Teaching and training can either make or break a subject. Get it right and you open a whole new realm of possibilities for the student. Get it wrong and you make people even more confused than when they started. A bad teacher can make the most fascinating subject sound dry and boring, conversely, a great teacher can breathe life and passion into something that on the surface appears dull. We’ve all probably had experiences of both types of teachers in our lifetime. I certainly have experience of both sides of the spectrum.
Here are some keys that I’ve found helpful over the years:
Don’t ask vague questions
Vague questions will give you the illusion that everyone is on the same page and understanding the content fully, but they do not give you an accurate idea of whether people are actually getting it or not. Questions like ‘Do you get what I mean?’ or ‘Does that make sense?’ are vague and not explicit enough to give you a good gauge as to whether your class is understanding your content. After all, most people don’t want to admit that they don’t understand a word you’re saying! In fact, when we ask this type of question it is usually down to us not being confident about our delivery of the content. Lots of people use this type of question as punctuation in public speaking. It has more to do with getting encouragement/positive feedback from the room than it does with accurately understanding where the class is at. As hard as it is, only asks questions which show explicitly whether they have understood the concept. For example, a bad question to ask would be something like ‘Do you know how to patch this microphone?’ A much better question to ask would be something like ‘Could you show me how to patch this microphone?’ The difference is subtle but the latter question explicitly demands to see whether or not they understand. It is far better and a much more accurate way of gauging if the content is actually sinking in. If people aren’t following you, you can speak directly to what they’re struggling with. If they are unsure, you can encourage them and build their confidence. If they think they can but can’t again you can correct at the point of the misunderstanding.
Pitch the content to the room, not the small minority
Before I take training classes I will often ask people their background and their experience. This can be as simple as a ‘hands up who’s used one of these before,’ type question or asking people to give more information as to their background when they sign up for the course. The reason is fairly simple, I want to make sure I’m pitching the training right. A good training session is where everyone walks away feeling like they’ve learnt something and that it was useful. This is actually harder to do than it sounds given the wide range of skillsets and experience that can be in the room. Quite often people pitch their training to the lowest common denominator, i.e. the person with the least understanding and experience. Although it’s understandable why people do this, ultimately it is not helpful as it alienates the majority of the room. Similarly pitching it at the most experienced people is also not that useful either. The actual target audience is the ‘average smart person’ sitting in the room. They know a bit about the subject and have some experience but they aren’t industry leaders. They are there to improve. The aim of the session is to talk to these people, remind them of some fundamentals and also to pique their interest by showing or chatting about some more advanced applications. By covering some of the fundamentals, you engage the most inexperienced in a useful way, by talking about more advanced applications you hopefully inspire people to keep training and up-skilling. It also allows you to engage the more experienced members of the group, maybe even asking for their opinions and input.
Don’t try to impress people
People are ultimately there to learn, not to hear how much you know. Make sure that your language is accessible and still accurate. There are ways to say things which are correct and ways to say things that are correct but inaccessible and distracting. Be aware how much jargon you use. If you need to use it, explain it first then use it. Jargon can be the quickest way to lose people. Your job is to make seemingly complex things sound easy and simple, not make seemingly simple things sound complex.
Don’t let other people derail your session
Well-meaning people can take sessions dramatically off on a tangent with irrelevant questions. Keep a short leash on questions. Although you do want people to engage and speak up when they’re unsure, need clarification, or even if they’re adding something of relevance to the topic, you need to keep discussion and questions focused. If there is something that is slightly off-topic, don’t dive in too deep with your answer, keep it brief and let them know there will be an opportunity to chat during a break in more detail. Usually, this is more than adequate to keep the session moving in the right direction. Make sure though that you do have that conversation during the break and allow time between sessions to talk off-topic with people. This can help people to engage in the remaining sessions.
Teach concepts, not procedures
Procedures can be documented, but concepts are better explained and taught. When you really get the fundamental concept of how something works you will be able to outwork the relevant procedures. Procedures are rigid and not good if circumstances or environments change. Concepts are fluid and allow you to ‘think right’ and generate the most appropriate procedures for the task. Spend time focusing on teaching concepts and make space to show how to apply this concept practically in different scenarios. This will always yield more flexible and competent people than simply telling them to work through an arbitrary checklist.