Teaching is about everything except what you know

I’ve spent all week training graduates and it’s been absolutely brilliant. In an earlier post “the roll your eyes test” (here) I spoke about the sort of people we work with, the fascinated, supportive, keen, humble and motivated graduates we have. Well I’ve spent all week working with 13 of exactly this sort of person, and it’s been truly exhilarating.

I’ve learnt a lot of things but one of the things that has struck me most has been how when you’re running a really successful training session you (the trainer) have very little to do with it.

Let me start with where this all started.

In preparation for this week I had a chat with someone I properly trust, who also happens to have a very impressive background in Learning and Development, for the sake of this blog we’ll call him Roger. Roger told me a great anecdote that, this week, will form the signature Arch Graduates long intro…

For some reason or other Roger had agreed to give a 2 hour seminar to a group of 200 masters students at Cambridge University on the impact a piece of new European legislation might have on UK education reforms. Again, for some reason or other he only realised that he had to do this the day before he had to do it. This meant he didn't have anywhere near enough time to get to grips with the specifics of the subject. So he spent the day before preparing a single side of A4.

On the day, he turned up at Cambridge University and walked into a big lecture hall full of 200 or so very bright and knowledgeable students and started the session with "who'd like to explain this piece of legislation?" and followed it with "Does anyone think that explanation missed anything?" and then things like "can someone pick out the most inflammatory piece of this legislation for me?" and "can someone argue the contrary for me?" “who’s likely to support this?” “why?” etc.

He said that the feedback he was passed on from the university was properly exceptional, to this day it's the best feedback he’s ever had for this sort of thing. The students had loved every minute of this session Roger told me (and I 100% believe him) that 50 or so of the students took the time to send him an e-mail thanking him for the session.

So what or why is this important?

We live in a world where knowledge is rarely (really really rarely) something only one person has. A world where you can answer any question you have to almost any level of depth you’d like by simply typing the question into a search engine. I suppose the thing is that actually what's important is not being able to give people answers, it’s being able to help people ask questions.

So what is important to running a great training session? Well, I’m certain my thinking on this will evolve and there’s loads of things that make a session great, but the three that will stand anyone in good stead are structure, encouragement and inspiration.

Structure is important, because it’s really just like chairing a meeting, are we moving at the right pace? Are we discussing/working on the four or five key points with the right amount of time on each? If someone in this session had to explain this on to someone else would the right things be communicated?

Encouragement is totally key, this “we’re all learning this together” style relies massively on everyone being committed to it, and encouraging/involving everyone in the room is essential. Scepticism feels like a significant blocker to people learning and encouragement is the answer.

If you have the other elements then you’re session will be great, if, somehow, you can throw some inspiration into the room then you’re going find yourself running the sort of session that can change…. well, I’ll let you finish that sentence.

How do you “throw some inspiration into the room?” how do you “be an inspiration?” well those, those are questions for a different blog, I have lot of questions on that, not a lot of answers - maybe a training session would help?

All I will say to end this one is that now we have the ability to get all the answers to anything we need to know, the role of a trainer or teacher seems to me to have very little to do with imparting knowledge and a whole lot more to do with encouraging people to want it.

Enjoy your bank holidays.