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.

A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down

Today I just want to tell you a story, so sit back and relax. Once upon a time . . .

How many times have you attended a class that began like that? Not too many times, I’m guessing. And I’m guessing that storytelling becomes rarer and rarer the more advanced the topic. Am I right?

But people’s brains are built to give attention to stories, so they tell us. So why don’t we use the technique more often?

In financial education, stories tend to appear in examples that are set aside from the text. Examples could be the real teachers in these courses, but they tend to be afterthoughts. What’s worse, savvy students might often feel they can skip over the examples. And they can, if the story is poor and the learning point is merely repetitive of the preceding text.

In my career, I’ve had a few opportunities to turn it around. The first one was a course called Introduction to Trusts. The original was a dry course that listed one estate planning concept after another. Examples were few and short. In revising the course, I decided to drop the dry recitations of property law and build the course entirely out of a half-dozen case studies. The property law was “discovered” in the process of solving a client’s problem.

The course was much more engaging. The student could see property law principles at work. My team soon was building more reality-based courses. Many years later, I learned that instructional design research supported many of the techniques we used.

It often seems impossible to get these topics on their feet. But any useful knowledge has a use! That is the key.

In every job that must be done
There is an element of fun
you find the fun and snap!

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.

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.

Learning Lots of Long Lists

I have a rule of thumb: if I have to remember a list of items that’s longer than three items, I have to write it down. Otherwise, I will always forget one of the items. It’s my N-minus-1 rule. If the list is N items long, I will remember N-1 of them. I discovered this rule running to the grocery store for my wife. Now, when she asks me to pick up a few items, I always ask how many items she wants. If it’s more than three, I write it down.

Insurance education has lots of lists: lists of things that are covered, lists of exclusions—you get the picture.

I didn’t realize this when I first got into the insurance education business because my area was life insurance. Here’s the list for life insurance:

  • Dead—covered
  • Undead—not covered

Two items. I can handle that one. Of course it’s more complicated than that, but the life insurance list isn’t in the same league as health insurance, with its lists of procedures, or property-casualty insurance, with its lists of perils and hazards and risks—oh my!

Pure lists are hard to teach because, if the typical learner is anything like me, their brains operate on the N-minus-1 rule. And more often than not the forgotten 1 is the item they need to know.

In designing a learning experience, then, you have to decide exactly what it is you want to teach people. Here are some possibilities:

  • Instead of teaching people to recite a list, you might want to give them the list to take away with them (remember my grocery list)—then teach them how to use the list.
  • You might want to teach items on the list the learner might encounter with some frequency: property-casualty producers might have a greater need to understand the coverages and exclusions relating to employee dishonesty than they need to understand the exclusion for nuclear war.
  • You might want to teach why things are on a list: cosmetic surgery is on the list of exclusions because cosmetic surgery is normally elective, whereas an appendectomy is not.
  • Instead of pure memorization, you might have activities requiring the learner to sort items into “piles”: covered versus excluded. You can get really fancy and have a secondary sort of the excluded pile into exclusions that you can buy separate coverage for (like flood insurance) and exclusions that you can’t (like for war).

 

An Exam You Can’t Prepare For?

I was just listening to a story on NPR about the new SAT exam that will be given to high school kids starting in 2016. In the story, I learned that the changes are designed to minimize the effect of test-prep courses.

What does this have to do with financial education?

A good deal of financial education is designed to get the learner to pass an exam. It may be a licensing exam or it may be an exam given at the conclusion of a continuing education course. Techniques that help teenagers pass a college entrance exam are just as valid when applied to exams taken later in life.

The question then is whether it is really possible to create an exam that you can’t prepare for? The College Board says yes, but they have been saying that for more than 50 years. Yet the test-prep business flourishes. Why? Because people who prepare for a test do better than those who don’t. And there really isn’t a way to write a test that eliminates the value of preparing.

And why would you want to do that?

Playing an instrument takes practice. Playing a sport takes practice. Would you ever want to design a piece of music or a sport in which practice offers no hope of improvement? Don’t kids who take SAT test-prep gain from what they learn in those courses, apart for the improved SAT scores?

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.