The poodle exercise is a novice's best friend

June 18, 2004

Devising a fantasy dog-clipping course showed Humphrey Evans how to make the most of his professional experience as a college tutor.

Poodle clipping had never been a craft whose ramifications I had considered until invited to help design a training course for would-be entrants to the profession.

Discussion with my fellow clip-meisters Naomi Korn and Matt West led to a programme of six half-day sessions covering things such as use of equipment, poodle styles, clipping and grooming techniques practised on poodle-shaped wigs, consultations with a poodle owner - an important psychological consideration - and the final practical task of clipping poodle.

We worked out a list of resources needed: clippers, model poodles, clipping tables, first-aid facilities for dogs and students, and a waiver form for owners to sign in case it all went horribly wrong. We had a statement of learning outcomes couched in a kind of aspirational tense as they can come about only if both tutors and students apply themselves effectively. We laid out assessment criteria, including an intermediate check, before turning students loose on animals. We even postulated a Certificate of Competence carrying a laminate Polaroid portrait of the poodle they had clipped.

All this is fantasy, of course, but fantasy with a purpose. We were students ourselves for a single day on a course titled Survival Skills for New Lecturers taught by Linda Wheeler of the Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art and Design aimed at part-timers, visiting tutors, working for the newly re named University of the Arts, London. The accounts department says it has 3,000 visiting tutors on its books, which means that our 11 is just a droplet in a potential sea, but a droplet with some significance.

Wheeler says the idea is to give a modicum of instruction without imposing too much on people who have a lot to offer because of the skills and experiences they are bringing from other areas of work and life. There is a three-day intensive version for people who need a university certificate.

In this case, Korn, who has a background in the world of museums and galleries, is about to start teaching her first course, as a complete novice, outlining aspects of copyright law and intellectual property rights for people involved in creative pursuits. I already do some teaching of subediting skills while working as a magazine editor and writer. West teaches animation, the field in which he works.

Our exercise in poodle clipping showed us a lot about planning out a course - as well as giving us a fair amount of entertainment as we developed the notion of PoodleFit, a computer program that matches styles to dogs. But the day had started with some simple tips on managing a class. We all had sticky labels on which we wrote our names. Wheeler pointed out how much more effective teaching - and therefore learning - was likely to be when the students saw the teacher making an effort to learn their names. The labels came with codes, in my case an orange dot and the letter D. This enabled Linda to easily move us into different groups for different activities: "All the orange dots together, please"; "Now the Ds".

We had gone on to do some reflective exercises drawn from the book The Lecturer's Toolkit by Phil Race aimed at forcing us to think about our own learning experiences and what they might mean for the way we tried to teach others. Think of something you are good at and how you became good at it.

Words such as insight and practice came up. And so did osmosis. Wheeler jumped on that: "As teachers expert in a subject there's a seductive belief that somehow all we need to do is just be in the room. Teaching involves more than that."

Think of something about yourself you feel good about - and how you know you can feel good. Praise from others was mentioned - so you should find ways of praising students as they work. But so was self-awareness - so ask students what they feel about how they are doing. Think of something that you learnt successfully but did not want to - filling out tax returns provided a paradigm for this - and what kept you at it. Suddenly we were talking about motivation. "Never underestimate the psychological power of peer pressure," said Wheeler. "It matters what other people think."

Altogether the day provided perspectives, summed up by Korn: "The idea of teaching a ten-week course fills me with a little fear. But this has let me see how to plan a course, how to plan a lesson, how to develop a comfortable learning environment and what kinds of teaching encourage learning."

Humphrey Evans is a journalist and teaches at the University of the Arts.

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