Towards Better Practice Nights, Association Training Conference 2003

Details of the conference are here.

The Ely Diocesan Association holds an annual training day to tackle issues that bridge across the four districts. This year in a break from traditional training day format of teaching and ringing, it was decided to hold a one-day conference to look at teaching and learning, with an emphasis on that which occurs on practice nights. It was felt that there was often too big a gap between the 'teacher' and 'learner' and it would useful to talk about how they need to work together as a team, involving all the members of the band, in order to produce an improvement in the ringing.

The day was structured around a series of presentations and discussion groups covering a range of topics. Caroline Stevens talked about the challenge and high expectations of being a tower captain and balancing the needs of people with variable levels of commitment and motivation. This was followed by Kim Whittlestone recounting how a band had been built from scratch over 5 years at Thriplow, and trying to give the learner's perspective. The before lunch session focussed on the problems of running mixed ability practices with George Bonham leading a discussion on problems with trying to include from basic methods to Surprise Royal in the same evening, and Patrick Brooke recounting the benefits and limitations of the simulator recently installed at Great St Mary's in Cambridge. In the afternoon Peter Hinton outlined some of the dos and don'ts of standing behind while Tim Griffiths lead a discussion on the use of teaching by numbers in the early stages; surprisingly this was not as controversial as had been expected. The day was brought to a close by Richard Pargeter bringing the threads together and emphasising the importance of communication and the learner/teacher relationship.

Although there were many different opinions expressed throughout the day, there were many points of agreement about areas of good practice and ways in which bands can improve their learning. An instant survey indicated that the majority of people ring for social reasons (although religious observance was taken as given for many people) but also want to be challenged, and to make progress. There was a suggestion that particularly for older learners the 'improvement programme' should be owned by the learner rather than the learner feeling like a victim of the tower captain. In order to progress people needed to be moved outside their comfort zone but this needs to result in a reasonable level of success if they are not to lose their motivation. It should also be recognised that some people do not want to progress but are still valuable members of the band. They should not be pushed to the extent that they feel guilty or uncomfortable, but utilised in a wide range of tasks to share the load of the tower captain, and thus made to feel valuable.

The importance of the social side of a practice night was emphasised, particularly for younger ringers, although a balance needs to be struck between running a youth club, and fitting some practice in! New ringers can feel excluded by jargon and 'in jokes' (why does everyone groan at the mention of Kent?) and a designated 'translator' was suggested to avoid this.

Making sure that everyone gets a fair go is not easy, and the tower captain has to manage both the over ambitious and the retiring members of the band. Learners need most ringing (bell time), but typically get least. Managing expectations helps - no one going to help at a 'learners' practice' will be expecting to ring surprise. Anyone who persists in feeling hard done by should be invited to run a practice, and find out how difficult it is to fit everything in fairly! A balance needs to be struck between making best use of a touch to give everyone who is at that stage a go, and putting a strong band around a learner.

Progression through the various stages of ringing takes place at different speeds and people meet blocks in different places. However, while most people expected ups and downs, the experienced teachers present placed a very strong emphasis of correct handling. This is because of the difficulty poor handling creates in later development and the problems in improving ringing style. Handling should continue to be taught as required, recognising the risk of upsetting people by getting them to return to tied bell practices after they felt they had progressed to the next stage. The use of simulators in the early stages was very helpful; to help the learner assimilate the timing of the bong, but it was thought that they were better used as part of a group activity. A benefit of a simulator practice immediately before the open practice is that training in handling skills is not such a separate activity.

The ideal learner situation is a planned improvement programme with a rich dialogue with a teacher who gets the learner to reflect on what went well and what went badly. Situations that do not lead to useful learning are either talking the learner through the touch as it is happening, or instructions for which the learner either has not yet understood the concept or does not have the time to process the information - "listen to it" or "you're too high". Tuition should be wider that the actual touch being rung but should include a discussion before to see what difficulties the learner expects and a discussion afterwards to determine what went well and what was not so good. Discussion in this context means a two-way conversation, not just instructions from the tutor before the touch and criticism afterwards. In addition the tutor needs to be aware that identifying an error and identifying its cause and hence the solutions need to be separated. Pointing out an error on its own can be demotivating, whereas providing an explanation and a solution can have a very positive effect.

The aim of standing behind is to enable the learner to ring on their own. If you haven't said anything, and the touch went well, that's not a failure. Very often all that is required is added confidence. However, talking someone through blow-by-blow has little long-term value. It is very important to understand how the learner's mind works, and what they do and don't know. If (as shouldn't, but does, happen,) you are asked to stand behind someone you do not know, "Tell me what you're going to do" can give a lot of information on how he/she is thinking, and what he/she knows. Even with those you do know, it should be recognised that the same person's needs (eg. 'tell me who to follow' or 'tell me which place I'm in') may change with time. With regard to how to communicate, hand waving / pointing may help some (the less spoken advice, the more time the learner has to think), but other learners may find it off putting. At the end, look for something specific to praise - avoid the automatic, off hand 'Well done'.

Standing behind requires real concentration - noticing a crunch as it happens is too late. Even if you are on top of things throughout, it doesn't always work; don't be upset if it goes wrong - it's not easy! If someone is standing behind, no one else should give advice, both as a matter of courtesy, and to avoid confusing the learner with too many inputs.

Despite the emphasis on understanding how the learner thinks, learners also need to have open minds - listen to all advice and pet theories which are offered - only then are you in a position to reject what doesn't work for you.

As a variant on standing behind a learner, it was suggested that you should get the learner to stand behind you and tell you where to ring - this should give them more 'processing time', while you can correct mistakes, and what's more, could prepare them for real standing behind in the future.

This type of training day was a new departure for the Ely DA and it was very heartening to see how well it was supported. A maximum number of fifty (including presenters) had been set, and this was achieved with representation from 35 towers in the Diocese and a good mix of experts, improvers and beginners. We agreed that we all take on both the role of teacher and of learner at different times, and also that teachers can learn a lot from their students. The lessons learnt pointed to the opportunity to greatly improve the method of teaching and perhaps more importantly to increase the amount of enjoyment that people get out of the exercise at all levels. The challenge however, is to recognise the difference between the leading and the average towers and to raise standards across the whole range.

Tom Ridgman