How (and how not) to teach blogging

Dominick Chen and Lawrence Lessig by Joi Ito on Flickr CC BY

Photo by Joi Ito on Flickr licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license

In Paulo Coelho's latest book, ‘The Witch of Portobello‘, the character Nabil Alaihi says: “What is a teacher? I'll tell you: it isn't someone who teaches something, but someone who inspires the student to give of her best in order to discover what she already knows.”

I love this quote. It really expresses the goal that I have in my teaching – not to see learners as empty vessels that the teacher will pour their knowledge into, but rather as people who only need to be inspired in order to find how to apply what they already know to a new subject.

I know that I'm not there yet – and that I have a lot to learn in order to become a better teacher. The three-hour session that I had to teach blogging to an NGO in Durban, is a case in point. I thought I'd tell you what I learned.

1. Who is learning and who is teaching?

The best teaching that you can do starts with learners who actually want to learn. A good way of weeding out those who don't want to learn is by getting people to come to you (rather than the other way round).

The lesson? When NGOs design interventions and funders fund those interventions, make sure there is some hurdle that learners have to jump over to indicate their willingness to learn. Sometimes that means paying a fee (however small) to attend the training, or asking people to write a motivation as to why they would be a good person to attend the training. Whatever you do, make sure you don't produce a situation where people are sending learners who have no interest just to make up numbers and check the ‘outcomes achieved’ box.

2. Focus on measurable outcomes

There's a very important difference between a goal of ‘training 10 students how to blog’ and a goal of ‘seeing 10 bloggers who are actively blogging 6 months after the initial training’. The first goal will necessarily have a pretty low success rate, even although this kind of training is much easier to do, and probably can be done lots of people. But achieving the goal of seeing active bloggers still blogging after their training will force you to think more about how you want to do the training, what you want to cover, and how long the new bloggers need to be supported for. For example, after an initial session outlining blogging tools, you could go onto teaching interviewing skills and digital camera skills, as well as goal-setting and editorial management – all this if you want to see an actual increase in the amount of meaningful content being covered by a specific group.

On this note, I found some great resources on the site ‘’ on ‘How to grow a blog‘. This covers a lot of great material focusing on how to set long and short-term goals for your blog and how to match those goals with the kinds of habits that will enable you to find success in achieving your goals. Volunteers from the Rising Voices team are also currently working on capturing different curricula and materials for teaching blogging, and they'll definitely be well-used since there isn't a lot out there at the moment.

3. Listen to your learners

Another great lesson that I learned in teaching blogging last month was to listen very, very carefully to your learners, and to do as much preparation before your teaching to find out about who the students are. The best teaching starts from where the learners are at, rather than where you're at. For the Durban workshop, I had planned to spend most of my three-hour session talking about how to maintain a blog, but when I realised that the learners had lost their usernames and passwords from the original training and we had to start at the beginning, I had to ditch my plans and focus on what would help the learners right then and there. I'd have been in a better position if I had known this during the planning stages. The lesson is to ask lots and lots of questions as you are planning what to teach – especially when you only have a limited time with your students.

4. Ask the right questions

The final lesson that I learned was to learn how to ask the right questions from your students. I thought that it would be a good idea to ask the students why they wanted to learn how to blog, but when I told Rising Voices director David Sasaki about this, he offered some wise words:

Sometimes I think people get intimidated when you ask “why do you want to blog” because many people still equate it with having something “so important” to say as to warrant publishing. One of the tough things to convey – even to experienced bloggers – is that when it's true that they are potentially writing to the whole world, it's also true that they probably have a very small group of readers that are interested in a very particular topic. To get the conversation going sometimes I ask, how do you explain your job to others? Or, what assumptions do people make about your work that aren't correct?

If I knew everything I know now about my students, I think I would have done things a lot differently in those three hours that I had with them. I also realise that a lot of the session was out of my control. But the good thing is that it made me think very deeply about how we teach people how to blog and how development interventions need to be designed in order to have the most impact and to get that training to the people who most want to use it.

That's the funny thing about teaching – you end up learning a whole lot more than you probably teach.


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