5 pillars to teach efficiently

According to a Dell study, 85% of 2030 jobs don’t exist as of 2018. Training is really becoming an issue. What do companies do? They invest huge amounts of money to provide their employees with hours of training (mostly online). For instance, Accenture invested 900M€ in 2019 and provided its 500K employees with 70M courses over 3 years.

The risk is to focus on outputs (number of hours spent in courses) against outcomes (percentage of trainees having changed their behavior at the end of the courses). Knowing that practicing would only accounts for 20% of the learning process according to recent studies, what really matters is the way you practice during the course.

Here is a summary of 5 key pillars taken from my experience both as a trainee (most amazing courses I went through listed in the appendix) and a trainer (courses I created also listed in the appendix) for a training to be really efficient :

  1. Preliminary ignition : provide with answers rather than an information
  2. Deliberate practice : find the best exercices to help students to progress
  3. Trust atmosphere : allow students to overcome their fear of failure
  4. Instant feedback : provide instant and regular advice to speed up learning
  5. Spaced repetitions : repeat at least 4 times under various formats

I will conclude by assessing how school (at least in France) scores among each criterion (disclaimer : the answer is very bad).

1/ Preliminary ignition

According to Maslow, you have to go through four steps to learn :

  1. Unconsciously incompetent : you don’t even know you’re doing the thing wrong
  2. Consciously incompetent : you are aware that you’re doing the thing wrong
  3. Consciously competent : it requires a lot of attention to do the thing right
  4. Unconsciously competent : you do the thing right without even noticing

Too many training courses try to move you right on the third step without taking the time to make you aware of your incompetency. So everything you learn comes as a piece of information.

On the contrary, if you take the time of making people aware that they don’t know, what they learn becomes an answer to questions triggered by the awareness of their incompetency. Why am I doing it wrong? How do I do it the right way?

And guess what : you memorize answers better than information.

2/ Deliberate practice

The learning pyramid is an empirical concept attributed to the National Training Laboratories. It states that retention rate increases along with students’ participation. Here are the results :

Practice is what really makes the difference according to me: it really puts students on the step 3 of the Maslow learning curve, allowing them to become “consciously competent” which is definitely the hardest step to overcome. Making them practice during the course has several benefits, the biggest one being to “force” them to experiment and see that it is not that difficult after all.

Why deliberate practice ? If you make a parallel with running, the number of hours of running will not necessarily make the difference, contrary to the quality of the training. You rather work a more limited time but on very specific sub skills like your MAS (Maximum Aerobic Speed) to really progress. Thus, finding great exercises (favoring deliberate practice) becomes the key objective of any training course.

What about homework? It can be a solution, but I found it (very) hard to get students to practice regularly between sessions, even the most motivated. The context of my “students” is special : active employees, usually in highly demanding jobs. So I came to the conclusion that I had only 1H30 of their time per week and that I have to do my best to make them practice during this period. It brought back the story of Jeff Bezos finally extending the executive committee sessions at Amazon to allow the participants to read the documents during the meeting because they almost always fail to read them ahead of time.

3/ Trust atmosphere

Students must be confident to dare because learning requires practice and thus failure, at least at the beginning. This point is again more important in live sessions where students can dread the “judgement” of others or be the victim of the “model student” wanting to always be perfect and thus limiting themselves.

There is a tremendous book about this aspect called “Change or Die” by Devaughan Kelly. The author explains how some persons manage to change even the most difficult or reluctant people (for instance repeat offenders) and it all starts with what he calls “Relate”.

A side benefit of a good atmosphere is that students will enjoy attending the course and this positive attitude will translate into positive learning behavior.

The famous Milgram experiment when the learner gets an electric shock anytime they give the wrong answer: to be avoided.

4/ Feedback

Isn’t feedback what makes a teacher so necessary? Usually, you can find the class material online or in a book. You can practice ahead of the lesson. But you have to wait for the lesson to finally get feedback on your practice. This could explain why individual lessons usually work way better than collective ones. This could also explain why a great teacher does not need to be the “best” in the field he teaches (think of football coaches) : this might help them better figure out what is hard to learn and provide their students with more helpful feedback.

