Teaching to the Test

Learning “technology” is both a new and ancient field. New, because it is only in the last few decades that instructional techniques have been dissected and catalogued by education specialists (some more and some less successful). Ancient, because our ancestors have always had to teach their children how to do it to get along in the world. If you don’t believe that, find a field far from your home, take nothing with you, and try to live for a year or two. You can’t do it—unless you are trained to do it. Our ancestors gave this training to their children.

The technique they used is known as situated learning, or in-context learning, or on-the-job training. There was no body of knowledge that was separate from the job. You learned farming in the field. You learned food preparation by the hearth. Children worked with their parents.

This type of learning still exists today. You find it in the home. Few people learn to clean the toilet by taking a class. You find a similar process in trade apprenticeships, but it’s not the parent that does the teaching. It is a mentor. My brothers-in-law learned plumbing this way.

My uncle learned to be an attorney by being an apprentice. They called it “reading the law,” but it was much more than reading. He never graduated college, but he had a successful attorney as a mentor. He would be close to 100 years old now, so his training occurred before World War II.

By the time I went to law school, this option was no longer open. I attended law school for three years. I thought I was learning the law, but I was really being prepared to do two things: do legal research and pass the bar exam. This was not some fly-by-night law school. This is the way things were done (and the way they are still done). After three years of exam preparation, there was concern that you might not remember it all (or that you missed learning a few points), so you took a bar review course shortly before you took the bar exam.

Shortly after getting my license I attended a friendly orientation meeting called something like “Now that you passed the bar, here’s what you need to know to practice law.” The apprenticeship begins after you pass the bar! It’s the same with doctors and other so-called professions.

Financial service training pretty much skips the apprenticeship and the years of school and goes right to the exam review course. But what is it that you are reviewing? You are reading about insurance or securities for the first time in your review course. You need to learn the material and prep for the exam all in a week or so.

Talk about cognitive load!

Oh, I didn’t talk about cognitive load. Cognitive load is a principle that says that your brain can process only so much material at a time. Today, you might call this bandwidth. Apprenticeships manage cognitive load by teaching the apprentice a little bit at a time in context. Context helps. Law schools and medical schools manage cognitive load somewhat in the same way, so when you come to the exam review course, you’ve learned most of the material already. Having some pre-knowledge really helps. In financial services, we just try to cram it down your throat and expect you to remember it all.

Can a course like that really teach you about an industry that is new to you? Of course not. At best it is a rote exercise designed to get you to answer a set of questions correctly so you get your license.

Does the knowledge persist? Well, it doesn’t go away entirely, but there’s little in pre-licensing “education” that prepares you for the work you are going to do.

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