We are adults, not 'kidults'

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Rhythm has never been one of my strong points. When I had to play a rhythmic clapping game with the equally uncoordinated head of the college business unit, it was just embarrassing. Looking around at all the senior college staff enthusiastically clapping and laughing while a part-time music lecturer encouraged us by playing along on his guitar, I was reminded of parties I used to organise for students with learning difficulties.

Don't get me wrong, I don't have anything against parties or party games, but this was supposed to be "staff development". When the awkwardness was over, we reflected on our teamwork abilities, cooperative and people skills as evidenced by our faltering, giggling, and stinging or sweaty palms. The subversive mutterings that followed provided many other examples of such demeaning "developmental" activities.

At one college, the heads of department and the senior management team had passionately and energetically battled to see who could build the highest Lego tower. Drawing pictures to illustrate feelings and anxieties was a very popular activity, and it appeared to be a routine thing to ask people to write key words and ideas on coloured Post-it notes and stick them on various objects.

Do staff developers think we are all children? Are they wannabe primary school teachers, or therapists, seeking to unleash the lost creativity of the child? Making middle managers and lecturers play games like this is to infantilise them. As Marx rightly said: "A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish."

No one seems to object to staff development as playtime and one argument I've heard is that we're becoming "kidults" and just enjoy playing games.

Whatever the truth of this, further and adult education lecturers have to take some responsibility for the rise of such childishness through years of promoting "facilitation" as a teaching technique with adult classes. The argument was that adults have lots of knowledge and experience and facilitation works because of what they can bring to a topic. The enabling and empowering activities of the skilled facilitator were held to bring about the creative "sharing" of experience and knowledge.

Facilitation always involved playing games, from ice-breakers at the beginning, through musical tables to maximise interaction and sharing, to empowering people to write on the paper tablecloths, and on to the inevitable finale, the flip charts with their meaningless lists.

The contemporary version of the flip chart is, of course, the web page, which exposes our superficial and poorly developed ideas to the world.

Facilitation was always a great method of working in any context if you didn't know anything, so it fits the bill for staff development which is mostly training in compliance and docility with little meaningful content.

It's easy to be cynical about staff development. Examples such as sessions on "working in teams" led by a manager everyone knows had never worked in a team in their life are familiar to everyone. Staff development used to mean developing the knowledge and skills of lecturers usually allowing them time off to study for higher degrees in a subject. Nowadays it mostly involves training in things that no one needs to know or that anyone of normal intelligence can pick up without help.

A survey of staff development in several colleges reveals workshops and sessions on Chairing Meetings; Taking Minutes; Supervising Examinations; Student Retention; Writing a Course Document. With dull and demeaning topics like these which don't stretch or develop anyone, it's no wonder people are cynical. It seems that, as well as treating you like children, staff developers seem to assume that you have learning difficulties.

Staff development is no more than trivial pursuits. The trouble is lecturers in these sessions are, as in many other situations, cynical and silent.

It wasn't always like this. When I first started as a teacher trainer in FE I was a little desperate for a way to introduce a group of colleagues on an introduction to teaching course to the idea of involving students in assessment. I took my first ever, and last, advice from a staff developer.

He suggested a game. It involved the assessment of clapping. Members of the class were to leave the room and return, sit down and clap. The group were instructed to comment on the clapping in various ways. First they had to mock the clapping with no criteria and then criteria were introduced.

The session had hardly got under way when one of the group, a bricklaying tutor, said "Hey Dennis, this is a wind-up, innit?" He was right and that's what staff development is mostly, a wind-up. We just daren't say it any more.

Dennis Hayes is head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church university college

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