Teaching Patterns

May 27 2011: Based on valuable feedback from Raj, I have added a summary of the patterns at the beginning, and also have grouped the patterns in to three categories.

Most of my students have been adult professionals and I have learned a great deal from them. Based on these experiences and some observations, I have organised some suggestions as teaching patterns. Patterns are discoveries and have value only if they can used by others in different situations but in similar contexts.

The patterns we explore here are mainly useful in teaching adults, though they are also effective while teaching younger students as well.

I have catalogued eight patterns, separated in three categories:


  1. Seat in a Circle: when participants (students) sit one behind the other, they do not get to interact with each other. In adult learning situation, the participants can complement the teacher based on their knowledge and experience. This is enhanced by seating in a circle.
  2. Merge Small Circles: several small groups of participants seated in smaller circles of their own provides for better participation. Findings of small teams are then consolidated in a single merged circle.
  3. Team Learning: form the class in to several teams and assign class work by teams. Promote healthy competition between teams. This increases student participation.


  1. Tell a Personal Story: Narrate success stories of your own organisation and personal experiences as examples to explain a concept. Encourage students to tell stories of their personal experiences. Application of a theory is demonstrated by real world experience.
  2. Use Commonplace Examples: Many textbook examples are not realistic and some examples are difficult to understand. Find examples that the student can easily relate with, preferably that can be demonstrated in the class.


  1. Enact a Drama: when experiments are not easy and not vivid and we want to bring some fun to learning, let the students enact a short skit demonstrating a solution or workflow. Students reflect deeper in the process of preparing for the drama. Drama adds fun to learning experience, makes learners active; understanding improves. Increases and maintains motivation.
  2. Student Champion: Good interaction with students increases teacher’s confidence. If the participants are known, identify some who would ask seeded questions. This will create an atmosphere for interaction and improve learning experience.
  3. Manage Expectations: make student expectations explicit in the beginning of the course. Debate what can be covered out of the wish list even by modifying the syllabus. Make the deliverables clear to the participants.


1.   Seat in a Circle


  • Participants feel distanced from the teacher and from each other.
  • Student participation is inadequate.


Front- and Back-benchers

When seated by rows, the students in back benches are often less involved in discussions. Their thoughts tend to stray away from the lessons. Brighter students prefer to sit in front rows. In corporate training classes, the senior members of the organization tend to sit in the front rows, creating an artificial hierarchy in the classroom.

In such situation, not all the students may not be equal in the eyes of the teacher. The students themselves do not consider equal to each other.

Desks with Monitors

In corporate training classes on technology subjects, it is common to have computer monitors on classroom desks, though being replaced by laptops these days. Many students hide their faces behind the monitors, sometimes distracted by chats, emails and Google searches. The back-bencher mentality is further supported with this facility and possibility.

Faculty cannot make eye contacts with the participants hiding behind monitors.

It becomes difficult for the faculty to draw attention of a ‘lost’ student to the discussions.

Participants don’t make eye contacts with each other.

Seated in rows, sitting one behind the other, participants do not see each other. The students can communicate great deal with each other by body language if they see each other, resulting in enhanced group learning. This is denied in row-seats.

Effective communication in row seating is possible only between the teacher and individual students.

Some students ‘know the subject’

Some of the participants have some exposure to the subject and think that the course is not relevant to them. They find it easy to disconnect and not contribute to the discussions. If the age and experience gap between the student and the teacher is not much, it is difficult for the teacher to command the student.


Seat in a circle. Do not provide desks. Teacher too sits down; discusses rather than stands near the board and lectures.

Students become participants and continuously give their views during the discussions.

No separate question hour.

If more people join the class after a circle is formed, expand the circle; don’t allow a second row.

Push the computer tables to the walls. When needed, the participants will move to the computers between discussion hours, leaving the central area free. The teacher moves around, reviewing the work, clearing doubts, and giving feedback.

Resulting Context

There is no implied hierarchy in the class as the teacher too sits in the circle to discuss the subject – removes barrier between the teacher and students.

There are no back-benchers. All the students are expected to equally participate in the class.

Teacher and students get better eye contacts, resulting in better communication and bonding.

