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.

Advertisements

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.