In Every Generation . . .

If you’re interested in education, you could spend a few profitable hours analyzing the liturgy for the Passover Seder (feast). We like to think that instructional design is a new and scientific “thing.” But many of the techniques we are “discovering” are a few thousand years old.

The Passover Seder, which is celebrated tonight, is built around a set of four interactive questions, which are answered several times throughout the ceremony in different ways. Although the central lesson of the Seder has to do with remembering the freeing of the Israelite slaves in Egypt more than four thousand years ago, none of the four questions explicitly addresses that learning objective.

Instead, each question refers to a metaphor for learning retrieval. The first question asks the reason for eating the unleavened bread (matzah), which is described as the “bread of affliction.” The second question asks the reason for eating the bitter herb, which causes the learner to reflect on the bitterness of slavery. The third and the four questions refer to other ceremonial acts that cause the learner to reflect about redemption and freedom.

The Seder is also explicitly aware that people possess different learning styles. We read about four types of children—the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask—and are given different formulas for reaching each of them

And there is much more.

The fact is that human beings are a learning species. Learning is age old, not new. It is in our genes to do this and we do it well, so long as we are clear and simple and engaging.

Happy Passover to all my Jewish friends.

Unreality of State-Mandated Continuing Education

State insurance regulators take a dim view of sales training. There’s no continuing education (CE) credit for that. But this misses a key principle of androgogy (adult learning): adults need to be motivated. They need to know that there will be a payoff if they invest time and mental effort. When state regulators nix content that seem too sales-y, they are nixing the motivation that could drive learning. Without this motivation, agents are just putting in the time to get their license renewal. They take the easiest courses and learn very little.

Of course, it’s not that black and white. There’s certainly a spectrum of learners. Many people in the field lap up learning, spending way more time than CE rules would require. I’ve done it myself and gotten rewarded with a variety of advanced designations—and with knowledge.

I do sympathize with regulators, though. If you are going to require regular education, you have to require something with a minimum level of meatiness. I just think they go a little too far.

As a writer of continuing education courses, I want to set my concepts in a world that has a reality that is recognizable to the learner. The real world is a world of sales. When we remove that, we need at least to ask the learner to reflect on customer needs and suitability of solutions we offer to meet those needs. It’s not sales per-se, but it’s close (needs and suitability are components of many effective sales strategies). And it puts an ethical slant on the material that usually pleases the regulators.

Metaphorically Speaking

What do metaphors have to do with financial education?

To explain this, let me ask you to think back to the last time you worked a jigsaw puzzle. At first the task of assembling the puzzle seems daunting. But then you start noticing similarities in pieces. There are pieces with straight edges that form the borders of the puzzle. There are similarities of color or pattern that enable that help you start to group the pieces. Soon you begin to find pieces that fit together. The more you assemble, the easier it gets. It has to do with framework. The framework helps you connect each new piece. The more framework, the easier it is to incorporate a new piece.

Your mind works the same way. You have a hard time remembering a stray fact. It’s much easier if you have something to connect it to. This is born out by much research. Metaphors are one way to provide a connection.

Some financial concepts have richer networks of connections than others.

Take the concept of risk.

Risk can mean something very different for an insurance underwriter than it does for a securities rep. The insurance underwriter’s view of risk is probably closer to the common layperson idea of what the word means. Risk is bad. Risk is a chance of a loss. To the securities rep, the concept is expanded. Yes, risk is a chance of a loss, but it is also a chance of a gain.

These different views lead to different strategies for managing risk.

There is an old story about four blind men who encounter an elephant. One touches the trunk and describes the elephant as like a snake. Another touches the tusk and describes the elephant as like a sword. Another touches the elephant’s side and describes it as like a wall. The last touches a leg and describes the elephant as like a tree.

Metaphor is a tool to approach understanding and knowledge, but a metaphor is not the thing itself. It provides connections but not complete pictures. Skillful use of metaphor is a powerful tool, but it is only a part of the puzzle.

