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How to build the skills and confidence of your learners

Whether you are teaching online or off, there’s a crucial difference between building skills and pointing out people’s deficiencies.

Even if your approach is founded on developing what works, while alerting your learners to mistakes here and there, you may wonder what to do about students who believe you are not teaching them properly unless you highlight their mistakes and shortcomings.

Let’s remind ourselves why our main interest should be in them getting things right. I think it’s because it’s in their experiences of getting things mostly right that they learn repeatable recipes for success, build task-specific skills and gain confidence.

In many workshops and classes this is best provided through repeated experiences of flow, with reflections on how learners managed, enjoyed and benefitted from the practice activities.

That means we don’t stop when someone makes a non-critical mistake. In that way, the game or exercise or activity is like life – it just carries on. In our learning environment, mistakes are trivial road-bumps, not plane crashes or surgical disasters.

Then there are a few mistakes which bring things grinding to a halt. That’s also like life. These moments need to be addressed to get us back on track, and they prompt the key question: ‘What do we need to be doing to make this work?’

The answers will be positives like ‘keeping focus’ or ‘noticing what John’s signalling’. By definition, when people are doing these things well enough (and rarely is perfection needed), they are not making significant mistakes. We can also substitute ‘succeeding’ and ‘failing’ for ‘mistakes’ as key words here, as the principles are the same.

In this way of teaching, there’s clearly lots to say about learners ‘having a go’, noticing what works and succeeding; and very little by comparison to say (or spend time on) about mistakes or failure.

Now I’m really not sure what my students feel I’m teaching them, unless we discuss it from time to time or they bring it up explicitly. We do get them to pay attention to the progress they make, as that is very nourishing for learners.

Occasionally they say something that indicates that they are coming from the surprisingly popular ‘I only learn from mistakes and I need the teacher to point them out to me’ mindset.

Then I might share the ideas above, or more likely ask them to notice what they are doing when they get something right, that they sometimes get wrong. Or how they’re managing to do better at what they’ve previously done not so well.

It’s rare that I’ve been asked this, beyond – say in presentation skills – when they casually say; ‘give me feedback on what I’m doing right and wrong’, when the difference in good over poor practices soon becomes evident to them.

So, what are your thoughts on building skills and confidence by noticing what works with your learners?

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