The Teaching Machine

When it comes to moderating workshops on complexity and adaptability, the traditional administrative tools of formal education simply do not fit. 

Heck, even the language doesn't fit. Even in my first sentence, I reference the verb moderate as opposed to teach. And I certainly won't use the verb train in that context! 

One (1) of my workshops is regularly hosted by a government-funded training organization in Illinois. As suspected, all courses they sponsor must include a course syllabus. The format they request includes:

1.         Purpose of Course
2.         Course Overview
3.         Course Goals
4.         Course Prerequisites
5.         Methods of Evaluation
6.         Methods of Instruction
7.         Course References / Bibliography
8.         Course Requirements / Grading Policy
9.         Recommended Instructional Aids
10.       Attendance Policy
11.       Academic Integrity
12.       and then an hour-by-hour outline of course content.

I've been vocal with the administrators in many of these flavors of organization. My workshop does not (and can not) fit nicely into these terms and categories. In actuality, much of the course is about rejecting this sort of format or structure!!

But to one (1) such organization, I sold out to them - explicitly explaining that I'd exert the absolute least amount of effort possible into creating such a bureaucratic syllabus, as long as it's acceptable to them.

I did, however, draw and hold the line that I will not sign any sort of "certificate" for attendees. At best, they'd receive attendance certificates that qualify/quantify nothing more than: his/her ass was in the seat for enough hours.

Allow me to rattle off a handful of justifications against these sorts of administrative tools of education and workplace training, which I will now refer collectively as The Teaching Machine:

The Teaching Machine believes students can learn at the same rate, with the same connections being made, to the same starting point. The students should be able to accomplish or show some sort of proficiency by the end of a session - whether that be a four (4) hour block , or a twelve (12) year career.

The Teaching Machine outlines learning objectives or goals that are the benchmarks to ensure learning took place. These objectives are frequently introduced via "At the end of this training, the attendee will be able to [insert list of specific goals here]." This is fine and dandy when the material is technical in nature, such as knowledge memorization, physical skill repetition, or measurable in input/outcome. It becomes impossible when the material is complex.

How do you measure for proficiency when the content is based on assumptions, values, perspective, mindset, beliefs, intentions, prediction/anticipation, risk, and worldview - many of which can be in direct tension or competition between or from one (1) attendee and the next? It's not difficult to measure for proficiency; it's outright impossible!

How did we reconcile this in the Course Goals section of our workshop?

"The central goal of this course is for students to become fluent in the language and theory of human adaptability. It is the intent of the instructors that students will use this fluency to further transform their own training programs and supervisory philosophies to parallel modern research of adaptive problem solving, human performance, decision-making, critical thinking, and learning/memory."

There are no benchmarks. No standards. No clear-cut objectives. No measured performance. Few correct answers. No way to tell if an attendee learned a darned thing or not. 

Basically, we want the attendees to be able to engage in conversations and debates on topics and theories brought up in class. As such, we want them to gain a deeper and broader understanding of the terminology, the theories, the conflict, and the connections between them. In their own personal, individualized way.

Can they articulate a stance? Can they debate both sides of an issue? Can they predict possible tradeoffs or compromises? These are all subjective contexts, where feedback is based on intimate, personalized, often-subconscious mental models. 

It's got nothing to do with whether they agree with me or other moderators. They don't need to reach some sort of performance goal. They won't be tested. (Did I mention that I do not use a test in the course?) There is no Pass or Fail; only an "I Was There" certificate.

What?!? I don't get a certificate? 

No, you don't get anything to hang on your "I Love Me" wall.

Certification indicates that a student, learner, participant, or attendee has reached the learning objectives or course goals. It's how The Teaching Machine tells the world that Joe Smith is qualified to perform a certain task, solve a certain type of problem, or operate a specialized tool. Or maybe more accurately, how Joe Smith tells the world.

There is no way to tell if the training or workshop made knew connections. Or what those connections were. 

"Lou, you're just lazy. Do the paperwork, will ya?" 