Countering Conventional Wisdom

If you are financially sophisticated, I want you to think about how you talk to a person who knows nothing about the topic. If you are a financial know-nothing, I want you to think about talking to a financial professional.

The question I have for both of you is the same: How do you talk to each other? What is you common language? What assumptions does one make that are totally foreign to the other?

This is the challenge of financial education. Knowledgeable or not, people make assumptions about money.

Often assumptions are heavily colored by public debates about taxes and insurance and entitlements and regulation. Even though we know that public debate is loaded with misinformation, we can help being swayed by it.

In some fields of education, students are blank slates. They know nothing. In the field of financial education, however, student can be steeped in the “conventional wisdom” and the conventional wisdom is wrong. As an educator, how do you counter this?

Well, you can’t become a counter-advocate. You are not there to advocate for policy. You are there to educate people about concepts. You need to be aware of common misconceptions, but leave the polemics at the door. You need to be the authority. And you have to make sure you don’t inadvertently buy into the controversies yourself.

2 B or NOT 2 B. That Isn’t the Question

Writing quality questions is often an important part of financial education. There are exam questions and there are questions to practice for the exam. I’ve been writing questions for 17 years. There’s a rhythm and an art to it.

Maybe 10 years ago I ran into a guy—I’ll call him Owen—who did test prep for a variety of financial exams. He had a “stable” of writers who wrote thousands of questions for him. He said they could write 10 questions an hour and he kept them going night and day until a project was done. They were fast.

I tend to be a fairly fast writer, but I could never get anywhere close to 10 questions an hour. If I’m really cooking, I can creep up to six questions an hour. A more usual sustained speed is maybe five.

Now, I titled this article: “2 B or NOT 2 B. That Isn’t the Question.” That’s because most multiple choices have more than two answer choices (2 B or NOT 2 B). I could probably write way more than 10 questions in an hour if two-answer questions were the norm.

The hard part about writing a good question is writing the wrong answer choices (called “distractors”). Okay, the first wrong answer choice is usually easy (NOT 2 B), but the rest of them take finesse to make them plausible choices but still wrong. Owen’s stable of writers could not have written 10 questions in an hour if their distractors were any good.

Another hard part about writing good questions is that, if you are required to write too many questions based on a limited amount of material, you start exhausting the material. Your questions start sounding all alike.

The Texas Department of Insurance pointed a way out of this difficulty a number of years ago when it began to require providers of insurance education to use “application-based” questions in their exams.

The term “application-based” comes from Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains (which I touch on in my post “Ethics Education is Very Stocky. But Does It Stick?”). Texas regulators felt that it wasn’t enough to learn the rules governing insurance. They felt it was important that insurance professionals be able to apply the rules to factual situations: hence the requirement that 70 percent of the questions in an insurance exam for Texas must require you to do this.

Honestly, the requirement does elevate the quality of the exams and the courses they are attached to. And, since a single insurance rule can apply to many fact situations, the new type of question opens up the possibilities for question writers.

If you know what you are writing about.

Owen’s stable of writers might have a hard time writing application-based questions. You could almost write a computer algorithm to write knowledge-based questions as you don’t do much more than just manipulate the statement of a rule to create a question about the rule. To write application-based questions you need to know something about how the rule works in the real world.

Now, before I end this post, I have to confess that I’ve been talking about writing questions for instructional material that already exists. Historically, this is the most common way that financial education is put together. In the old days, you started with a book and then wrote questions about the book.

There is a better way. You start with the application of the field of knowledge in the real world. Next you figure out what you need to teach in order to bring a learner up to speed in that real world. Then you write the assessment (questions or other types of assessments). Finally, you create the instructional pieces necessary to get the learner to be successful on the assessment and, by extension, in the real world.

It’s backwards from the way it’s always been done.

