[UPDATE June 14, 2023: I knew it on the day I wrote this, but I very much admit this post is scattershot. I'll try to improve upon these ideas another time.]
For the entirety of my teaching career, I’ve learned that people learn best when we are actively involved in learning. Active lessons, where students can move around and interact with items and ideas in a variety of ways, almost always take pedagogical priority over speaker-slideshow-driven activities. I’ve been regularly trained to remember that students can absorb only so much information, that not all students learn in the same way at the same time, and that the memorize-what-the-teacher-said model just doesn’t work for most people.
This goes for all forms of pedagogy, as far as I can figure out. Whether you run a classroom, a workshop, or a seminar, effective instructors need to put some variety and activity in their instruction. In the sensory processing workshop I’m sitting in right now as I start this entry, the slideshow I’m looking at says, “Research shows that physical activity helps activate the brain, improves thought processing, boosts attention, and can enhance overall learning.” This concept fits everything I’ve learned about teaching over the last decade-and-a-half. Active learning works.
I’ve taken dozens of workshops in the last decade, and I’ve certainly attended them more regularly over the last two years as I’ve worked as an Integration Support Teacher in School District #36 (Surrey). The IST position is new to me and it’s not what I’ve been trained to do; I have a steep learning curve to work effectively in the role. With this role, I am required to take at least two workshops/inservices every month, and I take a few more each month on my own accord. I’m not quite qualified to do special education work, but I want to do a good job in this special ed related position, so I take workshops when available. I’ve had to learn about perception and learning strategies, about visual schedules and sensory overload, about self-regulation and self-management, and plenty of other concepts. In addition, I’ve had to learn to work with numerous experts I’d never had to consider before, such as Occupational Therapists, Speech Language Pathologists, Applied Behaviour Analysis workers, Behaviour Consultants, Behaviour Analysts, and plenty of other experts unique to each student. This IST position has introduced many concepts about learning that I’d never had to consider before, or at least I could ignore them and get by.
Almost every workshop I’ve attended extols the value of active learning for students. However, adult inservice workshops never follow the active learning model. The instructor sits at the front of the room and talks; behind them, there are slides that are chronically packed with information. Even as instructors discuss the issues with active learning, or sensory perception, or the ways we learn, inevitably each workshop follows the classic information-dump-from-an-expert sort of model.
There’s a straightforward, obvious reason for using the speaker-slideshow method: efficiency. A speaker and a slideshow seemingly pack loads of information into an auditory and visual model, so for practical purposes, if the purpose is to “get information out there,” it’s easiest to just get someone to talk to you while they click through Powerpoint slides, even if that person is a complete stranger. In the end, the instructor feels like they accomplished a lot because they said a lot and the slideshow backed up what they said. They feel like the information has been conveyed.
If the medium is the message, the “speaker with slideshow” medium’s ubiquity creates a message that speakers and slideshows are the prime means of information transfer. The message is, this is the medium that the experts use; it must be effective.
But recently, I’ve found myself more agitated during presentations. The message, as it were, is getting in the way. I find it harder and harder to sit through them, to take in information, to keep myself from distracting myself. I’ve attended workshops that I zone out in, where I just want to pack up and leave, because the presentation feels like a big pile of irony. I’m so tired of sitting through sessions that don’t practice what they preach.
Part of this might stem from some undiagnosed ADHD on my part, or perhaps some sort of sensory issue of my own; I’ve had enough people suggest that I may be autistic or that I think in a “unique way” that I would be remiss to imagine that I don’t have something going on in my own head. I’ve always doodled; I’ve always fidgeted; it took a long time for me to figure out how inferences work; it takes me longer to learn new concepts than it appears for my peers. Perhaps I have too much trouble blocking-out all the information of a room and focusing on the matter at hand. Perhaps I’m not made for speaker-slideshows, despite my relative success in school, university, and workshops.
But as far as I can tell, the active strategies we use with autistic students, or with students with ADHD, for example, are strategies that are effective for almost all students. And that includes us adult professionals. Just because we’re adults at a workshop doesn’t mean we learn well though the speaker-slideshow model.
And I feel like we, as educators, aren’t going to take the next steps with students if we don’t take the time to create active learning situations with our own peers. I think this is particularly true in the case of in-person workshops post-pandemic. We grew accustomed to people talking through screens, reading slideshows on Zoom and Teams. I’d say it was a miserable time for taking in information. But now that we’re out of the pandemic, meeting in person again, we need to exercise our abilities to move and interact with one another at workshops.
In essence, we need to re-streamline our instruction. And slideshows should always be considered the most cumbersome, clumsy means to instruct anything. We are adults and we learn in the same ways as those kids do. It’s about time we acted that way.
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