171. International Conference on Quality Education – Reflection

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The inaugural session, even though very traditional, had one major highlight for me. The speeches in Nepali. Yes, it was an international conference with participants from several other countries and I saw them putting on headphones for live-translation. Very impressive stuff RBF.

I am not a huge fan of speeches by big people because my heart is among the teachers and in the classroom. Therefore, I had chosen to attend workshop sessions rather than other presentations and keynote speeches.

On the first day, I attended two workshop sessions: Collaboration to Promote Learning, and Storytelling.

Right place, right time:
The first session ended up becoming quite a memorable one. Vani Rana, the facilitator was good. Really good. When I entered the room, I could see that she had pasted three white chart papers on the board, arranged the tables for four participants each, and placed necessary writing materials on the tables. Anticipating a few more participants to walk in, she said, “Let’s wait for a few minutes.” She then asked us to write our names on a paper and draw an image that symbolizes us. Else, we would have taken out our cell phones and played Lolo.

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As she began the session, she asked the participants to express their commitment for the session so that everyone a productive time. This was also, I think, well thought of. I have seen many teachers and trainers jump right into the content without making sure that everyone is in the same page. As a result, the participants don’t know what is expected of them, and how they are supposed to behave.

Another interesting thing – she asked us to fill up a form titled “Discussion Partners”. We were to find three participants we didn’t know previously, and fill up their names on the form. They would be our partners for the discussions coming up. This ensured that I had three different partners for three different activities. Loved this idea. I can quickly implement this idea in my class, even when students are unwilling to choose partners beyond their usual circles.

The way she debriefed in between the activities also helped us understand the purpose behind the activities and the theories of collaboration. I went out from her session with several takeaways and facilitation ideas I could implement right away.

Wrong place, wrong time:
The second session was on Storytelling and I thought I was in the wrong place through out the session. For some reason, I could not stay focused on the activities. I suppose I made an error in choosing the session as the stuffs turned out to be too elementary for me and I lost my interest right away. The other participants, mostly school teachers from different parts of the country seemed quite engaged and enjoying it though. So, I don’t want to take away any credit from the two facilitators.
In the moment, my mind was full of questions. What if the participants of our own workshop sessions felt the same? What if they felt bored and out of place? What would I do? What would I feel? Is it possible to engage everyone all the time?

Embracing Ambiguity:
And, it was my turn. My session on “Helping Students Embrace Questions rather than Answers” was scheduled for 10.00 AM to 11.30 on Day 2 of the conference. I had designed the session based on the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) initiated by the Right Question Institute.

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I had done a session on this theme once in different teacher training program and it hadn’t gone that well. Primarily because I was not able to communicate enough the purpose of QFT. So, this time I was a bit cautious about how I might go about it.
Another challenge: I didn’t have any details of the participants – number, background, and expectations. However, assessing the workshops I had attended on Day 1, I could imagine they would generally be teachers from pubic schools and from outside the valley. Essentially, I was going to shoot arrows in the dark.

So, reached the room 30 minutes early. Checked the name list of the participants. Apparently 26 had signed in. Went in and started arranging the desks. A few volunteers came for help (Thank you). Udgum (Educational Designer, EA) also lent his hands to set up the projector and the sound. All set and checked, we went outside to meet others.

9.55 AM. I walk in and see the room full of people. Didn’t expect that. Had to arrange tables for 8 more people. 90 minutes later, as I was packing my stuffs in, I felt the arrows somehow landed on the target.

(Oh by the way, we also had a poster presentation on teachLAB, during the conference. Udgum was supposed to stand by it for 8 hours each day, and explain the poster to the participants rushing by. I’m sure no one saw him do that though.)

Creativity in Consistency:
After I took off my facilitator’s hat, I went in to attend two more workshop sessions. One was on Metacognition and Comprehension Strategies by Richa Singh, Rato Bangala School. For the past 2 years, I had been reading about metacognitive activities and implementing the insights from Coursera’s “Learning how to Learn” course. (And also the bible on metacognitive activities: Make it Stick – The Science of Successful Learning.) I was glad to know that teachers at RBS were implementing this concept in their teaching and learning.

The next session was titled “Encouraging Creativity through Music & Movement” and this blew my mind. When I entered the session, I saw there were already over 30 participants sitting around in a circle and the facilitator Ms. Lavina Chong was ready with a ukulele in her hands. After a short introduction (she is a Singaporean educator with 19 years under her belt), she started teaching us a song and asked us to incorporate our hand gestures and tapping. And progressively, she demonstrated several variations on how we could incorporate body and movement in a single song. While she was at it, in her typical Chinese/Singaporean accent, she tried a Nepali version of the same song and that seemed to create a bond among the participants. In the 90 minute session, everyone jumped, danced, moved around, and played with cups and ropes.

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Through out the session, I felt like I was back in the kindergarten and wished I had a teacher like that. I had several flashbacks of my school days which are just a series of blur moments, nothing memorable.