Serving Two Masters: The World of Continuing Education

Okay. Your license renewal period is almost over and you haven’t met your CE requirement yet. You need to find a course on something you already know so you can breeze through the course and pass the exam. You have to get through it fast. You’re out of time. Next time you’ll plan better. Maybe there’s a course that could really give you something to grow your book of business. But that’s next time.

And next time never comes.

This is the challenge for people writing continuing education courses. You see CE as a blank canvas for your creativity. You could teach great things. Training directors are in total sympathy. If they are the ones footing the bill, they may actually prefer courses that teach deep things. But they know the score. CE time is not your most reflective time. You need the hours and you need them fast.

How do you design courses for learners who are, well, resistant?

CE hours are, of course, somewhat related to the amount of time a student is expected to spend in a course. Different states try different strategies to try to force students through the material. Other states are more laissez faire. But students who are resistant are not the eager faces you’d like to see.

In my mind, you need to be pretty modest about what you can achieve. You plan your course with solid instruction, but you lace it with a few compelling take-aways. The idea is: if they get nothing else from the course, this is it. They get the hours, but they get a little tidbit of knowledge they can use.

You got your hours, just in the nick of time, but you got something extra. Maybe you’ll set aside more time next time around.

And I served two masters well. I delivered the hours as painlessly as possible. And I served up a little bit of knowledge to boot.

Cognitive Task Analysis of the Mind

All the instructional design textbooks start the process with analysis. The most famous development model is the ADDIE model: Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate. In the heat of real-world course development, there is a tendency to want to jump right to the design stage or even the develop stage—because analysis is seen as expensive or because we “know” what the analysis is going to show.

Now we can’t always go through a process like a full cognitive task analysis. CTA is used to capture detailed information about jobs, such as what cognitive activities separate high performers from beginners, how experts make decisions, what knowledge subject-matter experts will tell you versus tacit knowledge that they can’t even begin to articulate, and so on. This is a very detailed process and may actually yield too much “useful information.” After all, going from beginner to expert can take a long time. Sometime the education has to go in steps.

So, if you can’t do a full CTA, do you just give up? Some do.

But in my experience, it never pays to start a project without having some kind of picture of two things: (1) a picture of the learner and (2) a picture of what you want the learner to be able to do as a result of your course. We’re not just spewing information. We want to achieve a result.

Now, it may seem silly, but I learned these two points in a play writing class. We playwrights use different terminology. We don’t talk about learners, we talk about audiences. We don’t talk about learning objectives, we talk about the major dramatic question (MDQ). To write an effective play, you have to transport your audience from here to there.

Believe it or not, playwrights often do research before writing a play. But in the field of dramatic writing, it is also proper to talk about the playwright’s imagination.

We don’t talk about imagination as much in the field of instruction. But why not? Our purpose, like the playwright’s is to capture people’s minds and change them.

So, if you can’t do a CTA—for whatever reason—you do what you can do. Hard data is still important. But you need imagination as well. Imagination isn’t day dreaming. It is hard work. Don’t skip that step. (It’s even important if you can do a CTA.)

Ethics Education Is Very Sticky. But Does It Stick?

This evening, I washed the dishes after a tasty meal of my wife’s lasagna. Naturally, my 20-something sons took the opportunity to take showers at the same time, so we all rapidly ran out of hot water.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for me. Hot-water cleanup of sticky cheese tends to do little but spread and smear. Turn on the cold water and the cheese becomes more brittle and washes away without contaminating anything else. Hot water is good for many cleanup chores, but cold water has it’s place.

I don’t suppose that cold water was good for my son’s showers.

A sticky subset of financial education is ethics education. Most, if not all, licensing bodies in the financial professions require ethics education. The idea is that the public—consumers of financial services—are protected by teaching financial professionals about ethical rules. But does it? And does the run-of-the-mill ethics education stick?

