Setting the Tone

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

- Theodore Roosevelt

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Learner & Tutor : The Classroom Equation

It is interesting to explore how the power equations in the classroom, or for that matter, any learning environment, are shaped.

The starting point is that the two primary participants in the classroom, the learner and the tutor, are both human, and they carry with them their unique psychological make-ups, shaped by their individual histories and backgrounds. They carry with them their Freudian personality, their unconsciousness driving their value systems and their super-ego desperately controlling their direction.

It is interesting to watch how these personalities play out in the classroom. Someone who had a difficulty in learning herself would often try to project learning as difficult; someone who grew up as her father's special child will often pick up a special pupil, to the jealousy and dismay of everyone else. On the other hand, learners will often come with their sets of expectations to the classroom. This will often be dictated by what they missed in their lives, the roles and expectations which their parents may have fallen short of.

Of course, classroom is an intensely social setting, and especially adult classrooms, which I am primarily concerned with. The personal make-ups of the actors here gets engulfed by the social power equations and expectations. Imagine an one-off training consultant trying to deliver a training programme to a group of large company executives, where the power equation is invariably skewed against its natural tilt, and you get the sense. Thinking back, I now know why so many of the consultants spend so much time bragging about their individual backgrounds and expertise: Often, it is a power dance to set the equation right.

Go one step further and bring on the global classroom, where the tutor and learners may have come from different cultural backgrounds, and the power equation assumes a new dimension altogether. The personalities involved, the social context of the classroom and the cultural power dimensions all engulf the actual learning experience.

Imagine for a moment training someone on decision making. Let's say the person who needs the training is looking up to the teacher as an authority figure, and let's say we pick a tutor who knows the subject and projects a personality which is clear and decisive. Let us also assume for a moment that this is one area the learner was found to be lacking, and was 'strongly' recommended, by a supervisor, that he takes the course. Add to this fairly usual setting a tutor who is old and wise, perhaps from a western culture, who has seen the world and indeed, who starts his sessions and spends the first fifteen minutes telling everyone his credentials. I am quite certain a good session can be held in such a setting, and the learner can go home happy, have a number of great handouts and even feel empowered that he has learnt about decision making. If there is a behavioural objective, something in the lines of 'The Learner will be able to decide', which is measured by asking the learner whether he can or can not make a decision, the box will probably be ticked to everyone's satisfaction.

But, the construct of the classroom will linger in the learner's consciousness. Yes, he will be able to make decisions, as long as there is a strong support environment available, somewhat similar to the setting I just described. A strong, inaccessible authority figure, a directive to do the job, the elements present in this setting. Something that will still leave him helpless when decisions have to be made without the support, and in conditions of ambiguity. Unfortunately, that is the setting most decisions actually get made.

What is my point? I think a consideration should be made to these psychological and social elements of the classroom when planning a training programme. Again, talking from the adult workplace learning perspective, I think this is where a number of initiatives fail; behavioural objectives are somewhat made to meet, but the learning may not happen effectively. The fissures actually become clear quite soon after the training programmes have completed; let us call this the gap between practical business and workplace learning. This is where a deeper understanding of adult education theory can help workplace learning professionals, though , currently, the current dogma in workplace learning is to become more 'business-like', which is precisely the opposite direction it should be going.

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