time, and I though FUCK IT, I CAN DO THIS.
(I don’t think she usually used such strong language, but sometimes word choice can give people a sense of empowerment or courage to carry on, and I think this was one of those times) Without hesitation I said – You send me an email and I’ll give you a violin. You can even join my community orchestra.
And she did. And I did.
Learning to play that violin is going to take work, time, dedication – there’s no easy fix, but to be told point blank that you can’t. That’s just hooey. And giving it away – I play on a bow that I was given and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the many things that people have unexpectedly given to me. Giving something back is a joy.
ps I’m currently writing a book and the title is #YesICan. I am just beginning the search for a publisher.