Participants get mutual eye contacts, encouraging team learning. Rich communication is possible by body language –  a new possibility.

Teaching is in dialogue mode rather in a lecture mode.

The set up provides better ambiance for student participation in discussions and reduces opportunities for distractions.


  • If the subject is relatively strange to the students we cannot expect intense student participation. Still, the seating arrangement helps.
  • If the teacher depends much on presentation slides, this method is not effective:
    • The circle is broken to accommodate the projection system and to watch the slides.
    • The teacher would stand up to explain the slides and turn the class to lecture mode.
    • The slides cannot be viewed with ease from some parts of the circle.
    • Some courses require use of presentation slides and white-boards. In such situations, change the seating pattern.
    • In a discussion mode, the teacher needs to be flexible about the flow and pace of the progress. Teacher needs to be careful to ensure that the discussions do not stray away from the main course.
    • Teacher should be proficient with the topic, having taught a few times. A good participation would bring out the best in the teacher.
    • Students cannot take notes conveniently. Adequate references and study materials help.
    • This arrangement works well with a class with up to about 20 students. The size of class depends on the topic, duration, and students’ familiarity with the subject.


As a circle has no hierarchy, people feel equal when seated in circle.

Direct eye contacts improve communication – resulting in better listening and talking.

Communication is more effective with student body language.

Better participation; removes distractions.

Known Uses

Upanishad means seat in proximity. Old sages of India taught their students seated near to them, on the floor. Teaching involved dialogue. Prashnopanishad is known for a discussion oriented learning

The courses and workshops on Transactional Analysis are conducted using this pattern.

For about ten years, at ObjectOrb Technologies and Parity Computing India we adopted this style for most of the internal trainings. The daily training sessions were conducted by one of the members and lasted one hour.

We find this pattern especially effective for soft-skills and behavioral training; many people don’t like being lectured on these topics.

We have used the pattern in some corporate training classes, teaching OOAD and Design Patterns. In up to five day full time courses, we used two classrooms – one for discussions and the other for lab sessions.

We have used this pattern while teaching high school children and seen it to be very effective while teaching humanities subjects and literature.

It has proven very effective in our interactions with teachers on teaching methodologies.

We have also found this very effective in teaching spoken English to housewives in a community centre.

Related Patterns

Merge small circles

2.   Merge Small Circles


Participants do not feel safe to discuss a topic; student participation is not satisfactory.

When seated in a single circle, some students do not participate well in a discussion while a few dominate the discussions.

Some participants ignore homework; some are distracted.

Class size is large, not allowing opportunity for all to effectively participate in discussions in a single circle.

The problem requires more intense reflections and discussion, which can be more effective in smaller groups.


Students of a corporate training class are heterogeneous in age, experience, and position in the organisation (except in Entry Level Training.) In such crowd, people don’t feel safe to expose their ignorance. A senior’s ego hurts and a junior is scared of making mistakes. In effect, this reduces interaction.

Similar situation occurs in a community training, where the crowd is heterogeneous in age, education and experience.

We want better participation to make the course effective.

We want to break down a bigger problem in to smaller pieces and different groups to solve different parts of the problem.

We want a set of people to argue for and another to argue against a topic. We need them to prepare for the discussions in teams.

We expect a near-solution to a problem from the students, which requires discussions better done in smaller groups. Reaching a decision in a larger group takes longer.


Use “Team Learning” pattern; form teams of 3 to 4 people.

Let teams sit in their own small circles.

Give a problem to solve or a topic to debate. Prescribe duration.

After the duration, form a single large circle. Use “Seat in Circle” pattern.

Ask each team to present their points of view and moderate a debate.

The teams spread their diagrams and designs on the well of the large circle for the group to view and comment.

Abstract all the good points and arrive at a conclusion, if relevant. In some cases, a conclusion is not needed.

Resulting Context

People feel safer in smaller groups and express their opinions that they may not in a larger group.

Group being small, each person gets an opportunity to give his/her views on the subject.

Peer teaching occurs. Those with less experience (or inadequate preparation) learn from others.

A team spirit builds up.

Those who know more become teachers; do not get bored and distracted, and become active contributors.

This creates a collaborative mode of learning and makes learners active.

Increases and maintains motivation.