Live and regular feedback is still better. Being corrected instantly avoids students from adopting wrong habits, a benefit that “on-demand” recorded sessions do not offer.

Feedback needs to be positive if you want to comply with the trust atmosphere pillar. You don’t need to be hypocritical to give positive feedback: there are always great things that your students will do, and you need to reinforce them. Besides, it will be a source of motivation for them to be acknowledged. Of course you might suggest improvements, but keep a 3:1 ratio between positive feedback and improvement.

5/ Spaced repetitions

Repeating over time at regular intervals (spacing effect) allows students to better memorize. Hermann Ebbinghaus was the first to theorize in the late 1800’s how the brain forgets (the forgetting curve below) and to show that active recall diminished drastically the rate of forgetting. Several models exists but what seems to work well is the following agenda based on 4 recalls :

  • 1st repetition after 2 days
  • 2nd 1 week later
  • 3rd 2 weeks later
  • 4th 1 month later

The French project “Enthousiasme orthographique” in Dijon has made an intelligent use of this technique by creating a “words box” where students put their “words card” in it and move them forward in a funny way.

Teaching the same concept in different formats also helps the human brain to better memorize. By adding different forms to the same concept (a video, a drawing, a color, a story), the brain can increase the stickiness of a memory. For instance in the WILL training we created, behind each concept you have an easy to remember story, a drawing, a dedicated colors that help students memorize. We also created a cards game allowing students to physically manipulate the concepts. These techniques are called mnemonic techniques. A very good example is the way we teach children how to memorize the number of days in each month through their fists.

Conclusion : what about school ?

The more I teach, the more I think about school… Besides having been a school student for almost 20 years, I also have 3 children. So I have some concrete material to study! Let’s look how school scores against the five pillars :

  1. Preliminary ignition: a lesson usually starts by “Today, we are going to learn XXX”. Not quite an ignition! Why should we learn this particular lesson? How can it be useful for us? Think of mathematics that are hardly related to tangible life examples…
  2. Deliberate practice: if we look back at the “learning pyramid”, school is at the top, with the least effective teaching methodology: “lecture”… A teacher could say that it is the only way to animate smoothly a 30-student class but Liberating Structures have proven another way is possible.
  3. Trust atmosphere: in France, the atmosphere is at best… cold, at worst unfriendly with a focus put on highlighting what needs to be corrected (think about the red color used to correct). The teacher is far from the students on his platform making it hard to “relate”.
  4. Instant feedback: feedback happens rarely (tests), often under a negative form (“see everything you failed”). Since students rarely practice, teachers can’t correct their behaviors. Students learn at home, making it hard for the teacher to provide them with feedback. Again, there are solutions, like best students mentoring other students (see Céline Alvarez book “Les lois naturelles de l’éducation”)
  5. Spaced repetition: format is mostly text (even if some teachers try to enrich materials with movies or music, but hardware is not always available in classrooms) and repetition is limited as we move from one lesson to the next.

Public education has hardly changed over the last decades, not to say century… The good news is there is plenty of room for improvement!

Appendix

Some amazing trainings I went through :

  • NLP : Technicien PNL by IFPNL Lyon : incredible teachers, incredible methodologies, amazing progresses achieved by my cohort within 12 days.
  • NVC : Paris and Caen, basic training by AFFCNV : “official” NVC teachers are really incredible at making people practice and using every form of learning possible
  • Liberating Structures by Inexelcis in Paris : 2 days to learn how to use Liberating Structures. Almost 0 theory, only practice

Trainings I give or created:

  • WILL Academy : a simple yet extremely powerful method that you will learn through 10 courses to solve your work related issues : conflicts, collaboration, management, organization. You don’t believe it ? Have a look (French training)
  • Discovery Training : 5 1H30 sessions to finally get deep and relevant insights from your discovery to make the right decisions on your product strategy, concentrate on outcomes rather than outputs and align your stakeholders ! More info.

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Pierre FOURNIER

Tech entrepreneur, Coach, Trainer | Founder @WILL, ex-CPO (Chief Product Officer) at ManoMano, ex Founding Partner at Artefact