Teaching People How to Teach

I teach a quite a few different workshops, from sex & shame to sex-positivity to polyamory to BDSM and other sexual practices. And there’s one in particular that often gets some interesting reactions.

How to Be a Top Presenter is my workshop on how to teach workshops and classes. I developed it because I saw a lot of teachers and presenters who knew their subject, but simply didn’t know how to teach well. Often, they would use exercises and tools that didn’t suit their topic or the audience. Sometimes, the workshops were badly planned or simply didn’t flow. What I’ve noticed, though, is that whenever I announce that I’m offering this workshop, I often get a response along the lines of “Wow. That’s so meta,” or “How self-referential.” And while I understand that reaction, I want to unpack why I think some folks need this workshop.

Most people have no idea that there’s a huge body of research and writing about teaching adults. I think that a lot of that comes from the idea that all you need in order to teach is a depth of knowledge about your topic. But even if you’re creating a lecture, rather than an interactive class, you still need to know how to organize your information, how to be an engaging speaker, and how to work the crowd.

It turns out, however, that learning is much more effective when people have a chance to deeply engage with the material. Whether that’s through interactive exercises, well-designed homework, building inclusion through group activities, or simply the opportunity to practice new skills and receive feedback, learning works best when people are engaged emotionally and mentally. There’s plenty of research and case studies that support this, by the way.

This starts to get tricky, though, because every topic, audience, and setting changes what will make for an ideal workshop. After all, teaching math is different from teaching French, cooking, or car repair. So different approaches are needed for each one.

Each group of learners is made up of individuals with different experiences and needs. Sometimes, those differences make it easier to teach, such as when people have had positive experiences in previous classes. At other times, they make it harder, like when someone has a history of anxiety for the topic. (Back when I used to tutor math, this came up a lot.) And some audiences, such as medical professionals, are so used to lectures that they often resist any interaction other than Q&A, while other groups get visibly bored if they’re not talking back. That means that some practices will work well for some groups and not for others, so a skilled teacher needs to be able to adapt.

The effects of the setting are more important than you might think. When I’m in a lecture hall with immovable seats, I can’t use as many interactive exercises. When I’m teaching in the evening, I need to adapt to the fact that people are tired. Again, a skilled teacher can modify how they organize and present their information in each of these situations.

What all of this comes down to is that effective teaching is an emergent phenomenon because it results from the interplay of a deep level of content knowledge and a thorough grounding in the principles and practices of adult learning. In my experience, many educators have the first and are lacking the second. That doesn’t always mean that a workshop is ineffective, but it can be the difference between a good class and an amazing one. And there are definitely classes that are mediocre or worse as a result of the teacher not understanding how people learn.

When I teach How to Be a Top Presenter, my goal is to help people develop their understanding of adult learning and to apply that to their specific topics. It’s not as self-referential or “meta” as some people think, although I do work quite a bit with the processes of metacognition. Rather, it’s a skills-oriented class that focuses on the application of the adult education literature to make it easier for my learners to discover how they can be better teachers.

If you’re a workshop teacher, a professor, or any other kind of educator, I strongly suggest that you explore the field of adult education. There’s a lot of wisdom there and it can really improve your ability to engage with and motivate your learners. If you’re looking for resources, Jossey-Bass is one of the leading publishers of adult education texts.

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