  • Teacher should be comfortable with the subject and be able to handle different points of view during summarising.
  • Teacher should be able to manage available time.
  • New information and views not known to the teacher may come up. Teacher should handle such situation gracefully.


People learn better in teams.

People feel safer and more comfortable in small teams.

Known Uses

We have found it very useful in community-teaching spoken English where people of different age groups (grandmothers to granddaughters) and professions attend. Those who did not otherwise speak in larger group started speaking after small group discussions.

We have used this pattern in several corporate training courses on OOAD and Design Patterns. A design exercise was solved by individual teams, solution offered to the full group, and discussed. Points discovered were summarized and missing concepts were added. Team-wise evaluation of each exercise promoted healthy competition.

Courses on emotional intelligence are held in small circles, with large circle watching the stroke interactions of a small circle.

Related Patterns

Team Learning, Seat in a Circle

Affinity diagram is similar to this approach.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affinity_diagram

3.   Team Learning


Students are distracted; they gaze mobile phones and PC monitors.

Students ignore lab work.


We want active participation by the students and make them responsible – in groups.


Form teams in the beginning of the course.

Provide common computing resources to the teams.

Give tasks to the teams; define duration.

Let the students solve most of the design problems on chart papers. Compare the solutions by different teams.

Have a running quiz through the course. At the end give prizes to the winning team.

Resulting Context

Creates a collaborative mode of learning; students learn in teams.

A healthy competition sets between the teams.

It adds some fun.

It provides opportunity for the students to discuss solutions among themselves, relating to their own knowledge and experiences, resulting in peer teaching.

It makes learners more active.


Adult learners need to share information and teach each other.

Members of a team could have common background and experience, which helps them to relate to the subject better as a team.

Competition between teams brings some fun and keeps the students engaged in studies.

Known Uses

In corporate trainings and in some internal training sessions we use this pattern. The teams are named based on the subject being taught (e.g., in a design patterns course, teams would be named Gamma, Helm, Johnson, and Vlissides)

The students regularly appreciate the quiz.

We give books as prizes for the winning teams.

The teams regularly solve problems on chart-paper through the course, which are discussed in the class. The teams carry back their charts.

Combined studies before examination

Related Patterns

Merge Small Circles.


4.   Tell a Personal Story


Students get narrow focus on the subject and are unable to relate the information in the book to different real world situations.


The subject gets “theoretical” and students lose concentration.


Narrate success stories of your own organisation and personal experiences as examples.

Note: Be honest; don’t change the story. The experience might not be a complete solution and may not map fully to the concept/theory. Discuss the shortfalls and draw suggestions to improve.

Narrate stories that parallel the topic from a different domain.

Encourage students to tell stories of their personal experiences.

Resulting Context

Students get a multi-perspective understanding of the subject and retain the information better.

Applicability of a theory is demonstrated by real world experience.

As the narration is from your personal experience, it is authentic and easy for the students to trust.

They in turn are able to relate the topic more effectively in work place.


While boastful self-references are bad, relating with personal experiences add authenticity.

It is easier to remember a concept related with an anecdote.

Known Uses

We use this approach unconsciously in most teaching sessions. If we work on collecting related experiences and anecdotes deliberately, the quality of teaching would further improve.

Related Patterns

Alexandrian patterns of architecture are often referred while teaching software design patterns.

Non-software examples of design patterns on the web help in understanding the GOF patterns. 

5.   Use Commonplace Examples


Students do not appreciate the core concepts of a topic.


Many textbook examples are not realistic. It is common to see methods named “foo” & “bar”.

Some examples are difficult to understand in our context.


Find examples that the student can easily relate with. These could be full-length examples helping to understand several concepts.

Find examples that can be demonstrated in the class.

Find well known examples from other domains.

From the web or by talking with the participants find out some information on the project they are working. If possible give examples from the domain or the project.

Resulting Context

The topic is demystified and students understand core concepts.

Students get multi-perspective concepts.

With examples from their domain/project, the participants appreciate the applicability of the training.


Learning by relating is easier.

Known Uses

In some corporate training classes we have used different makes of music systems to demonstrate various object concepts. This has been very effective.

