"Bent" by Dirk Dallas via Flickr

After facilitating a book club discussion this week, I was thinking about how much of my experience being a group leader in a classroom setting has been shaped by my few semesters of teaching experience.

I’ve written a bit before about my time as a teaching assistant for college writing & rhetoric. I realize looking back on it, that my style of discussion facilitation came about in part because I needed to offer what one of my teaching mentors refers to as a “field of words” — a running narration by the teacher to provide context, point out intriguing passages in a text, ask questions, play devil’s advocate, etc., in order to lay the groundwork for a student to feel comfortable enough to jump into the conversation.

As a teacher, I wanted to model active inquiry into a text and its ideas, as well as demystify the process of inquiry by framing our class discussions as an exercise in thinking. “Don’t worry! It’s an experiment,” I’d often tell hesitant students who didn’t want to be “wrong” in front of their classmates by guessing at deeper analysis of a text.

I think this technique worked well in that context, but I was challenged this week to hold back my own ideas when working with adult learners in the context of our book club. I tried to be mindful of contemplation time or lag time between questions, and not immediately offer another thought, but I don’t think I was entirely successful at being patient. I also hadn’t done enough to consider how my own background as a student of writing might affect the way I expected a discussion to unfold — we weren’t there to talk about how the writer had written her story; we were there to talk about the story itself. I found that I was more comfortable talking about language, structure, and imagery than about the “content” of the story — though I still think we enjoyed an active and productive discussion about an emotionally difficult story.

While I still love working with undergraduates, and hope to do so in the future, I am glad to have more practice with a range of learners. Practicing flexibility and challenging my own patterns and habits as a teacher helps me see the ways in which I can adapt to new contexts — or try to learn entirely new teaching and facilitation styles, as appropriate for the situation.

It’s reassuring, too, to see the ways in which active learning techniques can be applied to any age group. I imagine I’ll have even more to say about this in a couple of weeks, when my group partner and I present a workshop on an ethical issue related to information and technology. I’m scheming on ways to incorporate some hands-on activities that will make it fun and meaningful.