I'll confidently defend that this any sort of laziness or avoidance of work. I can make a strong case that this style of, approach to, or philosophy on learning and development requires much more knowledge, study, understanding, and comprehension than info-dump lecture or do-as-I-do rehearsals. It requires moderators know material and viewpoints more than just "slide-deep" - a pseudo-derogitory term I use to describe a teacher who knows the content on the projected slide but not much else behind it. Or under it. Or on top of it. (Again, my slides are pretty useless without me. I hope! LOL)

I'll counter your accusation of my laziness with: No, YOU are lazy! For you just regurgitating predetermined content, reading the script, clicking through the slides, choreographing steps, testing the students via multiple choice exam & comparison performance, and issuing certificates of accomplishment. 

How do we satisfy The Teaching Machine's thirst for documentation?

Bare minimums. And through as much gobbledegook as possible. When you use enough buzzwords and catch-phrases, busy administrators tend to sign-off on documents without really reading for comprehension, or the subtle tones of sarcasm. LOL 

The Teaching Machine loves objectives for another reason too: They absolve the organization or teacher from liability. They offer a certain "we trained them this way, not that way" protection when a person deviates from brainwashing training protocol. It builds-in a false house of cards sense of safety. Give The Machine a warm feeling. 

But how do we know if they learned anything or if the course was effective?

I don't need them to learn content as much as I want them to think. To ask better questions. To step back and look at things from an additional perspective. To become creative and curious again, as they were as a toddler. To make connections that were not there beforehand. To relate the previously unrelated. 

I don't necessarily need them to perform a certain way either. I want them to know options. To figure out how to make it up on the fly. To adapt to unforeseen changes. To make better sense of the never-experienced. 

It's the HOW to think as opposed to the WHAT to think. 

I can't test for that. I can't determine whether an attendee met that objective. Frankly, I don't want to. 

And without confidence that training goals or objective being met, I can't rightly determine any person to be qualified to do any specific task. Or think in a certain way. Or see things in the correct light. Therefore, I cannot issue you a certificate saying such.

The Teaching Machine is a machine not because they don't understand this. But because they continue to demand instructors, trainers, teachers, and moderators force their workshops into pigeon-holes that can't possibly account for how people actually learn. 

How about the hour-by-hour documentation? 

Oh wow. In the first moments of the 3-day workshop I've been referencing, we explicitly announce that we, as moderators, do not know the path of the course. That's because we allow students/attendees to drive the conversation. There is no stopping with "we will get to that tomorrow" nonsense where a lecturer attempts to follow the checklist and order of content. If something gets brought up, we address it as a class. There is certain terrain that must be explored -- but we cannot possibly know the order in which we cover it.

This fluid, organic format has been criticized as a lack of structure. That's exactly what it is! It's OK if I take that as a compliment, right? (Maybe you're just jealous you can't deviate from the lesson plan. LOL)

How can you be so sure this is a good way for what you do?

I don't derive my sense of self-worth from whether I can change someone's mind. Or get them to see things my way. Or persuade them to follow my agenda or take up my cause. I fully expect five (5) to ten (10) percent of our workshop attendees to leave with little value. There is a segment of our attendees who are not ready, have different worldview/mental models, we couldn't connect with or relate to, or otherwise unable to find value in the theory, stories, research, applications, or examples. That's absolutely got to be acceptable in the realm of complexity and adaptability.  

The Teaching Machine is often baffled at how the same workshop can have attendees who derived so little...but also other attendees who praise the course as one (1) of the best in a long career of traditional workplace training formats. How is that possible? Why can't everyone leave with the same outcome. Or output? Or ability? Or skill? 

Because it's...well...complex! 

Is there a place in education for training objectives and certificates? 

Absolutely. It belongs coupled with those topics where the inputs and outputs are controllable, knowable, repeatable, and consistent. These are the knowledge/facts, physical skill, industrialized procedure, checklist functions. (Ugh, the word procedure has been curdling my blood recently.)

So I guess much of this blog is about first being aware on whether the topics, subjects, or areas you might oversee are ordered or complex. That really makes all the difference on how I see the appropriateness of certification and standardized learning goals. 

Part of me is embarrassed for writing the 24-page syllabus and for not fighting harder against The Teaching Machine. I've opted to try fixing it from the inside. But that first means I need to get inside. 

Does that make me just another cog in its underbelly? 

I'll let you opine. But only after seeing your certificate proving your worth.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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