Sunday, 26 July 2009

Knowing, Doing, Teaching

I meet many knowledgeable people who are excellent at their job or in their area of expertise who then make the mistake of thinking that they must also be good teachers.

No matter how much we know or how good we are at what we do, there is not some mysterious connection which allows others to ‘catch’ what we do. Admittedly, it is often easier to pass on practically-based skills through demonstration.

But is that enough?

Learning, the assimilation and acquisition of knowledge and skills, is as dependent on the recipient as the teacher, possibly even more so. Put simply, unless our knowledge is translated into a form which can be received, understood and acted upon by the recipient our efforts are in vain.

The situation is made even more difficult by the fact that each of us thinks and learns in different modes:

  • Some learn best when the ideas are translated into mental pictures (I am one of these)
  • Some need to see things written down before they can take them in
  • Some learn better one-to-one
  • Some learn best in group settings where they can discuss ideas and bounce them around members of the group.

So, if we are to be good teachers we cannot adapt a one method fits all approach, neither can we simply assume that what works for us will work for others too.

If we are to be effective teachers we must recognise how our audience responds and which methods will work. This may mean including a number of different approaches throughout a session. But perhaps the most important skill it requires is the ability to listen to our audience and to read their body language. We also need to take feedback at the end of our session so that we can learn how to be more effective in our communication.

We also need to be honest and acknowledge if we are not good teachers, wherever we ‘teach’ others. If we are prepared to learn and acknowledge that we are a work in progress, our teaching and ability to pass-on knowledge and skills will evolve and become more successful.

Sometimes we will also need to acknowledge when we don’t have the answers, expertise or ability and look for those who do.

I remember times throughout my own education where people have crossed my path who were gifted teachers. What stands out now is that these people had a real passion to pass on knowledge and skills in ways that I could understand. The amazing thing is that many others in my class at the time also remember these people as being ‘inspirational’ even though their method of learning was different to my own.

For all the rubbish people throw at teachers/lecturers/educators, there are those whose vocation in life is helping others to learn. Everyone needs to learn and we have all benefitted from those we all-too-often to slag-off. We all know those little ‘funnies’ like, ‘Those who can, do: those who can’t, teach.’ What a load of spheres! The skill of teaching others requires as much ‘can’ as any other job; probably more.

There will always be those who leave us cold or even turned-off; those who tar the rest with a bad image.

Our responsibility is to make sure that whenever we teach others, from bringing up our children, to helping others join in with our hobby, to teaching in schools or showing people what to do in our places of work, we take into account how our audience learns.

That may even mean being radical and actually asking them! Be assured that if we listen to the answers and act on them, our teaching will be more effective, more fulfilling and a great source of learning for our audience and for ourselves.

And sometimes we will need to be honest enough to admit that we need to ask others for help … or even let someone else do the job.

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Friday, 10 July 2009

HR: A Waste of Time?

How many Human Resources departments contain people whose ability to communicate on a human level is close to or less than zero?

I have friends who see themselves as leaders of people and therefore, the ideal material for a career in HR, when they would be better suited as guards in a prison camp.

Just recently a local school was in need of help from the Local Education Authority due to problems that have arisen through poor leadership. When things came to a head, the messenger of doom from the LEA HR Department advised the staff that the problem was in hand but they were no means out of the muck so they’d better not rest on their laurels.

Excellent! Why not just say, “You bunch of incompetents! You need our help and we are going to be watching every move you make.” Like Boris in Golden Eye, “We are invincible!

Had the problem arisen through shortcomings by the very experienced staff who taught at the school, fine; but they weren’t! They were the result of rules imposed by a rather single-minded head, who had little regarded for advice by teachers, parents or the LEA and who ruled with an iron rod in a velvet sack.

Separating out the issues from the emotion, this situation did not need a social incompetent from the LEA HR department to exercise their authority. It needed and still needs someone to say, “You know what? This is a pretty sticky situation you’re in but you have the experience, we have the expertise so let’s work together and we’ll sort it out.

HR departments are no different to any other. They are run by people and need (perhaps more than ever, because of the weight of authority they carry, good, basic, grunt level human interactive and social skills.

(As a quick aside … Why do they deny this authority? In case of legal comeback? Smoke and mirrors? Deceit? I can still remember being told by one HR Commandant that they can only advise and not tell … hmmm!)

It’s not about power (though I think for many it is about getting a kick/security from being in control and influencing others; not necessarily for good). It’s about empowering; giving people the tools and support they need to achieve the tasks and overcome the threats, barriers, hurdles they face. Poor leadership says much more about the leaders than those they lead.

There is a flip side to this …

There is a saying that “where the darkness is darkest, the light shines brightest.” I want to thank those seemingly increasingly few members of HR departments who really do stand out as being people who fit the job like a silk glove (rather than a boxing glove). Those who
  • Are a source of inspiration, support and common sense in a quagmire of ego
  • Really are the personal side of a department that purports to be about people
  • See themselves as having a personnel role rather than just a project manager
Those people who prove daily that HR does not stand for Human Remains.

Surely, if HR is going to be effective they have to communicate and interact effectively with the people for whom they have responsibility/oversight. If they do, great. If not, then they are potentially rather a waste of time!

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