Recently I was in the situation of teaching a group of adults to make 4-strand plaits for the strings of poi. While I was teaching them to make a pair of complete poi each, I had identified that the 4-strand plait would be the most challenging task in the whole exercise. The occasion was a national conference of the Christian Dance Fellowship of Aotearoa New Zealand (CDFANZ) in Oxford, Canterbury, New Zealand. The aim was to give people a new set of props to use in their danced worship. This exercise was done with the knowledge and ok of local Maori people.
The group were a mixture of New Zealanders and Australians, all mature women in this instance. I had previously explained to the whole conference that poi had been originally used by Maori men to strengthen their wrists for battle, even if, in recent times, it is seen as a skill that only women employ. Nevertheless, only women attended the workshop.
I suggested that each person use four different colours, to make it easier to understand the process of plaiting (besides, the four colours make for a very interesting–looking string). I had pre-cut enough lengths of coloured yarn for each person in the group to make at least one poi. For the second poi, participants would need to measure off their own lengths of yarn and complete their poi.
My particular method of making poi involves creating the basic poi ball out of Dacron-fill, binding it up with white yarn, attaching the coloured yarn lengths to strands of the white yarn, completing the 4-strand plait and then finishing off the poi with a secured plastic cover.
Clearly each woman needed to find a method of plaiting that worked for her, since these individuals were the ones who would need to competently re-use the skill in the future. As demonstration models I had completed several stand-alone strings, one poi with completed string, and one poi that was simply a Dacron-fill ball bound up with white yarn. With these pre-prepared samples I was able to show what the string and the poi should look like and to demonstrate the next steps to completion. I had also acquired appropriately coloured felt pens and paper, so that I could draw the plaiting procedure as we proceeded.
Several interesting things emerged:
- The most outspoken group members did not want me to draw the progress of the plait strands. They said this confused them. As a result, I ceased to use this instruction method.
- Regardless of the above, every adult there preferred that I come and individually demonstrate. Fortunately the group was small enough and the time sufficient for me to do this. I let each woman work on her own plait while I called the steps using the names of the four colours, and guided, corrected and commended. In this way, each individual actually did the plaiting and developed her own methods and cues for knowing which strand to use next and how.
- One new learner noted that a fellow learner tried to help her but could only demonstrate by doing her own plait. The new learner said that this was unhelpful; she needed my approach of instructing with words while she actually did the work.
- Several members suggested that I needed to have used particular words to guide them. I commented that, while it was great that they had discovered instructions that would help them, these same instructions might confuse others. Essentially, each needed to do it enough to find her own way of remembering the process and completing the task.
- One group member quickly blocked me from helping her, proclaiming that she’d ‘got it’, but it soon became clear that she was doing something wrong. She and I undid some of her string and identified a good starting point. After applying my usual approach of using words and the names of the colours, she achieved the task. Thus, I was able to correct without causing offense.
This exercise re-confirmed the principles of adult learning that I had absorbed and taught in adult education classes several years before. Adults need hands-on experience to learn new practical skills. Demonstrating and showing completed stages of the process, talking, pointing, miming and verbally instructing are all helpful, but, essentially, adults need to work on a practical skill for themselves, in order to achieve competence in that skill. Individuals may find certain words and phrases to be helpful, but I while, I might use these same words and phrases as part of my future teaching, I would never assume that these would be helpful to all. Finally, while this method of teaching worked for mature women, a younger group of learners may have different learning preferences.
Of course, this skill of making a 4-strand plait to complete a poi was non-life-threatening; it would be very different if the skill involved learning a particular medical approach on living humans.