The Art of Teaching & Learning


Are you currently an educator, or thinking about becoming one? Maybe that’s not in your wheelhouse but you’d like to know how to get more from training courses or from your own practice sessions. In either case, we are all students and trainers at some point in our lives and the way in which we perform those roles has a significant impact on our professional development. As someone who “fell into” being a subject matter expert on instruction almost by accident, this topic has become a passion of mine over the last few years.


As I mentioned in the first entry of this series, I have a very diverse experience in training. In 20 years in the corporate world managing teams and projects, I had to train a lot of people. Initially, I was not given much direction or instruction as to how to transfer knowledge to others and make it stick; it was simply assumed that since I was good at my job that I would be able to have others replicate whatever made me successful (more about this common misconception in a later section). This made it an uphill battle for me, and it prompted me to seek guidance and instruction about teaching techniques, learning styles, etc. I state that I became a subject matter expert by accident because this was not something that was required for any of the jobs that I had and none of my peers were doing something similar. Eventually, I was tasked to disseminate many of the things I learned to other leaders in my department as well as to front-line employees.



Another important factor in my development as an instructor was the fact that I’ve been studying martial arts and self-defense since my teens. After a dozen years of training I began assisting in classes for a few years and for the past decade I’ve been a personal defense instructor myself. This parallel path between learning from the corporate world and the personal defense world has shaped my approach to instruction in a very deep and unique way; training with high-performing teams in the business world as well as training—and training with—elite athletes, law enforcement and military, has allowed me to develop a very comprehensive approach to both teaching and learning methodologies. In this entry I want to share with you a few of the most important points that I’ve learned in almost a quarter century of being a student and instructor. These have yielded me the best results when teaching others as well as when trying to learn something new myself. This information should be equally valuable to current/aspiring educators as well as to those who simply want to keep learning and mastering their craft. As with anything we set out to do, mindset will determine the outcome. Being accountable for the betterment of our skills and open-minded to learn and try new techniques is crucial if you are to reach the next level in your craft. Another thing that helps in terms of mentality is segmenting out the different ways in which we learn and knowing the proper role and context of each. If you understand these categories and the proper way to approach each, it will go a long way in helping you master any skill. Let’s take a look. 

Training
Training is usually a catch-all term that we use to describe anything having to do with practicing, drilling, tinkering, etc. and it’s fine in casual conversation, but in professional terms we need to have a more specific definition. Here, training means formal training that we do under the guidance and observation of a subject matter expert (SME). In this setting we are paying to learn from someone with greater skill and experience than us and getting feedback about our performance.  


Making the most out of our training sessions is absolutely crucial to our development. We must squeeze every ounce of value out of them given that we don’t always have the SME at our beck and call outside of the course(s). It’s important that we get to a point in the training session where we are doing the skill correctly since that is what we will be practicing on our own (more on that below). Here is where accountability comes in. If you don’t leave a training class having the instructor sign off on the quality of your work/ability, then you did not achieve your goal.


Practice

Practice is when we drill the skills that we learned in training. That’s why it’s so important that you leave a training session having learned and achieved the proper technique, otherwise you can develop what we call “training scars”. As my personal defense coach and mentor, Tony Blauer, often says, “Be careful what you practice, you might become very good at the wrong thing”. How we practice can end up being the most important aspect of the development of a skill, since it’s where we spend the most time. Most of us don’t have the time and money to take formal classes every weekend so the vast amount of drilling we do is under our own supervision. Once again, mindset comes into play here. Most people will practice something until they finally get it right and then call it a day thinking they’ve succeeded. If we were to analyze what they just accomplished, it would reveal that they practiced the wrong thing ten times and only got it right once. In this example the amount of experience the tech got in doing it wrong versus doing it right is 10:1. What are the chances that she’ll get it right tomorrow when a customer requests that service? The odds are 10:1 that she’ll fail. 


In military and law enforcement training, a saying that encapsulates this issue has really stuck with me: “Amateurs train until they get it right, professionals train until they get it wrong”. The thinking here is that like the example above, someone who doesn’t have the right mindset (an amateur) will stop practicing once they get it right, while a professional will keep pushing their limits in order to keep improving. I have altered that saying in my corporate and personal defense training sessions to: “Amateurs practice until they get it right, professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong”. The difference here is that the professional will drill the skill so many more times than having done it wrong in order to build the “muscle memory” to such a degree that they couldn’t get it wrong even if they tried.


In order to get the most out of our practice sessions they must be purposeful and must have a goal that you set ahead of time. By purposeful I mean that there is a specific purpose and need for drilling an individual skill (base application, cuticle cleaning with a e-file, etc.). We usually pick the skill that we want to improve the most either because it’s our weakest link, or it has become a larger part of your business and would like to be better at it. The point is that we must identify the skill(s) that we want to improve in the practice session and why we want to improve it ahead of time, not just start messing around randomly (that would be tinkering). The proper approach here would be something like: “Today I will practice finish filing in order to improve the overall quality of the shape and texture of my nails”. 


After we have identified the purpose for the practice session it’s equally important that you set some goals. The reason for this is that you will only be able to track your improvement if you set some standards. For instance, you might set a specific time limit or a certain amount of reps, or both. That way, the next time you drill the same skill you’ll be able to see if you have gotten faster. If what you’re trying to accomplish is quality then you need to set a goal for how may instances of that skill you want to achieve (e.g. 10 perfect extensions). In such a case, you must remember the mindset of a professional discussed above and ensure that the amount of times something is done with the desired level of quality must exceed the amount of times it was done with sub-par quality. Another rule of thumb: never end a practice session on a bad rep.


Tinkering

From the prior two sections, I hope that you’ve gotten the idea of just how seriously I think we should take training (in the broad sense). However, it is not lost on me or any other good trainer/coach that we also need a setting in which we can explore and experiment. This is even more important in jobs/activities that require creativity and imagination. Tinkering is when we practice without a specific purpose or goal; we simply grab our tools and start messing around and see what happens. This is a great opportunity to find new methods and techniques and possibly even revolutionize the way something is done, so it’s an important part of our professional development and the growth of the industry. The key here is to not confuse it with practice as defined above, and that we don’t make this the bulk of our learning, lest we end up undoing much of the “muscle memory” we developed during training and practice. Other than that, tinker away!


I hope that segmenting the three types of learning as I did above help you get a clearer idea of the role each one plays in your development. If you address each one accordingly, I guarantee that you’ll improve your skills and learn new ones more effectively. In the next entry we’ll do something similar, but with the different stages of professional development. 


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