In 2009, a quick-thinking firefighter, Somchai Yoosabai, disguised himself as the comic book character Spiderman and successfully saved the life of an autistic 8-year boy who was sitting on the edge of a three story tall school house roof. The child was traumatized over his first day of school and would not let anyone come close to him. Overhearing a conversation about the child's love for super-hero's, Mr. Yoosabai quickly returned to his firehouse and put on a full body Spiderman costume which he used to make fire drills at schools more entertaining. Returning to the school, he cautiously approached and connected with the traumatized student. "I told him Spider-Man is here to save you. No monster will hurt you now." The child reacted immediately by walking toward the familiar character and was safely removed from the danger. (Read full story and see photos here)
What does this heart-warming story have to do with effective teaching methodologies? Well, there are some critical similarities between this rescuer's actions and being an effective instructor. Let's review some of key factors of the child's stress.
The child was trying to escape from a learning environment because he was anxious about school. He obviously felt alone, afraid, worried that he wouldn’t fit in, that he shouldn't be there and probably many other feelings that some students feel when starting a new class, regardless of their age.
Many of the feelings that he was experiencing most likely stem from the fact that he was in an unfamiliar place; he could not find anything in the new environment that he could associate with. This feeling only compounded the problem by contributing to his stress and was a significant factor in why he would not allow anyone near him.
Because of the factors listed above, the child's "fight or flight" instinct was invoked. He could not fight the fact that the school house was there, nor could he fight the fact that he was there. So he decided to take "flight" away from all of the stress factors associated with the educational process. Unfortunately, the flight option that he chose was a drastic and dangerous one.
The three negative, stress-inducing emotions listed above are experienced by all students at some point, even adults. Despite the misconception, adults who are sent to training sessions don't view the time away as a work-free "vacation"; they are required to come to the training. Based on comments from my previous students, a two-week training class can be one of the most stressful periods of a student’s life. The critical question is how can instructors help combat and at the very least reduce the feelings of: apprehension, unfamiliarity and isolation. I'd like to offer some suggestions.
Surprisingly, it is actually easy for instructors to forget that many of their students are not at all familiar with the class material. Instructors need to address this at the beginning of the class and repeatedly stress that it's OK if they have never used Linux, logged into a router or taken apart a computer. Tell the students to use you as a resource like they would a textbook. I have literally told students that if they don't ask questions, there's no reason for me to be there and I'd be out of a job! I usually see several smiles from students after I've proclaimed this light-hearted statement. Emphasizing that you're there for them and that you're approachable will benefit all of the class members.
It makes sense that students will not be familiar with the class material, otherwise there would be little need for them to attend. One of the main jobs of a technical instructor is to take an abstract and technical subject and parallel the material with something that is "real world" and tangible. For example, try using an office building’s directory as a comparison to a storage media's file allocation table. Compare a real-life highway's congestion and slowing issues to a network's congestion and slowing issues. Try comparing a situation where 16 children want your attention to the way a computer interrupts requested work. I've found using children in analogies to be extremely effective because most adults are parents, or at the very least they were all children at some point.
I previously mentioned that many adult learners are required to attend training sessions in order to learn a new task and that training is not a vacation. They will be expected to use the skills they are learning to complete a new responsibility, or in some cases they must pass the class in order to maintain their current position. Because of this, students experience stressful isolation even before the class begins! The feeling of isolation of which I speak exists between the student and the class material; it's not between the student and the instructor or other class members. Many of my former students willingly admit that they initially felt that their knowledge and experience were worlds apart from the material being taught. I believe that one way to break this isolation is to make use of an acronym - "WITFM" 0r "What's In It For Me"? If students discover a direct connection between what is being taught and how they will use it, they will be more receptive and motivated to learn the material. This discovery can be nurtured by the instructor using phrases such as "When you notice this problem at your work site, you can ..." or "When you are out in the field, you may see ..." Giving the student a practical reason to learn the material can greatly aid them in comprehending and retaining the information.
Using these methodologies, an instructor may significantly help in subduing the considerable and impeding stress that all students feel at some point during the learning process.