In Ron Suskind’s recent book, “Life, Animated,” he and his wife Cornelia were only able to begin communicating with their autistic son Owen by using the voices of characters in Disney animated movies. Owen would later learn life skills and wisdom by assuming the personalities of certain Disney characters and even proclaiming himself to be “the protector of sidekicks.”
In Taryn Voget’s Everyday Genius DVD, “Study Smarter, Not Harder: Think Like a Genius A+ Student,” Alex Freeman, one of the three students she and behavioral scientist Tim Hallbom modeled, viewed information from multiple points of view. In class he often mentally “stepped” into the instructor and saw himself as the teacher presenting the material. By becoming the teacher he found that he could more easily and thoroughly absorb the material. But Alex went further by imagining himself in a third position floating above the class and observing the interaction between the teacher presenting the material and himself listening.
Is there power in the strategy of changing perceptual positions? All of the above would appear to indicate that and strongly so. But what is it about putting one’s self into a different point of view that brings change? Does the simple act of “pretending” to be someone or something else create the possibility for greater understanding and change? Does the old saying “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” really allow for greater learning? All indications would seem to say yes.
My recent experience with changing perceptual positions had to do with coaching students taking the Master Sommelier theory exam. Unlike practically every other exam which is written in format the Master’s theory exam is oral--literally 45 minutes of the student being asked ludicrously difficult questions by a team of examiners. By comparison a written exam seems like a security blanket in terms of the familiar pattern of read, remember and write--a combination of visual memory and the physical anchor of writing. Being required to recall information auditorily poses different challenges for the student and may even put some at a disadvantage in terms of how their internal processing functions.
Stress is also an important factor in the MS theory exam in how it impacts--even impairs--a student’s ability to focus completely in the moment, clearly hear the questions being asked, and ultimately to be able to access the required memory—which again is practically entirely visually-based. With that, studying using visual memory alone as in using flashcards or straight ahead reading and memorization usually isn’t good enough for an oral exam as the information may not be readily accessible under stressful conditions. To thoroughly prepare for an oral exam a student has to study using multiple representational systems for memorizing needed information. With the Master’s theory exam I often tell students they need to practice with the material auditorily—literally to record themselves using MP3 files asking and answering potential questions.
There’s one more important component. I’ve always thought that the Master’s exam was a series of three auditions and for some, especially students without a strong collegiate academic background, the theory exam can be the toughest of the three parts of the overall examination (tasting and serving being the other two parts). And while the exam is ultimately about extensive study and preparation, having enough confidence and a comfort level with the material is the make or break part of the equation for succeeding—or not.
In regard to comfort level and expertise I’ve long held a belief that one really doesn’t really know a subject until one can teach it; that the act of teaching displays a degree of mastery not present in simply memorizing answers. Why? Because teaching requires one to know more than enough information about the subject to communicate about it effectively beyond simple regurgitation. In teaching one also has to possess enough mental flexibility about the subject to be able to answer pertinent questions about the topic as well as to be able make connections to related—or even unrelated—fields.
Enter a concept I call “The Teaching Space.” The Teaching Space asks the student to assume multiple perceptual points of view to demonstrate knowledge of subject material. Further it asks the student to create and maintain a degree of confidence and a comfort level that only comes with being able to teach the subject effectively and easily.
The objectives of the Teaching Space are multiple: first, to give the student practice recalling information using multiple sensory systems (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic); to anchor confidence and a comfort level not only with the material but presenting the material as well; finally to create a sense of “expertise” with the given material by rehearsing presentation skills.
The Teaching Space is a variation on the technique called “Circle of Excellence” I wrote about in a previous post (see link below) in that it uses anchoring to a space on the floor as a vital part of the exercise.
Have topics, questions or concepts about wine regions, grapes or terms that you’re studying ready to go. These can vary in length from simple question and answer format to longer, more complex information.
Creating the Teaching Space:
Use two pieces of paper marked “teacher” and “meta.” Lay them out on the floor several feet apart in front of you.
The Teaching Space: this is the space where you become the expert and teach your material confidently and with ease.
The Meta space: this is the observer space where you can look at your “performance” in the teaching space and think about how it can be improved in terms of delivery or content.
Using the Teaching Space: downloading the focus of a great teacher
Before you step on to the Teaching Space anchor/paper stop for a moment, go inside and get a sense of what it would feel like to be a world class teacher/instructor. If you don’t have a reference for one spend some time on YouTube looking at TED videos for examples of great presenters. Once you have someone in mind start by physically assuming their posture in terms of how they stand, how they breathe, their eye focus and especially their tonality in speaking. Even if it feels odd—and it may—practice this a few times until you can do it. It shouldn’t be that difficult because after all, you’re just pretending.
1. Step on to the Teaching Space anchor.
Now step on to the Teaching Space anchor/paper on the floor. As you step on to the Teaching Space step into the role of the great teacher or expert; literally be the person. Assume their posture, tonality, and gestures. Begin teaching your material from their viewpoint of the expert or teacher.
The keys are being confident about the subject, your comfort level, your tonality and everything else about how you deliver the material. Your eyes are important and they should be soft but focused; your feelings are also important in that you not only feel like you know what you know but that the other people who are supposedly listening to you get the information.
*It’s always good to start explaining material with a visual cue in your mind’s eye. With a wine region I always start with a google zoom in on a map to the place I’ll be talking about (Champagne, the Mosel etc.).
2. Step off the Teaching Space anchor and on to the Meta anchor.
The purpose of the Meta space is to make observations your performance while in the Teaching Space and make suggestions on how to improve it. You may notice details in the information that you left out. Write these down so they’re included in your next presentation. You may also notice things that can be improved with your delivery in terms of posture, gestures, tonality and eye contact and movement. Note these also. The Meta space offers insight into how someone would view your “performance” of the material. Are you presenting the material in a way that someone who could be listening would understand it and really get it? That’s a good question to ask yourself while in the Meta space.
- Warm up! Always start with simple concepts for the first few minutes or until you feel ready to take on more challenging material. Above all, don’t start with the most challenging thing you’re studying or something you don’t completely know. Remember this is all about being confident with the material and having a comfort level in talking about it.
- Once you really have your first region/topic down starting plugging in others. The key is to make it the same inner experience; the FEELINGS have to be the same.
- Important! Keep your focus and confidence/comfort level up. If you feel it lagging step out of the Teaching Space and take a break. When you’re in the Teaching Space you need to be on.
- If you don’t know a piece or pieces of information about a region write them down on a list; if anything else is lacking that makes it so you don’t have a solid experience teaching, write it down; the next time you run through the material you can do so with list in hand and practice going through the region etc. making sure the comfort level is there. Repeat until you don’t need the notes.
Transferring the Teaching Space:
Odds are your oral exam will be conducted while being seated thus you’ll need to practice transferring the Teaching Space to a chair and also anchor going into the teaching mode while sitting down. Same procedure—make one chair the Teaching Space and the other the Meta space. Practice!
If you suspect that something sneaky is going on here you're absolutely correct. In practicing learning material using the Teaching Space you are literally rehearsing public speaking/presenting even though an audience is not there. And that’s not a bad thing. I think the best thing anyone can do for their career is to learn public speaking and this is a painless first step in learning how to do just that.