Who knows what?

Part of my own process for teaching is figuring out what I know that is useful to share, but another part is thinking about what the person or people I’m talking to, and where they’re coming from.

This is something people in various Pagan communities end up doing a lot, but I’ve noticed it’s a part we don’t necessary talk about, much. I want to talk more in the future about scaffolding knowledge and building in clues people can pick up on (even if they’re new to a subject) but to do that, I need to start with talking about figuring out what people do and don’t know.

Three things in the past month have me thinking about this more than usual. One was a first meeting with a potential witchcraft student. The other two are about preparing a workshop (about Pagan music and art, and integrating them in ritual) that I’m doing in February, and a breakout session at a local professional conference on accessibility I’m doing later this spring.

Sometimes this is easier than others, of course.

What does this person know?

When I’m talking to a specific known person, I can ask them what they know, or ask what they’ve already looked at or read or done, and get a sense from there. This is part of my ‘before we meet in person’ process with any potential student, because it’s useful for me to have it to think about in advance, and it lets us get to the more interesting questions to discuss if and when we meet in person.

(I say if, because more than once, what someone says in that initial letter – I’ve got six questions I ask people to answer – sometimes tells me that we’re not a good fit for each other. If that’s the case, sometimes we meet for a more general conversation anyway, but sometimes that’s clearly not a great use of anyone’s time.)

When I’m talking to a larger group of people, where I don’t know their backgrounds, that gets more complicated. And yet, this is a situation a lot of people in the larger Pagan communities find themselves in – whether it’s creating a public ritual, putting on a workshop at a festival or event, or teaching intro courses.

Fortunately, there are some ways to work with it.

1) Ask few quick questions at the beginning to figure out where people are coming from.

I like this one especially for settings where there can be a wide range of backgrounds at an event, but the workshop itself may draw a majority of people with some kinds of experiences more strongly than others. I do it a lot for research presentations I’ve done.

It helps to start with something like “This is a huge topic, so I want to make sure I spend more time on the things that are new or especially interesting to you, so I’m going to ask a couple of questions to see what those are. There’s additional information in my slides and notes, and here’s where you can find them if you want more background.”

Questions I’ve used include:

  • How many of you consider yourselves to be pretty strong researchers? (or whatever the topic is)
  • How many of you find research frustrating and want to get better at it? (or whatever the topic is)
  • How many of you are here today because you’re particularly interested in [part of the announced topic?] What about [other part of announced topic?]
  • Here’s a list of things I’m planning to talk about. Can you raise your hands for the things you’re particularly interested in? That will help me pace it more usefully. Raise your hand as many times as you like, this isn’t a one person one vote situation.

If I have a little more time and a small to moderate sized group, asking people to list one thing they’re hoping to learn today. Lots of people get shy or anxious about this, so passing around index cards and cheap pens or pencils as people come in and having them write things down works great, and then thumbing through them fast just before you start.

If I ask those questions and get a group of (self-identified) strong researchers, I’ll spend less time on the basic stuff, and more on things people tend to know less about. If I get a group of people without a strong research background, I’ll spend more time on the basics, and just mention more advanced skills or resources as things to make a note of and consider exploring.

2) Create strong supporting materials
I like having slides even I end up not showing them directly – they help me structure a presentation. I also usually do expanded text-based notes. Sometimes it’s in the form of additional articles for my website, sometimes it’s notes specific to the presentation.

Either way, it’s an easy way to include links to other resources and materials without bogging down a workshop or class or presentation in things that some people may need more information on, but others might not.

In the professional presentation later this spring, I have about 7 slides that are about different common concepts in disability theory and accessibility, but I’m explicitly framing it as “Some of these may be new to you, so I want to mention them so you’ve heard the terms and phrases and can look up more if you want to, but I’m mostly going to be talking about these other aspects.”

In the workshop on music and art, I can obviously include links to a bunch of musicians, artists, and resources for finding more, and include notes if I want to.

Depending on the setting, I sometimes also do handouts to pass out, as well (usually these are a shorter version of my online notes), but that can sometimes be complicated if you have no idea how many people will show up. Sometimes I do half sheet versions that have a few basic things (contact info, the URL for the notes, etc.) and a few key points or the basic outline of what I’m covering.

3) Check in after the first bit of discussion.
This can be really good for calibration. It can be a discussion question with small groups, it can be a show of hands, it can be pausing for questions. Usually that will give a sense of how much of this is new for someone.

I usually do this about five or ten minutes in, after I’ve done the brief intro of ‘me and what the plan for this session is’, and the first section of content. If people are really bogged down in the first part, then maybe I need to go more slowly. If everyone’s nodding along, then I can keep going fast and slow down for the more complex parts or things that might be new to people.

4) Listen for cues
A lot of times, people will tell you a lot in how they talk about a subject. For example, if people use terminology in a way that isn’t actually how it’s commonly used in the larger community, they may have learned a lot from books, but not have much experience with how groups of people do things. (There’s nothing wrong with that, but you probably don’t want to dump this person into taking on a ritual role without at least some more conversation!)

The two I always notice for this are someone talking about being “solitaire” (the more usual term is solitary) and about “calling the corners” where most people with more community experience or a wider knowledge base will say “calling the quarters” or “calling the directions” or “calling the elements.”

Of course, it’s easy to misspeak or mistype, so I don’t judge people for these, but I’ve found it hasn’t lead me wrong if I notice something like that, and then ask a few more clarifying questions.

I still remember someone who showed up at an introductory Seeker class I was teaching, back when I was a very new initiate. We had a set of material we taught at these, and they were designed to cover the same material no matter who was teaching, so that people could swap in and out and not worry something hadn’t been discussed. (More fixed than I usually prefer my teaching, but it’s a perfectly reasonable and common solution to that situation.)

She, her husband, and someone else from their area (an hour or so drive from where we were) had come, and she kept going on about how much experience she had, and how long she’d been doing things. Which is, mind, a tad rude when you’re in a class taught by someone else.

About ten minutes in, I had picked up on several things like I’ve described above – terms, concepts, etc. that she should have been familiar with if she had broad experience of the kind she had said she had. That helped me figure out how to handle the class, and avoid her getting us off-topic. (Or talking down to me, which is not really my favourite way to spend an afternoon at something I’ve volunteered to run.)

Someone not knowing something isn’t a problem. None of us knows everything, and there’s tons I don’t know too! But pretending you know something when you don’t can get in the way of learning it, so part of good teaching for me is figuring out if that might be going on (and if so, about what topics) so I can slide relevant information and resources into the conversation, or frame my explanations a little differently.

About the Author

Jenett is a librarian and priestess in a small initiatory religious witchcraft tradition fascinated by the intersection of how we find information and how we can use it to make our lives (and other people's lives) better. She lives in the Boston metropolitan area with a cat and a fair number of books. Along with other online projects, she maintains a site, Seeking, with introductory material about religious witchcraft, research, and other useful tools, and offers research consulting on esoteric and eclectic topics through her business Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

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