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Bill Nicolich

A big fan of SQLServerCentral, I hope to add good posts for the general enjoyment of other readers at SQLServer Central. Also check my personal blog for additional comments, recommendations and such at SQLFave.blogspot.com.

The Apples and Oranges of Training

SQL Server Training is out there in all sorts of formats, price points and quality. It's time to look at the quality part.

What makes TED Talks (www.ted.com) magic is the digestible format. You take an expert accustomed to talking to their colleagues and writing inpenetrable books - and force them to distill their best ideas into a short presentation. That requires them to re-format, re-think and consider the audience. Some do it better than others. Something like that happens with a good technology trainer or presenter.

It's a dicipline that's core to journalism, too. The editor won't let you just spew a bunch of information and call it an article. Lots of thought and care go into the headline, the first sentence, the first paragraph, the next three paragraphs and the rest of the article. There's a lot of thought about how "people are going to want this" or, "people are not going to understand that" or "don't assume they'll read that far." "Learner empathy" Just like "reader empathy" is part of the magic that separates good trainers from the rest, I suggest.

We learners have a big stake in this art, too because we're shelling out cash and time to get training.

Training is less about getting a human voice to convey information and more about getting past mere information to knowledge and wisdom. This is a great point made by Neil Postman in his excellent book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. The trick is to know when that's happening. I think there are some tell-tale clues.

1. The material is both advertised as leveled (beginner, intermediate...) and delivered as leveled.

2. There's plenty of time left over for questions and discussion without the presentation cut short. This  can show that the presenter was selective about what to highlight and what to skim over.

3. The presenter is selective about when to field questions. They preserve the flow of the presentation.

Maybe you have more.

Here's another reason to go to events like SQL Saturday. You get to sample and compare the teaching wares. If you find one that you feel can really get things across to you, don't forget their name. Go there for your training. They're not all the same - even if the course material is identical. If they're expensive, then haggle.

Other people's opinions will only take you so far, I've found. I've been at events where other people have enthusiastically recommended a presenter such that I abandon my plan and try it out only to be left disappointed. A claim like "they're great" deserves a series of follow-up questions. What's good - their comedy routine?

Here's a fair question that I think a prospective student can ask a trainer: "What teacher training have you done?" If the answer is little or none, then a follow-up is, why do you feel you can train without it? Perhaps a trainer feels they have a natural gift for it. Well, that's legitimate if true. But there should still be some effort made to study books on it or something. Years spent training doesn't impress me much. McDonalds has been in business selling average hamburgers for a long time.

The student side of the equation:

Students aren't going to agree on who can reach them. Learning styles differ. Some can take tons of information and run with it. Others want to stop and visualize it or ask all those "why" questions before feeling comfortable with it.

I'm one that doesn't do well with the "firehose" method. I want time to consider things from more than one angle.

For others, the main roadblock is attention span. So, they need a Buck Woody - someone who can entertain them and keep them awake during the session. But if attention span isn't an issue, then all the jokes, puns and comical side notes might get in the way.

Students have their own personal reasons for wanting to learn something. What a person learns is closely tied to ones ego and identity in addition to earning capacity. Some students are people pleasers who like to be helpful. Some like to play a contrarian role. They'll focus in on different areas of the material and leave other pieces depending on personal goals and circumstances.

The teacher side of the equation:

There's a difference between a teacher who is knowledgeable in their realm and a teacher who is able to get learners from point A to point B. It has to do with learner empathy.

Literally the entire presentation I think should be an exercise in figuring out how to orient learners and get them from A to B. But a ton of issues can crowd out that way of thinking-  some of them personal, and some of them circumstantial.

The circumstantial stuff is easy to adjust over time - but crucial. I've seen a presenter forget their slide deck. The presenter was supposed to do a beginner's course on BI. Instead, the presenter grabbed an advanced consulting project and proceeded to firehose advanced information on a bewildered crowd of beginners. Learn fail.

The personal stuff is harder to adjust because it's tied into a teacher's identity. Sorry to say, but egotistical people will always struggle with empathy. There's blatantly egotistical teachers. Just think back on school. Then there's covert egotism. It can show up in one's philosophy of humanity, ones view on experts vs. novices - ones theories on relative performance. It can hide.

Now, some people love helping other people and are genuinely nice. but that doesn't mean they can get past egotism. Their egotism might manifest itself in being introspective, shy, nervous and otherwise self-focused in a way that interferes with the student focus. I've seen really nice people "flittering about" on a subject because they're really knowledgeable and they're nervous and they've stopped their concentration on the learner's path.

Postman also points out that one of the most important critical thinking skills of a teacher is that of asking "educative questions" - questions that are at the right level at the right timing that support the learning process. It's an art. I've been reading a great, but less well known book on that subject called Teaching Thinking through Effective Questioning that I recommend to teacher and student alike.

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