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In the End, It's All About Learners

3 August 2017

Avinash Tripathi
ECOM Consulting Inc

Once upon a time, in a faraway lab, a professor lived with his shining lab equipment. Although he had a very intelligent and kind house cat, his zest to be surrounded by more intelligence was never-ending. On a cold night during the holiday season in December, an old squid came to the lab and offered to work with him.

The next day Professor Zapinsky prepared for an experiment. His goal was to prove that Squid was more intelligent than Cat when challenged with solving puzzles under similar conditions. So he set up two 48'' x 48'' glass aquariums with a puzzle and filled them with water. Later, he put Squid in one aquarium and Cat in the other. Squid immediately started solving the puzzle, whereas Cat was having a hard time adapting to the conditions. After struggling for a while, Cat finally walked on the rainbow bridge, and with that, Professor Zapinsky proved that Squid was more intelligent than Cat when challenged with puzzles under similar conditions.

Trainer, teacher, or coach?

Without more context, the above story might seem irrelevant to work. Just bear with me while I paint a clearer picture. You might have wondered often and asked yourself the question, "What am I? A trainer, a coach, or a teacher?" This question has been circling for a long time, and we are still looking for an answer, I believe. Perhaps it would be better to call ourselves by a totally different name. Based on my understanding and after talking to experts, a trainer, teacher, and coach are all same. The difference, perhaps, is the need.

What if we call ourselves Tony Stark? Tony Stark is from the Iron Man series; he created multiple armors to use at specific times. For example, he created the Hulkbuster armor to fight with the Hulk and the Thorbuster armor to fight with mighty Thor. In a similar way, unknowingly or knowingly, we have created the same armors, called Trainer and Teacher. We, as Tony Stark, remain the same, and depending on our needs, we switch to the appropriate armor of either a trainer or a teacher.

The teacher, trainer, or coach have many similar skills and techniques. They all know how to manage a group of learners, give clear instructions, and get people into groups. They also have experience in creating lesson plans. However, there are also some slight differences. But before I get to those, let me share an interaction I had with one of my colleagues.

Following a meeting, my colleague asked me if I could train him on the tool that our organization was using to manage the project. I told him I could, so he asked if I'd mind sharing my laptop's screen on the conference room TV to show him the tool, navigation, etc. I took a deep breath and paused momentarily before asking, "Do you want me to teach you, or do you want me to train you?" He was clearly surprised by my question and asked, "What's the difference?" I told him they were not. If I have to show the tool on the screen and he observes the navigation, that would be teaching. However, if I share my screen and he navigates on his own by following my instructions, that would be training.

What's the difference?

Let's jump to the differences among trainer, teacher, and coach. One difference, which we have already covered, is that a teacher teaches, a trainer trains, and a coach coaches. Still, one question remains unanswered: "Whom?" or "What's the need?" The answer highlights the biggest difference among teaching, training, and coaching. For simplicity, let's cover teacher and trainer only. I will let you think about coach.

Teaching is better suited for somebody with a clean slate who has no expectation or established way of learning. For instance, think about a child when he explores the world. As a parent, you have the opportunity to teach him new things. On the other hand, training goes well with those who have knowledge, well-established ways of learning, and expectations about learning. As a trainer, you will have to understand those established ways of learning and expectations, and take them into account while delivering the training. For instance, think of an adult to whom you are explaining your reasoning.

There is one more fundamental difference. Let's go back to my conversation with my colleague, when I said that I would be teaching if I showed him the tool and he navigated on his own. While using Teacher armor, we are an expert in the subjects, and most of the time we are "subconsciously competent," which is one of the four stages of competence. In teaching practices (armor limitation), we will refrain from explaining the principles; we will just do it as second nature. However, in Trainer armor, even though you are also subconsciously competent, you have to take a step back to "conscious competence" and articulate the principles behind the practices. In other words, if I have to teach (Teaching armor) how the tool works, I can navigate, as if it were my second nature, without explaining. If I have to train (Trainer armor), I would let the trainee do the navigation and pause every now and then to explain the principles and reasoning behind it.