Use of PC, projector, and their remote controls is adequate to explain object concepts.

We use examples from English grammar extensively in OO lessons and quiz.

We have used many other common place objects like playing cards, thermostat, thermometer, telephone, PCBs, toys, etc effectively while teaching technology as well as soft-skills.

A thermostat compared with a thermometer is technically a simpler object; but it is a more responsible and coherent object as it acts on the information it has about temperature. It cuts-in and cuts-out electric supply to its gadgets rather than reporting the temperature and expecting another object to act on the information. With this we explain the meaning of good coherence and lose coupling in object design. We can also explain expected behavior of a leader with this example.

We heard some participants telling each other “be a thermostat!” during the breaks.

Enacting conduction, convection and radiation of heat has been very effective in our classes on interpersonal and group communication.


6.   Enact a Drama


Students are unable to appreciate complexities of a topic.


  • Experiments are not easy and not vivid.
  • We want to bring some fun to learning.


Let the students enact a short skit demonstrating a solution or workflow.

Resulting Context

Students reflect deeper in the process of preparing for the drama.

This adds fun to learning experience, makes learners active; understanding improves.

Increases and maintains motivation.


When the drama is enacted by the students, their participation intensifies.

This creates an atmosphere of fun.

Known Uses

We have used dramas to demonstrate working of CPU. Students with other than electronics and CS background could appreciate the inner complexities of computing.

In a corporate training, students enacted a drama where grandchildren taught object concepts to grandmothers.

In several classes on communication we have compared the modes of communication with the modes of transfer of heat. We have used drama to compare word of mouth communication with conduction, personal visits to communicate with convection and general announcements with radiation of heat.

Metaphoric programming in agile process

7.   Student Champion


You are not sure of adequate student interaction in a class. You feel that a class would be generally passive, which is not unusual in Indian context.


It is an internal training course and you can depend on someone who will attend the course to help you during the course.


Let a friend ask questions during the class. If you are new to teaching, these could be specific questions at known situations so that you can answer them and build confidence.

Resulting Context

You feel better with the interactions and gain confidence.  Others in the class also get increased confidence in you. Some of them also would ask their own questions and increase the interaction.

In FAQ and self questions, it appears that the questions have been invented by the author/speaker. When the questions come from the participants, it is more genuine.


Good interaction in the class improves learning experience. If it does not happen naturally, you can create one.

Known Uses

We have used this technique in in-house training courses with people who are new to teaching.

Abdul Sattar is known as Kabir of Kannada. In his talks on religion and beliefs, he gets a team of people on the stage, probing him with different questions. The discourse is in the form discussions, clearing doubts of colleagues.

In Yakshagana dance drama, the lead roles debate with Bhagavata (background singer) when other roles are not on the stage.

8.   Manage Expectations


Teacher has prepared the lesson based on a standard course syllabus. Adults would like to learn what they identify as their need; which could differ from the syllabus.


Adults are self-directed and also need to satisfy their ego. Many of them would have signed up for the course after the syllabus was finalized, but would like changes to coverage and emphasis on the fly.


Meet with the participants a few days before the course and learn what they expect from the course. Gather information on their experience and background of the participants.

If you cannot meet the participants, collate their expectations during the first few minutes of the class and state what can be covered in the class. Make changes to the contents, details, and flow based on the expectations while not deviating from the main scope of the training.

Resulting Context

The participants feel they that they participated in defining in what they want to learn.


It is important for an adult to feel that he is not forced to learn what he does not need.

Known Uses

We use this approach in all the corporate training courses.


About pgbhat

A retired Naval Officer and an educationist. Has experience with software industry. A guest faculty at different institutes and a corporate trainer with software development companies.
This entry was posted in Communication, Education. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Teaching Patterns

  1. Raj Ponnambalam says:

    Excellent compilation of your experience, PG! This Pattern catalog would be very useful for many of us.

    You can consider classifying the patterns as Structure (Seat in a Circle, Merge Small Circles, Team Learning), Content (Tell a Personal Story, Use Commonplace Examples), and Delivery (Enact a Drama, Manage Expectations, Student Champion).

    As this is a long blog entry, it will be good if you can have a one line introduction to each of the Patterns at the beginning of the entry.


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