So, what made this session so awesome? I believe a) the facilitator Ms. Lavina, b) the ukulele, c) her jokes, and d) the participants – all adults who were giggling, laughing, playing, dancing like kids.

Then a question hit my mind. Was she doing anything revolutionary? Nothing like it. So what made her so good, so special? Two things, I believe. Passion and consistency. And through those two emerged her unique creative take on using music and movement to teach kids and train teachers.

And to wrap up:
From the three sessions I participated and one that I conducted, I strongly feel that teachers need to come together more often. Beyond conferences, seminars, and workshops . There is so much to share and so much to learn from each other. Not just for the methods, classroom tips, and not just for the handouts, we need to meet and tell empowering stories to each other. Care each other. Respect each other. In our society, where teachers get blamed for almost every wrongs in the education system, we need to look out for each other.
Gratitude to Rato Bangala Foundation for selecting our proposals of workshop and poster presentation.

170. Asking for feedback that helps

Feedback. How often do you ask for it?
Importantly, how helpful has it been?

Do you have a relative who drops into your house uninvited, sits on your chair, demands mitho-chiya ? And starts commenting on your dress, hair style, and career. Your mom, not to offend the relative, agrees and nods her head.

Feedback is like that relative – unwanted, judgmental, and totally unhelpful.

May be I’ve rarely asked for feedback for the same reasons. Almost all the time, I’ve received either superficial ones, sugarcoated with generality and vagueness, or meaningless blunt criticism which never helped me.

Even in the workshops we’ve organized for teachers or for students, we’ve received piles of feedback which are supportive, positive, negative, but very rarely helpful. We’ve been using a popular feedback format (+) (-) (?) and (!), but I’m not satisfied with the things we get back.

May be we don’t (or can’t) communicate enough on what types of feedback we really wish to see.

Fortunately, I was going through a podcast on Coaching for Leaders Episode 143 with Sheila Heen. The episode consists of amazing insights on the necessity of giving and receiving feedback. And, I really liked a nice little technique on how to ask for a feedback that’s concrete and actionable.

Ask: What’s one thing you see me doing (or failing to do) that holds me back?”

Naturally, I wanted to try it right away. So, this morning while ending my MBA Class, I posted on the board this question:

What is one thing that you see me doing in the class that you feel is helping or not helping you learn better?

I was really curious about what sort of feedback I would get. I imagined there would be a bunch of: good, bad, fun, boring, etc. But, surprisingly, I was reading a lot of concrete ‘action’ words in the feedback slips.

I can’t thank enough to the students who gave me these feedback I can work on right away. I believe, a simple tweak in the question I asked did the trick.

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Well, any feedback on this process?

169. Self-reflection: Monologues in my head

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Just about an hour into a workshop session for teachers, we were having the participants write a short reflection on their teaching rituals. Suddenly, out from the last table in the hall, this guy comes walking towards me. He looked like a leaner version of Rajesh Hamal, only a bit shorter, possibly a lot meaner.

He blurts out: “You know I’m also a teacher trainer. What you have been doing is quite boring. In my training sessions, I use a lot of movie clips and motivational clips to motivate the teachers. Why don’t you use such videos?”

I didn’t see that coming at all. I mean, it’s just been an hour.

In the last four years that I’ve been working as a teacher-trainer, I’ve never had a participant come to me and throw such a blunt comment. That too in just the opening hour of a two-day long workshop. And, the workshop we designed was based on their own needs analysis. What went wrong? Where did we go wrong? Stunned, I started fumbling for a response.

Suddenly my thoughts, like dozens of snakes, started hissing and coiling simultaneously in the both sides of my brain.

The nasty ones first.

“Oh so you’re that typical cynical jerk who is going to whine about the workshop because you think you are Mr. Know-it-all.”

“You don’t know anything about our workshop content, methodology, and beliefs. So shut the hell up.”

“Alright. You’ve got the home ground advantage. And you’re trying to make the two days hell for us.”
Then, a bit sensible ones.

“Hang on. Just listen — calm down — just listen — don’t react. Don’t say anything stupid. Smile and thank him for the comment.”

“Oh this guy must be trying to be helpful. And because of my own ego and biases, I might have taken his comment as a personal attack. I should be thankful and that’s all.”

I guess the sensible thoughts saved me eventually.

With each workshops and training sessions, I have somehow learned to keep my cool and delay my reaction. I accept that I can’t make everyone happy. I can’t switch everyone’s “Learning Mode” on easily. Also, I’ve come to understand that people behave only in the way they know how to behave – they might act disruptive, but they aren’t disruptive people. They are simply people. Re-framing such experience and forcing myself to normalize the incidents have really helped me understand that human behavior is utterly complex.

So, I simply acknowledged his comment.

“Thank you for your comment so early in the session. We don’t have tons of videos to show but we do use a few ones. May be we should someday join your training sessions and learn how to use motivational videos.”