Being one person and juggling two armors can be difficult. However, being in the Trainer armor takes extra energy, effort, and push. We all have run forward all our life, but have you ever tried to run backwards? If yes, then you know how difficult it is to take a step back when you are programmed to always take a step forward. Essentially a successful professional knows how to juggle between the two, when he/she has to act as a teacher and when he/she has to take a step back to the conscious competence zone. A quote from Roger Brown's article "Adventures in Accelerated Learning" perfectly sums it up: "If the teacher simply tells the student the facts or perhaps points to facts in a book, the student does not own those facts. The application of those facts in real life may be mechanical, brittle, and half-hearted. If, on the other hand, the teacher can successfully impart the motivations, spirit, and principles of the topic, the student will come to a stronger understanding and start to own that knowledge. Follow-on actions will be better informed, more strongly motivated, and energetic."

Creating an accelerated learning environment

The transition point for a teacher is when he or she can successfully impart the motivations, spirit, and principles of the topic. If you have achieved that, you are no longer a teacher; you have stepped into the territory of a trainer. Suiting up in a trainer's armor is about going the extra mile (backward) to deliver the knowledge to your audience.

To be able to receive the knowledge so that the transition between being a teacher and a trainer becomes easy, we can do a few things to achieve an environment in which an adult becomes an avid learner, similar to a child with an open mind. In short, we want to achieve an accelerated learning environment that resonates with everyone.
  1. Provide a safe and comfortable environment for learners. The example of Professor Zapinsky might be a little off for this, but it's clear that the environment in which he put the house cat was not safe. As a trainer, it's important to ensure that the training environment is safe for all the learners and not just for a few.
  2. Create an atmosphere of common perception and keep everyone on the same page. It's easy to lose sight in the conscious competence zone and leave your learners behind. It's also important to ensure that trainer and learners are on the same page and have a common conversation for exchanging ideas. For example, what would happen if we put Professor Zapinsky, Squid, and Cat inside the same aquarium? It is only then that Professor Zapinsky would realize that he lost sight of the unsafe environment for Cat.
  3. Let adults be children again. Allow learners to make some noise rather than ask them to constantly pay attention to what is being delivered in the session. Foster an environment in which they are free to ask questions.
  4. Design the training atmosphere to allow learners to move and interact with others. We learned most when we were children. When we allow adults to be children again by providing a playground to explore more, it helps in the process of learning. Moreover, social interaction and sharing experiences speed up the learning process. Sharon Bowman, an experienced trainer and teacher, also stresses that we should up the brain science to make training stick. Movement trumps sitting, and talking trumps listening. Allow learners to move and interact with each other.
  5. Implement short, image-rich presentations and long, learning-based activities. Bowman shared an interesting post: "Show, Just Don’t Tell." It's interesting to know that we perceive and gather 90% of the information by visuals. The same also correlates with the brain science — "Images trump words," says Bowman. Create visuals for your short lessons and let learners use those visuals in their learning-based activities. Writing trumps reading, and shorter trumps longer. It's in the best interest of both learner and trainer to keep lessons short to cover the basics and let the activities reveal the details.
  6. Use examples from the learner's past experiences. As an Agile coach, I have learned that when concepts are taught to learners without any context for them to relate to, those concepts seem to get lost. As trainers, we should be able to help people understand concepts by drawing connections to what they already know. All of our knowledge, memories, and ideas are stored in neural networks; in other words, everything inside our brain is encoded as connections between neurons. It's easy for our brain to find the existing network and use that network to form a new network or strengthen an existing one.
There are two more things to consider that I think are crucial to successfully juggling between Teacher and Trainer. First, don’t forget to have fun and let others have fun; and second, take each training session as an opportunity to learn from others and form a new neural network in your own brain, while strengthening existing neural networks.

After reading this article, if you have decided what you want to call yourself, remember, as Sharon Bowman said, "In the end, it's all about learners, not us."

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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