Why we struggle to acquire skills (and how the mindset of the teacher is the root cause)

Let’s say you’re about to learn a new skill—and you don’t.

You finish the course and you’re still not quite anywhere as good as you hoped. Is that your fault? Or the teacher’s fault? Or is it 50:50?

Learn why so many of us struggle with skill acquisition and why mindset matters.

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A client of mine deals with teachers; Not ten or fifty, but hundreds of teachers.

One day, quite out of the blue, she decided to do a rough poll. It wasn’t even a bunch of questions, but just one. And that one question went like this: Who should bear the responsibility for learning: The teacher or student?

The poll was simple enough to get a hearty response

A large majority of the teachers believed that the responsibility of the learning lay squarely with the student. Hence, they lumped 100% of the burden on the heads of the student. Other teachers were less heavy-handed.

A fair number put the figure at about 50:50, stating that the teacher and the student had an equal sense of responsibility. Yet, one fact was clear. No one was willing to go so far as to say that 100% of the responsibility of learning lies with the teacher. And as with any poll, some of them didn’t answer at all.

It’s likely that you agree with at least the level headed teachers

To simply wash your hands off the responsibility and give it all to the student is unfair at best. Undoubtedly, the teacher has a role to play. And for most of us, the halfway mark seems reasonable. Half of the responsibility must lie with the teacher. And half with the student. 50:50 seems fair enough.

And this logic makes perfect sense until we change the analogy a bit and make YOU the teacher.

Let’s say you’ve just had a baby. Newborn, cuddly, smiles erratically and does the same with poo. Let’s ask the question again, shall we? Who is responsible for the well being of the baby? The baby, the parent, or do you come in at a 50:50 mid-zone? Now we’re all in agreement, aren’t we?

Surely you can’t expect the baby to know stuff or do stuff. The baby is the baby. It’s our job as a parent/teacher to do everything. We might not have signed up for the responsibility, but we know without a doubt who’s responsible.

Why then would you not consider your client to be a baby?

Let’s take someone who shows up to learn article writing. Are the clients good at the skill of writing? Even if we were to hazard a guess, we’d say the reason they’re showing up for the course is that they feel they’re quite helpless. Cartooning? Writing sales pages? Making presentations? Learning French?

No one ever signs up for a course or learning because they’re already proficient at it and want to show off their skills. In almost every instance, they feel very vulnerable. They know very little, have a smattering of confidence, and aren’t sure what to do, next.

At this point, we step right up as “teachers” and say, “Ooh, the responsibility is 100% your own”. Or we decide that the halfway, 50:50 mark seems reasonable when clearly we need a different benchmark.

Imagine if we took all the responsibility, instead.

Would that change the way we did things? You bet it would. Our goal would change radically from one of “giving information” to one of “getting results”. At this point, all teaching (whether in schools or courses/books) etc. is tipped heavily in favour of giving information.

We believe that if we put all the information in a cohesive, sensible manner, we are good teachers. Good information is undoubtedly a starting point, but the responsibility of the learning is where teaching lies.

Let’s take a Spanish course I’m doing, for instance

Every week, eight students show up on a Zoom call. Two hours and several slides later, there’s a solid sense of direction, yet little or no skill. And at least when it comes to private tutoring, there’s no excuse for such a shabby result.

We tend to show our frustration when it comes to school and university teachers, but they’re doing the best they can in many cases. Hampered by a rigid syllabus, large groups, and endless marking of papers, they deserve every moment of their vacation.

On the other hand, we tend to dictate the size of the group, the syllabus, etc., and we still dole out what is a stream of information. If we were paid based on whether the student could easily—and correctly—do the task, we’d have a completely different method of teaching.

In the Zoom group, barely two or three concepts are covered

That’s slow and often boring for the teacher. Do the students get any level of fluency? Not really, because by the end of the call, there’s a mini-test. When faced with trying to answer a single question, all eight of us are scrambling, guessing at best. There’s no ease, no confidence and several wrong answers. Guess whose fault it happens to be?

Yes, it’s the student, of course.

And it’s not like the teacher isn’t kind and helpful. She takes all questions during the call, and even later on e-mail. Yet, because we’re not the “babies”, she moves on to the next session in the following week. Learning, as it were, doesn’t happen. All we have is another twenty slides of information.

True teaching is when the student becomes the teacher

If you want to find out how well you’ve done as a teacher, don’t ask the student for the answer. Instead, ask them to teach someone else. If I teach you to draw a cartoon of a whale, would you be able to teach someone else the same thing with a great deal of accuracy?

You’ll know where the dropouts in your teaching lie because as Student A is teaching Student B, you’ll see where they make mistakes in their own teaching. You can then fill those gaps, and as a result, you become diligent at teaching, not just giving information.

When it comes to teaching, you’re the parents and the student is the baby

The baby is supposed to burp, throw tantrums and poop a lot. As teachers, we are the ones responsible for the well-being of the “baby”. The responsibility of the learning is 100% on the teacher and not the student.

And when you take on that complete responsibility, something weird happens. The student realises how keen you are and how you’re focused on their success. The student recognises your mindset. And without any prompting on your part, the student comes halfway. Without you trying too hard, it becomes a 50:50 arrangement.

Who does the responsibility of the teaching lie with? Now, you know better.

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