Everyone is a student, everyone is a teacher

A Buddhist proverb reads, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I have found this to be true and it marks one of the many ways in which my life has been fortunate. As is often the case with proverbs, there is a corollary which is equally true: “When a student appears, the teacher must be ready.” The privilege, it seems, of having learned from a master carries the obligation of passing along our wisdom to those who follow. This suggests a continual challenge to improve ones’ capabilities within any chosen area of expertise, as we can never truly know when we have crossed the threshold from student to master. The moment informs us. The best we can do is continually prepare for the moment we discover ourselves standing in the shoes of a teacher.

The example facilitation experiences chosen for this post in which I found myself in the role of ‘teacher’ come from two very different contexts. The first involves teaching an innovative project management methodology in a corporate environment to a team of expert software developers. The methodology, first introduced by Spolsky (2007), is called Evidence Based Scheduling (EBS) and is designed to minimize the effects of several well know cognitive biases, the planning fallacy and optimism bias, in project level of effort (LOE) estimations. The importance to software development projects, as described by Virine and Trumper (2008), is that

people do not account for risks or other factors that they perceive as lying outside the specific scope of a project. They also may discount multiple and improbable high-impact risks because each one has a very small probability of occurring. (p. 134)

The effects can add greatly to the cost of developing and maintaining software. The challenge is that expert software developers are both notoriously bad at LOE estimates and reluctant to acknowledge this weakness, which introduces yet another cognitive bias known as the illusory superiority bias.

The solution was to introduce this as a technical challenge in solving a generic project management problem. The developers were taught the underlying statistical framework to EBS, such as the mechanics and value of Monte Carlo simulations, and then instructed to build a web application that would leverage these algorithms for providing LOE estimates (see Figure 1). Development of the EBS application was utilized as a way to both establish the EBS methodology as standard practice within the team and build trust with the individual team members by collaboratively validating the application was unbiased and accurate. Assessment for the success of the effort was determined using the following criteria:

  • How interested the development team was in creating and improving the EBS application (implementation formative assessment.)
  • How diligent the development team remained in utilizing the completed application (post-implementation formative assessment.)
  • How much the LOE estimates of the individual developer’s improved over time (summative assessment.)
Figure 1. Example EBS Progress Graph

Figure 1. Example EBS Progress Graph

The approach was a significant success. The application was deployed to production and continued to be developed beyond initial goals and expectations. The application was eventually tied to the information technology department’s ticket tracking system which further automated the project management process. The result was greatly improved LOE estimates and clearly defined delivery expectations for issue resolution and enhancement requests. From the perspective of facilitation, the project’s success was augmented by the deliberate application of learning strategies appropriate to the learner audience and educational context. The use of both cognitive and constructionist approaches, combined with a non-confrontational and strict problem based approach, resulted in rapid comprehension and assimilation of the new material for each of the learners.

The second facilitation experience chosen for this paper involves teaching physical defense techniques in an Aikido martial arts school. From this context, there are two examples which serve to illustrate that there is no such thing as an unsuccessful learning experience. Rather, the lessons from every learning experience are either expected or unexpected.

The facilitation experience with an unexpected lesson occurred when I was a brown belt ranked Aikido student. This is considered a mid-level rank and connotes a student that has considerable experience but is not yet an expert. I was working in partnership with a white belt ranked (beginner) student, who had perhaps no more than several months experience studying Aikido, on a technique known as shihonage. I had been attempting to explain with many words how the technique was ‘supposed to be done’ and was describing the ways he was applying the technique ‘incorrectly.’ In retrospect, this was the application of strict cognitive learning theory to the instruction with an assumption that behavioral learning principles derived from demonstration and practice would result in the transfer of learning. Formative assessment consisted of how the student was improving incrementally and the summative assessment was based on how consistently the student would perform the technique correctly once learned.

The expectation was that the white belt student would continue to perform the technique poorly until many iterations of instruction and fine tuning had occurred. To my surprise, the student performed the technique in an innovative and remarkably effective way. This caught me off my guard and I ended up injured as a result of a plethora of incorrect assumptions related to the white belt students’ ability to learn and my now obvious lack of expertise in reading my students’ capabilities. Injury aside, the learning experience was a success in that the white belt student received very clear feedback as to the quality of his technique and I learned the wisdom behind the words of Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few” (p. 21). I later incorporated the technique I learned from the white belt student that day into my own practice.

The second example from the Aikido context occurred many years later, after I had achieved the rank of third degree black belt. Again I was working with a white belt student with perhaps less than six months experience. The technique being taught was the same as before, shihonage. The white belt student had become quite frustrated with the technique, was clearly over-thinking the steps, and had begun to force his way through the technique. The risk was that we could both end up injured. The first objective was to employ what could best be described as behavioralist learning strategies: Pause, take a few deep breaths, and shake off the frustration so as to open a measure of mental space for reconsidering the technique.

The goal was to interrupt the negative feedback loop in the stimulus-response cycle.  Having achieved this, the next step was to leverage a blend of cognitive and constructivist learning theory elements. By assisting the student in visualizing a wire frame box around his body, he was able to establish reference points for what constituted ‘inside’ his control, ‘outside’ his control, and whether or not the technique was moving from ‘inside’ to ‘outside’ his control. This approach was quickly adapted to include similar reference points on the ground for how his feet should be placed throughout each phase of the technique. The process was successful, not just with the shihonage technique, but with subsequent techniques over the following months.

Harvey Firestone, the American industrialist and founder of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., is quoted as having said, “The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.” As educators, we place ourselves at the front of the line for receiving this call. For indeed, the role of the educator is rapidly changing in remarkable ways. No longer just an arbiter of static knowledge, educators are being tasked with serving as guides, mentors, and leaders for an evolving knowledge landscape. To fulfill these roles, Trilling and Fadel (2009) note

Teachers, whether they are fresh out of an education school or have been in the classroom for twenty years, must learn to develop their design, coaching, and facilitating skills to guide and support their students’ learning projects. Teachers must continually sharpen their skills at using the power of learning technologies to help deepen understanding and further develop 21st century skills. (p. 125)

Working from my personal experiences, I would add that K-12 educators have the added responsibility of  developing the skills which help prepare learners for success in achieving the goals they define from themselves. This will require more than just mastery of current and emerging learning technologies. It will require educators to:

  • Collaborate with their students as they work to develop skills from a project-based learning methodology.
  • Engage students with questions and problems that spark interest and motivation, build knowledge, and develop core concepts and principles.
  • Employ feedback methods that are positive and which engage the students’ sense of personal responsibility and accountability.
  • Recognize the expert within their students and the beginner within themselves.