Thursday, May 03, 2007

Looking at learning: the importance of caring

A paper I wrote for my Masters' course took me back to my early days as a classroom-based IT trainer, running courses in things like DOS 3.3, WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and the like.

My first taste of the world of IT training took place very soon after the first course I attended myself. This was way back in pre-history (well, 1989) and the trainer who ran my DOS course was atrocious. She obviously knew her stuff - there was no doubt about that, and by blindly copying her every action, we produced some very nice little interactive menus by means of which we could launch various apps on our PCs (using a function called edlin - for those who are interested).

But, in order to be able to use the operating system, one needed to know a fair amount about syntax. DOS had this infuriating little error message: Invalid command or filename - that popped up if your syntax (or your spelling or typing, for that matter) was less than exact. And screaming "But why?" at the computer elicited nothing helpful. I know. I tried. Smashing the keyboard repeatedly with both fists was equally fruitless. Rather than editing the autoxec.bat file, creating beautiful menus and writing little batch files so that we could automate the process of launching our software, what we needed to know was how to find files, how to create directories (read "folders"), how to delete files, copy files, how to format floppy disks, how to back up... that kind of stuff.

For some reason, I understood what the trainer was saying to us, and I spent the best part of the day explaining it to the rest of the class. One member of the class must have reported this on their happy sheet, because the very next day, I received the call to run the next DOS course. And so, somewhat serendipitously began what would become my career in learning and development. I would frantically work through the course manual to prepare for a course in an application I had never/hardly used before. I was quite often only one step ahead of my learners. Scary. But we muddled through, and they learnt how to use the help feature, the course material and the hard copy user manuals.

The sudden upswing in requirement for IT training meant that almost anyone with a certain level of proficiency could get drafted - I was a prime example. But quite often trainers were dire, and computer courses (as they tended to be known) were right up there with a trip to the dentist - necessary but painful. Why? Because having an understanding of the technicalities was no guarantee of an understanding of the learning process, or even of an interest in the learners' achievements post-training.

To my delight, it turned out that I was diferent. I was actually good at this. Occasionally, the sounds of my "class" laughing uproariously generated complaints from some of the other trainers, but by and large, the verdict was that learning about computers could be fun. After all, how many trainers do you know who explain absolute referencing in spreadsheets by
getting their learners to do a little dance?

Don't get me wrong, I might be blowing my own trumpet here, but I'm not claiming that I was unique - just in the minority. What made the difference was that I (and others like me) cared... a whole lot. We had empathy with the learner's position, and tried to approach things from where s/he was at.

Empathy. Passion. Enthusiasm. Zeal. These were the qualities we started with, and we learned the software skills along the way. Starting from the other end of the equation, in other words, starting with the software skills, was often a less successful tactic.

I have always maintained that skills can be learned - especially technical ones. But good teachers care about their learners. They are interested in seeing their learners take the baton and run with it. They care about their subject. They believe that the things they are teaching the learners are going to benefit them in some way. They become spontaneously animated when discussing matters related to their subject.

Recently, during a break in one of our sessions at university, one of my classmates (a music teacher) asked another of my classmates (a biology teacher) whether there was any truth to the rumour that margarine was so unhealthy that he might as well stick with oh-so-fattening butter. Her eyes lit up, she waved her arms, she drew pictures, she explained the molecular structure of margarine and what makes it unhealthy. He asked questions. He pointed at the pictures she had drawn. He made observations. I have no idea whether either of them bothered with tea that evening - they were in a little world of their own, and they were having FUN!


Cammy Bean said...

I love hearing people's stories of how they got into the biz. Thanks for sharing your's! Enthusiasm and flair and compassion go a long way in the classroom.

Anonymous said...

So, Cammy, perhaps we should turn this into a meme. Let's hear yours, then, and you can tag someone else.