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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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.

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?

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.

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.)

“Portable Content” May Not Be So Portable After All

You invest a lot in developing course content, so you hope to get maximum use from it. Right?

This is the idea behind content management. You write a piece for insurance agents and you want to use it again for underwriters. You write a piece for financial analysts and you want to use it again for consumers. You write a piece for senior advisers and you want to use it again for support staff. You write a piece to help folks pass a test and you want to use it again to improve job performance.

Content management systems are designed to help you achieve your reuse aims. But does it work? Sometimes it does. But sometimes, content written for one audience goes over the head of another—or it flies beneath their radar. Why is that?

It all has to do with needs analysis.

To develop a superior financial education product, you need to understand what you are trying to accomplish and who your learner is. What is their need? What is their prior knowledge? What motivates them to learn? What engages them?

So a piece written for insurance agents may talk about customer needs. Agents are gregarious people-oriented folk and their purpose in life is to make a sale. Underwriters may have instructional needs that overlap the agent’s, but underwriters are more concerned with statistics and profitability for their company.

A piece for a financial analyst may focus on investment portfolios. Their resources allow for a great deal of research. Consumers may be interested in similar topics, but minutia may not get them where they need to be.

And so on.

I’m not saying that content management systems miss the point. They are great in making the intellectual property of a company available for reused. I’m just saying that it is not as automatic a process that we hope. That’s because learners are involved. And different learners have different needs and motivations.

It’s the learners that we are trying to reach.