Stepping on Toes

June 13, 2009 by
Filed under: Leadership, People 

I spend a lot of my time in front of a classroom of adults, or presenting on topics to a group of often seasoned practitioners. Over the years, I have come to form a number of opinions that, shall we say, deviate slightly from the commonly accepted way of thinking. Put these two together, and I am finding that I sometimes step on a few toes.

Last October I gave a talk in Portland that one person in the audience didn’t like, and I wrote about it here. For conference presentations, there is an expectation to say things that will make people to think, or at least to keep them awake or draw their attention away from their laptop screens or iPhones. Some would suggest that is just ‘giving good presentation’. I often start crafting a new presentation by identifying those things, and filling in bridges around them.

A classroom environment can be a little different, for some reason. There are many people, and there is a clear cultural bias here, who have been raised with the expectation that the instructor instructs, and the student absorbs, ready to regurgitate (the lesson information, not their lunch – though I can probably have that impact as well).

While that might be fine for preschoolers, perhaps the early elementary grades, I think one of the flaws in the educational system is the fear of critical (or aberrant) thinking. We go through school and excel if we can get good grades on tests, often tests that are easily marked. If we tell the teachers what they want us to hear, we pass. Almost everyone I interact with has already gone through university, and one of the things I try to do is to shake people from that modus operandi.

Most of the time, this results in a more enjoyable experience all the way around. I get to think on my feet rather than just tell people the same thing for the hundredth time, and people seem to learn more. It can be tougher to draw some groups out than others, but it’s a challenge I take into any teaching opportunity.

I have a certain body of experience and training, so does everyone else I work with. I welcome the challenging of my assertions, and I don’t assume that anything printed in a book is gospel. Heck, I wrote a book and have firsthand experience that’s the case. We are always learning, and there comes a point that our perspectives should be weighed with the same value as our instructors’. I think that takes place for many topics around the time we are 10, and by the time we’re adults, that should be the norm.

In facilitating a well-known program at a major university, some of my views are different than the core teachings, and all of the instructors bring a different body of knowledge and experience to the table. This diversity, I tell the students on the first day, is to be cherished and respected, and their goal should be to synthesize all these perspectives to find the most practical solution to the problem at hand.

Some get to this point, others seem to jealously guard their expectations that we should give one consistent story so that they can regurgitate it. For those, the result is that I often fail to satisfy their expectations.

It is clear to me that I really cannot please all of the people all of the time, and to try to do so would compromise what I believe are worthwhile objectives in teaching. I try to be up front about all of this when I work with students, but once in a while I still can sense a toe or two being crunched. – JB


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