Wednesday 29 January 2014

Learner-Learner Interaction

I went on Adele Graham's Train the Trainers course last week, which started with an activity called "fears in the box". We were prompted to list any fears and worries we had about being in a training role and to circle our biggest concern. Each person wrote their name on the back of their list and posted it in a box at the front of the room. At the end of our training our fears were returned to us. We were asked to strike from the list any that had been addressed, then pick one lesson to share with the class.

One of the things I had written was "I have to keep remembering not to just tell them". What I meant by this is that I struggle to not respond to direct questions with an answer. In a training environment the trainer must encourage participants to think for themselves. There is no impetus for critical thinking where the answers are given readily. As a trainer I have to keep reminding myself that a question is not a loop to close, but rather an opportunity to encourage further learning.

Adele had addressed this fear by teaching us activities that facilitate learning rather than dictate it. But she went further by introducing me to a simple teaching principle that fundamentally altered my view of my responsibilities as a trainer. Being prudent with direct answers is not enough. I should also strive not to be the sole point of expertise in my classroom.

There are three types of interaction necessary for effective learning; learner-instructor, learner-content and learner-learner [1]. The first two were already part of my training room; the communication between teacher and student is present in any classroom and our exercise-driven training material is designed so that students engage intellectually with our content. But learner-learner interaction was a revelation.

Learner-learner interaction is the "communication between and among peers with or without the teacher present" [1]. By adding this layer of interaction you change the interactive topography of your classroom. Traditionally the teacher is considered the sole source of truth, which creates a centralised network of communication where dialog flows between the teacher and each individual learner. The learner-learner environment acknowledges the presence of other experts in the room, changing the dynamic to a fully connected network in which students interact with and learn from both the teacher and one another.


Learning about learner-learner interaction was a freeing experience. I had previously felt that all teaching in my classroom was my responsibility. It was nerve-wracking to stand in front of adult students with years of experience and shoulder the burden of expertise alone. Now I understand how I can recognise knowledge in the room and facilitate learner-learner interaction to supplement and enhance my teaching. I have strategies to identify the strengths of my students and activities that control the delivery of student contributions.

Fortunately I was in the classroom this week, putting what I learned into immediate practice. I was teaching to a class of ten graduates from a wide variety of subject disciplines. The material included a practical technical exercise to introduce performance testing. Limited computer hardware meant that the students had to work in pairs.

To start the session I asked the students to stand in a line up. I labeled one side of the room "I know nothing about performance testing" and the opposite "I can confidently explain performance testing and have experience in it". The students were instructed to identify their place in the line between these points and stand in it. The majority of the group stood in the middle of the room, reflecting a basic understanding of performance testing but no practical experience. However, there were two confident Computer Science graduates and two uncertain Arts graduates at the outer edges.

I used this activity to pair the group for the exercise. I took one person from each end of the line to form a pair. This meant that those who identified themselves as experts were paired with those who felt they had no prior knowledge. As the students took their seats I instructed that the member of the pair who was closer to the end of the line that knew "nothing" should use the mouse and keyboard, with the other person assisting.

During the exercise I was really pleased to observe how well the pairs worked. The exercise provided a basic starting point then a set of goals to drive independent learning. By pairing the outliers the ability of each couple was roughly equal; the pairs progressed through the independent portion at a similar pace.

By recognising the knowledge in the room, I was able to utilise it. My time as an instructor was mostly spent with those pairings from the middle of the line up. The two students who self-identified as requiring the most assistance had personalised instruction from their peers. Facilitating learner-learner interaction made my job as a trainer much easier, without compromising learning. I'm looking forward to applying more of Adele's material in future.

[1] Moore, M. (1989). Three types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6. via wikipedia

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