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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

4 Steps to Consider When Conquering New Learning

By Peter DeWitt — April 26, 2016 5 min read
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New learning can be intimidating. Sometimes that new learning takes place at such a quick moment that we don’t know it will happen, and other times we know it’s coming and we wait as the day gets here. It can happen in school, where we have to learn a new concept that the teacher said was on the horizon, or it can take place out of school when going through something as simple as learning to put together a bookshelf from Ikea or a tragedy that came too quickly into our lives.

Other times that new learning is somewhere in the middle where we end up conquering a fear that we have held onto for far too long. Which is where I learned a little bit more about the important part good teaching can play into new learning.

My friend Andrea Stringer, an instructional coach living in Sydney, and someone I knew through Twitter and met the last time I was in Australia for work in February, asked me to meet up for one of the days I had open when I flew into Sydney for the last week in April.

You want to do something fun?” She asked through our Twitter direct message.

I’m up for anything.” I answered.

Climb Harbour Bridge?” She asked.

Truth be told I saw people climbing the Harbour Bridge when I was in Sydney a couple of months earlier, and it looked amazing, but I had one small issue. I’m afraid of heights. Not to the point that I’m prevented from staying in a hotel room above the 3rd floor, or that I cannot fly for about 30 hours to get from my home in Albany, NY to Sydney, Australia (many layovers).

I am, however, worried enough about heights that I never thought I would strap myself into a strong plastic device that hooked to a wire and walk up to about 150 meters above a harbour that held random sharks, dolphins, many fish, and Nemo swimming around looking for his father.

After saying yes from the comforts of my home in Albany, the day came when I had to meet up with Andrea at the place where we would ultimately climb the Harbour Bridge. On the outside I was smiling, but on the inside I wondered if I would be the first person to fall off the bridge.

And then we met Gemma.

Gemma was our tour guide. After they brought us through one room to sign various waivers, we had to put on our jumpsuits. Gemma kindly talked us through it, and made jokes about how fashionable were all looked. She took us through another room so we could lock up all of our belongings, because we were not allowed to bring anything, like cellphones to call our loved ones when we crawled into the fetal position, out on the bridge with us.

In another room we received the safety devices that would harness us onto a strong wire that went all the way around our path. She then gave us our headsets so we could here her talk, and cleverly deliver one-liners as we all took each step higher and higher into our new learning.

As we spent about 45 minutes out of the 3-hour tour getting prepared and talking through safety, Gemma came around to provide us with individual attention, and a little formative assessment to see where we were in the learning process.

And before we walked out hundreds of feet below our ultimate goal, but high enough above the ground that would seriously hurt if we hit it, Gemma stopped all 13 of us and walked one more time to check us out, at the same time she said each of our names...and we were not wearing name badges.

Which included an 82 year-old grandfather and his granddaughter.

I didn’t care. I was still nervous.

As nervous as I was, I felt better because Gemma’s voice was calm and she was funny and engaging. What followed were steps that brought a feeling of excitement because I was in Sydney conquering a fear, and a little panic on other steps as I was conquering a fear on a very small platform high above the water and pavement.

By the time we were a 3rd of the way through the climb, I realized I had let go of the fear and was blown away (poor choice of words) by the view. Andrea and I were talking and laughing, and I realized my fear, although still there a bit, was mostly gone.

Things I Noticed:
Get to know the students - Just like in our own classrooms or school buildings, I noticed simple things that Gemma was doing that made a world of difference; especially for those of us who were a little intimidated by the climb. Through the 45 minutes that led up to actually walking out onto the bridge, Gemma talked us through putting on our safety equipment at the same time she got to know each and every one of us. Hattie’s research shows us that teacher-student relationships has an effect size of .72.

I Do, You Do, We Do - We practiced walking up the steep stairs with all of our equipment on after Gemma showed us how to do it. She told us we would get stuck from time to time, and helped us put our guard down, even though she knew full well that this was intimidating for some of us. We each had to practice before we could go out to the real bridge and do it together.

Keep calm - Her voice calmly took us through each step, and she gave us facts about the bridge along with jokes and one-liners, and not once did she ever tell us this would be easy, or that she walks the bridge 3 times a day. She did, however, tell us it would be worth it because some of us were conquering a fear. And of course, the view from the top was amazing.

High expectations - Gemma didn’t enable us. She never thought for a moment that we couldn’t do it, and said several times that we would take our time. Even though there was a group behind us, Gemma gently pushed us forward at the same time made us feel like we could go at our own pace.

In The End
New learning is not always something to get done. Sometimes it’s something to conquer. No matter how easy it is for the teacher, for many of the students in the classroom it is difficult, and the experiences we bring to the table matter. Sometimes those experiences, like one of the guys on the tour who had climbed the bridge once before, knew what to expect. Other times those experiences, like an American conquering a fear with his Aussie instructional coaching friend, can make us feel less than everyone else because we’re nervous we may not be able to do it.

Even in the most crucial of times, there is nothing better than a soothing voice, a few good one-liners, a tour guide that believes in you even though she just met you, and a group of peers that provide positive peer pressure to take you all the ay to the top, and all the way back to your original destination that doesn’t seem as intimidating anymore.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Unsplash.

Picture of Peter and Andrea courtesy of the Harbour Bridge Climb.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.