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Training Scrum? Try it From the Back of the Room

01/13/2012 by Lonnie Weaver-Johnson

On my journey to become a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST), I’ve met a number of helpful and knowledgeable people. For those of you who may not know, part of the plan to become a CST consists of training with other current CSTs.  One new training technique I was introduced to is worth sharing with the greater community.  It was something I first learned from Brian Rabon and then I saw it again with Tom Mellor.  It is called Accelerated Learning and training expert, Sharon Bowman, has written books incorporating this concept into her teaching methods. Two of her books are called Training from the Back of the Room and Using Brain Science to Make Training Stick.

The main principles are to actively involve the learners in the training and keep them moving so they can increase oxygen flow to their brain. According to Dr. John Medina, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, "Exercise increases oxygen flow to the brain… an increase in oxygen is always accompanied by an uptick in mental sharpness." Ms. Bowman applies Dr. Medina’s research in her teachings because her goal is not to teach a class, it is to help the students learn. By actively involving the learners’ brains when teaching, she increases their ability to retain the knowledge.  Just like the Agile Manifesto has its principles and values; Bowman applies six learning principles to improve the way students are taught:

  • Movement trumps sitting
  • Talking trumps listening
  • Images trumps words
  • Writing trumps reading
  • Shorter trumps longer
  • Different trumps same

Why are these ideas important? To answer that question look at what goals our Scrum classes are trying to accomplish. At a minimum, the goals are to share Scrum knowledge with the students and aid in the retention of that knowledge. We may have other goals like striving to build excitement about Scrum and provide value for the students’ time and money but for the purposes of this article we will remain focused on the main goals.  If those are to teach the learners and help them retain that knowledge, then we need to increase the oxygen to their brain.  Through her six learning principles above, Ms. Bowman provides many ideas for introducing movement in a training class.  She also suggests we teach using four simple steps:

  1. Get them connected to the course content and the other students
  2. Have students “show and tell” what they’ve learned
  3. Let the students “do it” – learning is experience
  4. Stand back and applaud; affirm what they’ve learned

Brian and Tom had different styles for increasing participation and movement in their classes. Although they adopted different techniques based on those four steps, the general idea is the same; step back from speaking and involve the students in the teaching. Getting class participants involved in their own learning will help them better understand and retain the knowledge. To do this, Tom provided many articles, books, and websites for the students to research topics in groups so they could present them to the other small groups in the class.  After going through this “Teach Back” technique, he then debriefed with them to answer questions or provide clarifications.  

In Brian’s class, he has the learners in and out of their chairs often to play games, share information, and try out the concepts. There was no time for wandering minds because Brian’s students were on the move and playing games while practicing brand new Scrum concepts and Tom’s class was busy researching and teaching.

When change is introduced to any process or method it can cause setbacks. The same dynamic could be true for trainers using new techniques so they might want to be prepared for problems that could arise.  Some that come to mind are:

  • Instructor may lose control of the class; allowing a domineering individual to take over.
  • Students may feel they came to “be taught, not teach others”; therefore believing they’re not getting value out of the class.
  • Incorrect information could be shared by student facilitators; causing students to leave with bad information.
  • Students facilitating means less control for instructor; so all materials might not get covered or time could slip.

Trainers must be ready to overcome those potential issues and this would be fairly simple if the training was delivered in an empirical manner. Training structured in an empirical fashion allows flexibility to get the class on track, make corrections, and ensure a good experience for all. The empirical approach is a good for both traditional methods of training and a “back of the room” style because students’ knowledge levels vary and each class has its own little nuances. Trainers need to determine their actions should obstacles arise.

For example, take the case of a domineering individual. If the trainer is using an empirical style it will allow for just-in-time adjustments. Trainers can make a new rule such as “for this activity, each individual is limited to offering only one idea”.  Another situation might be when a group presents false information about Scrum. In this case, debriefing on the topic will allow the trainer to step in and guide the class toward the right answer.  Teaching in an empirical manner will provide the opportunity to overcome each of these potential hazards.

There may be some cases when the “back of the room training” may not be the best approach.  A large lecture class of 250 students is one such case because one instructor could not physically get around the room to help each group.  Course content may also dictate when to avoid this approach. For example, when the content is very specific and where negative impacts could be detrimental, one might have to be very creative to figure out how/if “back of the room training” could work.  A class for future anesthesiologists learning about drug affects on the human body is a specific example, although one could argue about the importance of knowledge retention.  Since students retain more knowledge from being actively involved in the learning then perhaps it is worth figuring out how this method might work. After all, we’d all want our anesthesiologist to remember next steps should a negative drug reaction occur.

For some trainers less lecturing during class might not come naturally. For extroverted people who enjoy speaking and whose strengths lay in their verbal communication these methods might be a challenge to incorporate into their teaching. However, I can assure you that the students benefitted greatly from the techniques that Tom and Brian incorporated into their classes and as such, it will be well worth making some adjustments in order to reap those benefits.

I worked with two trainers, saw two different methods for engaging the students in their learning and I saw the same outcome - the students loved it. I know this to be true because I read the reviews.  “Best two-day class I have ever been to” and “what a fabulous way to teach a class” are two of the reviews that stuck with me the most. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a brand new trainer, it is definitely worth investigating. Give Sharon Bowman’s books a try or talk to some of the trainers who have already incorporated these techniques, I’m sure you’ll find your classes invigorated.