Those Who Can, Teach

People like to say: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” But is it true?

Let’s take the first part—“those who can, do.” It’s certainly true some of the time. I can ride a bike. Sometimes I do that. Right now, I’m sitting in front of my computer wishing I was riding my bike because it’s such a nice day. (Maybe later.)

But I can also teach someone to ride a bike. I’ve done it twice. I taught my son Nat and I taught my son Cal. I can ride a bike and I can teach someone to ride a bike. So the second part of the old adage is clearly false.

Normally, when I tell the story about teaching my boys to ride bikes, I talk about running alongside them to prop them up while they pedaled (and about how tired that made me). And, of course, I talk about the moments I pooped out and the boys rode on without me. I also talk about teaching them to stop with their feet down (as opposed to falling on their faces).

That’s not the whole story though. The story really begins with their ride-on toys, the ones that they push with their feet (like Fred Flintstone). That’s when they learned how to steer. Then they got their tricycles. That’s when they learned how to pedal. And that’s when they got their first taste for speed. Then they got used to the feel of their real bicycles by riding with training wheels. It was a whole process.

Interestingly enough, none of this requires the parent to be able to ride a bike!

But being able to ride a bike, and knowing the joy of it, helps when you are teaching.

Teaching is both a natural and a contrived process. We teach all the time when we show someone how to do something. But we’ve also developed techniques to make the process more effective. To be a teacher is to know and use these techniques. A teacher should be a specialist in . . . teaching. But it doesn’t hurt to know the thing you are teaching.

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All of the Above

Interacting With the Material

Interacting doesn’t just mean clicking a button. But most online courses have little interaction besides clicking the Next button. You can certainly learn something that way. That’s essentially the way you surf the web. You see a link and you click on it. Next. You read the next piece. Next. You read the one after that. Next.

I can’t deny that I learn things that way, but it’s kinda random. If I’m designing a course, I want the learning to be something more than random. I want you to learn points that I consider important, not just something that caught you out of the corner of your eye. Sometimes I’m presenting semi-disconnected points, but often, my courses are designed to teach you an organized system of ideas. If you get just an isolated point, you don’t get it at all.

The research says that the best kinds of interactions are short answers. I don’t know if I agree with that. The best kinds of interactions would be you independently using the information. I might be able to get you to do that if I am your cubicle-mate and I’m trying to give you some on-the-job training. But I’m designing online education, so I have to make do with clicks and drags-and-drops.

Basically, we’re talking multiple-choice questions (in some form). But multiple-choice questions are how we test people.

In what way are instructional multiple-choice questions any different from an assessment question?

A. The biggest difference is that exam questions don’t have feedback after you’ve responded.
B. An instructional question can actually precede the instructional content.
C. They can be used to help people grapple with the interrelationships between the different parts of the instructional content.
D. All of the above.

Boomers Retiring Earlier . . . I Mean, Later . . .

As Baby Boomers age, stories in the financial press (and the mainstream press) are beginning to shift from “Boomers Retiring Early!” to “Boomers Retiring Late!” There are even stories saying that “Boomers Are Secretly Retired!” Or “Secretly Unemployed!” Whatever!

Of course, it’s all happening. There are tens of millions of us (76 million born between 1945 and 1964 and a large majority of us are still around). In a group this size you’re bound to find early retirees, late retirees, and secret retirees. We didn’t all go to Vietnam. We didn’t all burn our bras (not even 50% of us). We didn’t all do drugs. Sex and rock-and-roll were probably pretty widespread, but not universal.

And not only are we individuals, we live in a time of increased life spans. When we were born in the mid-twentieth century, life expectancy was just creeping out of the 60s! We forget that, at least 10 years have been added during our lifetimes.

Our grandparents had very few years of retirement, on average. Early or late, it wasn’t a big difference. Today, a boomer could be looking at 20 years of retirement (that’s the approximate average) or even 30 years (not too much of a stretch).

And as our lives have been stretched out, so have our life milestones. We married later. We had kids later. We put kids through college later. And these life milestones have become more expensive (college, medical, etc.) All these changes have increased the variability in boomer life experience.

Policy-makers and actuaries may look at the averages, but financial planning professionals look at the individual. The boomers are all individuals. Every single one of them.

Handling the Math

People have a hard time with math. Even people who write about it.

Take a recent article in Slate called “Obamacare and the ‘Young Invincibles,’” that purports to evaluate the recent enrollment figure under the Affordable Care Act. This article is not written by an Obamacare basher, and yet the author’s failure to do the math possibly paints a more negative picture than warranted.

It all has to do with the health insurance enrollments of young people in the age 18-34 bracket.

Enrollment of young people is important because young people tend to avoid buying health insurance, but they are needed in the risk pool to balance off people of my age. The ideal risk pool has full representation from all ages.

The article says that 40 percent of the uninsured in this country were in this age bracket. Final enrollment figures say that 28 percent of those who enrolled were in this age bracket, far short of the 40 percent.

Is 28 percent good enough?

The article says that there is no benchmark because underwriting information is unavailable from the insurance companies. But it does compare the figure to the initial enrollment figure when the similar Massachusetts program was first launched. The figure for that age group in Massachusetts was 28.3 percent. The Massachusetts program went on to be a success.

Is the national figure of 28 percent comparable to the Massachusetts 28.3?

The article correctly states that it depends on how the enrollments break down by state. Some states encouraged enrollment, some states discouraged it. Some states made Medicaid available, some did not.

Another factor to be considered is the fact that, under Obamacare, young adults up to age 26 may now be included in their parents’ employer-provided health insurance. The article doesn’t account for these young adults. They would not have enrolled through the health exchanges and would, therefore, not be part of the 28 percent. The question is: were they or were they not counted as part of the 40 percent who were uninsured.

Unless we know about these young adults, how can we even come up with a figure? We can’t. The figure could be 28 percent or it could be more. Health exchanges were not the only avenue for young adult enrollment. You have to account for them all.

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.

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.