Somewhere near the beginning of this semester, I took up swimming lessons. A few sessions in, my teacher introduced the breast stroke. “Arms, legs, and gliiiide”, she told me. But I couldn’t get my arms and legs right for the glide. She told me the breast stroke is a resting stroke. But it was so effortful, just to move forward a tiny bit. My shoulders hurt. My neck hurt from holding up my head when I felt like I was pulling myself underwater so long I couldn’t come up for a breath.
Shorty after (what seemed like forever to me), she taught me exactly how to coordinate my legs. My arms and legs and shoulders were strong enough. And I got the glide. I felt satisfied with my progress, but at the same time, I thought of my sore shoulders and wondered, “Why did she watch me struggle? Why the hell didn’t she just teach me that from the beginning?” But I knew why.
Back in my classroom, I was going through my supertrazillionth round of I-don’t-think-teaching-is-for-me, in teaching my first undergrad medical interpreting class. Then I attended a seminar whose theme was “Are your students making enough mistakes?”
At the seminar, the speaker explained the cycle of experiential learning: Give students a “naive task”, that is, tell them to do something without telling them how to do it. Then have them reflect on how it went. Then give them more information on how to do it. Then give them the task again. Then evaluate. More reflection. Then repeat. The trick is to always give them a task that is slightly out of their reach.
If I ask my interpreting students on the first day of class, “What do you think interpreting is?”, it may make for some interesting discussion, though that discussion is limited. But if I create a safe environment, and give them a simple interpreting task, their assumptions are automatically pushed to the surface in their performance. I don’t need to ask them what they think interpreting is, or how they respond when they’re squeezed and asked to do a task that’s over their heads. They demonstrate it for me.
So from the beginning they’d been in this experiential learning loop, but I couldn’t get them comfortable with taking risks and making mistakes. Having had some very unpleasant experiences making mistakes in my graduate training, it occurred to me that I had to examine my own comfort level with my students making mistakes, and the possibility that I wasn’t pushing them enough, or in the right way. Maybe the learning environment I had created was too safe, in ways that didn’t make sense.
I also had to examine my need to maintain complete control over the interpreting exercises and the feedback. In my graduate training, I learned that the role of the trainer is to push us into a place where we get lost, so we can find our way back. It was the trainer’s role to push me out of my comfort zone, and it was almost always my classmates who helped me find my way back. Remembering this, I began designing my classes where the focus was the students’ relationship with each other, and giving and receiving peer feedback.
The semester is over now, and I’ve read the students’ final essays in which they articulate their learning experience in class. They all described in their own thoughtful way the struggles and triumphs of experiential learning.
Learning what my students need from me, and then giving it to them is satisfying. Understanding the extent to which my students don’t really need me is humbling. By leaps and bounds, their favorite part of the class was the peer feedback.
In trying to figure out how to help my dear students navigate experiential learning, the beauty of course is in realizing that it is in fact I who am in the experiential learning cycle, that I am in the loop of performing my own naive task (teaching) and reflecting. That we are there together, students and teacher. That in fact I have always been here, and will always be here.
Arms, legs, and gliiiide.