I have no idea what he had hoped to achieve with his comment. I did slightly lose my train of thought and it took me a few minutes to gain my momentum back. But I was thankful to that experience. I realized that the lightening could strike anytime from any direction. As workshop facilitators, we just need to anticipate the strike and stay prepared.

After he went back, I also realized, scanning through the participants’ faces and body language, many were still tangled in confusion about the bigger picture of the workshop. If the participants are feeling shaky about the journey, I should be responsible for their feeling.

I made an impromptu attempt to give them a short pep-talk.

“If you trust us enough to be in this hall and if you are willing to spend two days with us, then believe us – this initial confusion is very natural. Imagine that we are all heading towards Pokhara from Kathmandu by bus. And we get stuck at Thankot. We cannot escape this horrible traffic jam until we cross the Thankot check post. I can totally emphatize with you right now. Your confusion and your frustration. But also understand this. Only through this necessary discomfort and initial confusion, will we be able to gain new perspective and knowledge. Just imagine the thrill of reaching our destination Pokhara, and chilling at the lake side.”

168. You ask too many questions !!!

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This comment by one of the participants of our recent Teachers Empowering Teachers workshop has made me think about what teachers usually expect from the facilitators in such sessions.

Since 2016, we’ve been conducting various workshop sessions for school and college teachers (and also for students, entrepreneurs and professionals), and we have followed certain values and beliefs of adult learning.

A. We don’t have a prescription.
While we are aware that many participants (teachers) prefer easily implementable solutions and quick fixes to their teaching problems, and we do not prescribe any quick fix, ready made solutions, or magic pills to the problems they are facing in teaching. We believe every teaching context is unique and any one-size-fits all prescription may not be relevant in that context.

B. We believe in an inductive approach.
And this means, first, we ask difficult questions to the participants, make them feel uncomfortable, push them into reflection, and help them see their teaching practices and limiting beliefs from a new perspective. Hopefully. Only then do we share research-based teaching methodologies, frameworks, concepts, and activities which they can use to bring the desired changes in their teaching. Hopefully. Again, without us being prescriptive.

C. We guide. That’s it.
We can only help/facilitate/support/guide the participants – but we hold back from giving  specific answers. However, we believe we can empower the participants so that they gain enough confidence, get familiar with tools and activities, and feel capable to seek solution on their own to their problems.

D. We believe in “when the student is ready, the teacher appears”.
About how learning happens, Buddha got it right, years ago. Especially for adult learners. We know we can’t force anyone to learn unless they are ready. As workshop facilitators, we make sure we design the workshop based on their needs analysis, to meet their needs, interests, challenges, and expectations. But we can’t be 100% sure all the time. We will always have participants who are confused, overwhelmed, and lost. And some will be angry or resentful. We can only do so much when we are conducting one-off workshop sessions.

E. Resistance is natural.
We expect resistance from the participants in one form or the other. And we know this is a natural process. We’ve learnt (and still learning), with experience, that participants resist for a lot of reasons – rational and irrational. We’ve learnt (and still learning), with experience, not to take their resistance negatively. Blaming the participant’s resistance is not going to help us or anyone.

F. We try to accommodate every one, and every feeling.
We are also classroom teachers first and foremost. And, thus as workshop facilitators, our primary attempt is to empathize with the teachers. Teachers are the most hardworking professionals and they are constantly in stress due to hundreds of micro-decisions they have to make all day long (and many teachers bring school work to their homes as well).

Heavy work load. Little or no acknowledgement. Impossible expectations from the parents, from the institution, from the students, from colleagues. Challenges beyond one’s control. Complains. Lack of organizational support for personal, emotional, and professional growth. These will easily crush any teacher.

Thus, as teachers, we empathize with them when they resist, or feel skeptic and even resentful of workshops.

So, when we came across the above comment from the participant, I was not surprised. I knew where that teacher was coming from. I could imagine the mountains of personal, professional and institutional challenges she or he must be facing in the classroom and naturally she/he was simply looking for easy answers.

All I want to say to you is: Please hang on. I believe, you will figure something out. Let’s stay connected. Let’s share and help each other, and let’s empower each other.
You matter.

167. Handling the Nervousness

Handling my nervousness. Learning.

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Reflection by: Umes Shrestha

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How would you feel when you are supposed to design and deliver workshops for teachers who have at least 3 times more years of teaching experience?

Nervous, yes. But “nervous” would be a serious understatement.

When I’m starting to feel anxious, I always remind myself of what one of my professors taught me during my M.Ed. program. “Never forget”, he had said, “Adults are just like babies but in bigger bodies.” (I came across a similar advice in Bob Pike’s book). That way, we can visualize the participants as normal human beings who are in the session to learn, enjoy, make mistakes, laugh, move around, and have a great time.

So during a recent needs analysis session for the teachers at a private school in Ktm, when I started to feel nervousness creeping in, I repeated my professor’s mantra one more time.

These are all babies…

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