Learning from Participating

I have just completed a two-week intensive French course. Since in my professional life I sometimes deliver courses, I was keenly aware of the experience of being a participant. This post records my observations from this standpoint.

Learning is not the same as consulting

Pretty obvious? No. As a consultant, I’m given a problem, once, and I solve it, once. In my business life we gain understanding, we take action, we move on. In the French class, we gain understanding, and then we take the same action again and again, dozens of times, until it becomes innate. This is the learning process. It’s not the same as consulting.

Je t’appelle un taxi pour midi? Oui, appelles-en-moi un. Je te raconte ma journée perdue dans les transports? Oui, raconte-la-moi.  …and dozens of similar examples on double pronouns…

Repeat dozens of times…

As a participant, this takes a lot of self discipline. It’s not enough just to have it explained to you, then do it once. All that about “I experience and I remember” is not in fact true. I have to experience it dozens of times before I remember. In particular it’s not enough just to understand the logic. You can be perfectly familiar with the rule for the order of pronouns, but then, in the moment, coming out with “Je leur en ai parlé” (= “I talked to them about it”) is quite a different matter .

Repetition is a feature of learning. It’s not enough to do it just once.

Small differences in level of knowledge are magnified in the classroom

It is a huge effort of will to stay present and concentrate when I think I already know what is being taught. We spend 20 minutes going through vocabulary I know. I have to apply all my self-discipline to keep listening and to stop myself reaching for the iPhone. After all, it’s a good idea to rehearse and remember things I already know – see above. However this takes effort. And this is a small class of 4 people.

In the larger classes we typically use for business professional development, there are bound to be many occasions when we are telling a proportion of the class things they already know. So it’s up to us as facilitators and course leaders to keep participants engaged and to offer something to maintain the interest of people at all levels. Also we must be realistic and know that we cannot deliver new news to all the people all the time.

Small differences in participants’ backgrounds become evident and irksome

Some of my fellow participants were from the fashion industry – they have a need for a whole set of vocabulary of no interest to me. Some of my fellow participants are from Asia. English is their second language. So their points of reference are quite different from mine: words whose meaning is evident to a native English-speaker are quite strange for them.

A native English speaker could probably guess that “vexé” meant vexed or that “j’ai tendance à…” meant “I have a tendency to…” but that’s not so clear if your English vocabulary is limited.

So I need to make allowances, be generous, and remain aware that I too have my peculiarities and gaps in my knowledge. This takes humility and effort.

People are different: in all classes, including the groups to whom we deliver business training, each person brings their own experience. Even if they are all from the same company, there will be a differences in department, level, length of service or age. Participants are required to allow for these differences. What every participant expects is a personal class, a class crafted just for them, addressing their own needs, strengths and weaknesses, with all the other people there to support their learning. It’s not like that, and as leaders of courses we perhaps do well to remind participants that they are there to support other people’s learning too.

Participant behaviour has a large effect

If one of the class is not applying themselves, not doing the homework, or messing around and making excuses rather than getting on with the exercise, then that has a really quite disproportionate effect on the class experience. Even as an adult, I find it difficult to remain separate from such behaviour by others. There’s a sort of group cohesion which works for positive ends if everyone is in, and which falls apart quickly when people opt out. When someone looks at their iPhone at the critical moment when the instructions for the exercise are given out, the instructions have to be repeated. I find it difficult to maintain my good humour. I got impatient the first time, irritable the second time, and by the third time I was withdrawn and disaffected: I went dull. Good management by the teacher redeemed me, but I am acutely aware of the effect, and resolve that when I am in the role of teacher, I shall be quite careful to keep my attention on those who wish to learn, and take rapid action to isolate and contain poor behaviour.

Equally, and more positively, the presence of other learners is a huge incentive to get to class on time, do the homework, stay attentive and remain present. The other people’s questions are insightful and help me learn. Seeing them overcome their difficulties encourages me to struggle to overcome my own. Seeing the teacher’s willingness to address other people’s needs encourages me to express my own.

Learning is an effort

At the end of each day I was exhausted. At the end of the two weeks I slept for fourteen hours. Learning is a huge effort. Not only do we have to remember and acquire new knowledge, but we have to manage ourselves, exert self-discipline and work in a quite different way. We have to be patient, be wrong, be attentive. We have to repeat exercises, even when we know the answer, and we have specifically to do things we find difficult.

None of this is easy. However satisfying it may be, learning takes effort. I was a participant in this language class of my own free will. I had chosen to go, had paid to go, and cycled across London every day to get there. Many of our participants in our business classes have not chosen to be there. Therefore the effort for them is correspondingly greater.

As a course leader, I shall make sure I honour the effort the participants put in – and I shall make sure they get breaks, vary the pace, and above all I shall make sure they lots of praise. They deserve it.

Categories: Learning, training, and enhancing capability

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