Sometimes I feel like a goldfish in a bowl. If it's not a county, Ofsted or Ali inspector peering through the glass, there's a peer observation. I had one recently, as part of the new course for adult literacy specialists.
Tapping away into her laptop in the corner of the room, my observer wrote "try to incorporate activities for each of the different learning styles, especially for kinaesthetic learners". It's good advice: even I get sick of the sound of my own voice (auditory), and handing out photocopiables (visual). Since I had the chance of live feedback, I asked the assessor for some suggestions. She expounded the versatility of the Post-it note but what she didn't warn me about was pride.
First I tried the Post-it treatment for a spelling exercise. I'm sure I heard muttering about being back in primary school. Next I tried putting various information tables around the walls which forced them out of their seats to find pieces of information. Groans all round as they heaved themselves reluctantly out of their chairs. "Why can't we just pass the stuff round without getting up?" they demanded. I persevered. They were just not used to it and plainly expected college to consist of lectures and notes. Then I had to take a communications class. It was the death-watch shift at the end of the afternoon, and the students had already told me they were sick of writing and I might as well let them all off early. So I decided to do a group activity with newspapers and sticky tape, involving team skills. One guy turned on me indignantly. "Stick bits of paper together?" he huffed. "I might as well be at playgroup." I explained that this was a commonly-used approach for staff recruitment, but he wasn't playing the game. So much for team work.
I'd been about to give up on the hands-on approach when I got a breakthrough in the unlikely form of Les and Andy. Les had found his way to college via New Deal and arrived with a shaved head, earring and "I don't want to be here" attitude. He made it clear that he'd co-operate, but only because he had to. Also in the group is Andy, a pasty-faced youth who wears a peaked cap backwards, come rain, come shine. He stares out of the window most of the time, yawns a lot and says "What?" whenever I speak to him, like a startled rabbit.
Today we are looking at the art of writing instructions. In the interests of kinaesthetic learners, I decide to put them in pairs to make a paper aeroplane. One has the diagrams but must give only verbal directions to their partner, who must try to make the plane from a sheet of paper. Les's pride is at stake. He doesn't think he can face his wife tonight if he has to tell her he's been making paper aeroplanes all morning. Anyway, he knows how to make a plane without any instructions, thank you very much.
Andy is still staring out of the window. I decide to pair up the bored with the bolshie: I suggest Andy works with Les. "What?" he says. I repeat myself. "What we doin'?" he asks. Still, he gets up and ambles over to the table where Les is seated. Across the room, pairs are engaged in a titanic struggle worse than anything I have seen over a furniture flat pack. Soon they are screwing their first efforts into balls and lobbing them towards the bin. After a while, a few strange looking UFOs begin to rise and nose-dive into the desk. I hope the health and safety officer doesn't walk by, but the students look as if they are enjoying themselves. We move on to drawing up our own improved sets of instructions. By the end of the session, even Les admitted he was challenged and decided the morning had been interesting after all. So kinaesthetic learning is not impossible to crack - if only you can reach the inner-child hiding within the tough exterior.
On this course we try to get students out on work experience. The placement officer arrives to talk to Zoe, who has not turned up at her placement for several weeks. The officer is stern. Placements are difficult to find, and Zoe has let us down. Why has she not been attending? Zoe is downcast. She tells us that first she lost the address,then she missed the bus, next week she was ill. Zoe's stream of excuses is beginning to run dry when inspiration strikes. "Why Miss, you've had your highlights done. It really suits you." It's an old trick but a useful one. The placement officer beams, Zoe promises to attend next week, and now the matter is just another problem solved.
Gill Moore is a basic skills lecturer