Being able to recite rules is different from applying them in day-to-day practice. This is true in many areas of knowledge. And this difference is captured in a framework called Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains. Different learning strategies are required to be effective in teaching, say, application of ethical rules versus the ability to merely recite them. Just like hot water is good for some cleanups but cold water is good for others.

Ethics is situational. Now, I’m not talking about situational ethics, where the rules change depending on the situation. I’m talking about rules that are meant to be followed.

The situational part is where applying ethical rules gets difficult. When you are in the heat of a situation, you need to recognize an ethical problem and you need to decide how to act on the fly. The heat of the situation makes us forget the rules we learned to recite so well.

Unless we rehearse our responses. And, of course, we can’t rehearse our responses on real clients.

What we need is what many organizations use to train people with dangerous jobs: similators. Can you imagine a pilot being trained to respond to a flight emergency without a flight simulator?

The job of a financial professional may not be so dramatic, but people’s fortunes are at stake. Ethical lapses can wipe out a couple’s retirement savings or leave parents unable to send their kids to college.

So some sort of ethics situational simulator is required. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but the purpose is to put the learner into a situation, get them to respond, and give them feedback on whether their response was appropriate or not.

By giving the learner experience in solving ethical dilemmas in simulation, maybe we can keep them out of hot water when they’re out on the job.

Learning Objectives Can Mean More for the Designers Than for the Learners

Have you ever opened a course, online or a textbook, and skipped right over the statement of learning objectives? I have. Even if I read them, they don’t really make sense to me. Not yet.

I need a little orientation first.

Back in 1985, Robert Gagné said that there are nine steps to effective instruction. Providing learning objectives is Step 2, not Step 1. The first step is getting the learner’s attention. This involves laying out the problem that will be solved by the learning experience that is about to unfold and making clear why the learner should care. (Check out Don Clark’s Big Dog website for the entire nine steps.)

Only then do you provide the roadmap. It’s: Here’s the need that brought you to this course (step 1) followed by: Here’s how we’re going to satisfy that need (step 2). Then, before we get into the instruction proper, we let the learner reflect on what he already knows and how the instruction will fit in (step 3).

Learning objectives are certainly important for the learner, but they are not the first thing.

For the learner.

For those of us who design courses, however, learning objective serve a different function. They are out plan for course development. They help us determine how to apply most of the remaining steps in Gagné nine-steps of instruction. For each learning objective, there are materials to present to the learner, activities to design to get the learner to rehearse new knowledge and skills, coaching and feedback, assessment, and so on. While learning strategies may vary depending on the type of learning objective, an entire sequence needs to be implemented for each one.

Our project plans are built around learning objectives.

Creativity’s Muse Can Be a Project Manager

My wife and I met in a play writing class. We had different styles—at least at a macro level. I wrote outlines, she didn’t. Her work was organic, mine was planned. At a micro level, there was probably more similarity. Although I had my outlines, I improv’d scenes in my head, and sometimes (as they say) the characters in my plays took on a life of their own, thwarting my neat outlines. And although my wife built her plays up from individual scenes, she did have some sort of organizing principle—you just didn’t see it in a formal structure. . . .

Okay, wait a minute, What does this have to do with financial education?

Educational projects can involve many different people with many different perspectives. This presents a challenge in managing the project to a successful conclusion. Subject-matter experts know what they know, but they may not be able to articulate it. Instructional designers know learning theory, but they may not understand the subject-matter. They may take time to come up to speed. Executive have one sort of expectation for a project and production people have different ones.

Bringing a team of such diverse people together is a challenge. The effort can stifle creativity. My wife couldn’t understand how my outlines could help me write a work of drama or humor. But they did help. In my mind, they ensured that my creative vision was realized throughout the whole work.

In the same way, effective project management, which recognizes the particular value of each member of the team and their particular viewpoint, can orchestrate a superior product. It can create synergies by ensuring that the whole team remains focused on learner outcomes. By not working at cross purposes, a team can achieve its goal without waste and without rework.