2 Ways to Give Power Back to Learners

As a facilitator, it’s all too easy to do the work of being a student. Instead of letting students struggle or form their thoughts, we offer a “here, let me…” or a quick “oh, I can show you.”

We’re just trying to be helpful. It’s human nature to offer a hand when you see another person struggle. But in the case of learning, that helpfulness can actually be a hinderance, especially to novice learners. So, how do you resist the urge to be “helpful” and step back to let learners do the work of learning?

I offer two helpful strategies: the deliberate pause and the arm hold.

Deliberate Pause

Taking a deliberate two second pause in front of a class can feel like an eternity. How about a six or seven second pause? The time seems to move at glacial speed.

Oftentimes during a lecture or presentation, we’ll throw out a question to students. It will probably be predetermined, and we might even have a specific answer in mind. We’ll wait an uncomfortable second or two, and then either answer the question ourselves or move onto the next topic.

It can be tough to fight the natural reaction to avoid an awkward pause. But taking a deliberate pause and letting learners do the work of learning allows them to sit with their thoughts and feelings. It gives power to learners as they grapple with complex ideas. Prior to this experience, we as facilitators have had the opportunity to think deeply about the question at hand. Learners haven’t. This might even be the first time they’ve thought about a certain topic.

So, ask a question and then take a deep breath. Count to six or seven seconds in your head if you need to. And then try not to expect an immediate reaction from learners. Remember, if they do give an immediate reaction, perhaps they aren’t thinking deeply enough about the question at hand. By giving students time and space to answer a question, we’re promoting deeper learning because they have time to think of good answers (which isn’t usually their first answer).

Another tip is to reframe the question. Sometimes I’ll ask the initial question and then follow it up after 5-6 seconds with “put another way. . .” You can also try moving to a different spot in the room or adjusting a piece of jewelry. These tasks give you something to focus on other than the discomfort of waiting for the discussion to begin.

Arm Hold

Another great strategy to give power back to learners is what I call the “arm hold.” I actually learned this strategy from watching Barbara Oakley in her wonderful MOOC called Learning How to Learn. It is one of my favourite resources on how to study and learn effectively.

She discusses the natural tendency of teachers to want to “help” learners by taking over. Whether it’s taking over the mouse or writing out the equation, we can’t help ourselves. We want the learners to “get there,” and that usually involves showing the learners exactly how to get there. But if they can’t get there themselves, have we really succeeded? I don’t think so.

To overcome this reflex, try crossing your arms behind your back. For example, if you are helping a student solve a problem, cross your arms so you can avoid writing the equation or solution for them. Today, I was trying to help a student troubleshoot an Internet problem. My initial reaction was to grab the mouse and take over the computer. But then the student wouldn’t know what to do the next time something like this happened. So I crossed my arms and helped guide the student by asking questions and guiding them along when necessary.

These strategies will give learners more autonomy and show them that you trust them to get “there”, wherever there may be. Give it a try and let me know if it works!


Wait image taken from Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/jRE-2tH2Bvk

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