Reflections on learning and training (and dyslexia)


German readers might recognise the image above as a Nuremberg Funnel. For the rest of you: the Nuremberg funnel represents the idea that a teacher can simply open a students head and pour in learning.

First off, a warning: this blog entry might be more for me than for you, but its my blog!

Still, I expect (hope) some of you might be interested in my thoughts and reflections on how training, specifically “Agile training” sessions. More importantly writing this down, putting it into words, helps me think, structure my thoughts and put things in order.

Shall I begin?

I’m not naive enough to think training is perfect or can solve everything. But I have enough experience to know that it can make a difference, especially when teams do training together and decide to change together.

One of the ways I’ve made my living for the last 10 years is by delivering “Agile training.” I don’t consider myself a “trainer” (although plenty of others do), I consider myself more as a “singer songwriter” – it is my material and I deliver it. I’ve actually considered renaming my “Agile training” as “Agile rehearsal” because thats how I see it. I haven’t because I’d have to explain this to everyone and more importantly while people do google for “Agile training” nobody searches for “Agile rehearsal.”

Recently I’ve been prompted to think again about how people learn, specifically how they learn and adopt the thing we call “Agile”. One unexpected experience and one current challenge have added to this.

A few months ago I got to sit in while someone else delivered Agile training. On the one hand I accepted that this person was also experienced, also had great success with what he did, also claimed his courses were very practical and he wasn’t saying anything I really disagreed with.

On the other hand he reminded me of my younger self. The training felt like the kind of training I gave when I was just starting out. Let me give you two examples.

When I started giving Agile training I felt I had to share as much as possible with the attendees. I was conscious that I only had them for a limited time and I had so much to tell them! I was aiming to give them everything they needed to know. I had to brain dump… Nuremberg funnel.

So I talked a lot, sessions were long and although I asked “Any questions?” I didn’t perhaps give people enough time to ask or for me to answer – ‘cos I had more brain dumping to do!

Slowly I learned that the attendees grew tired too. There was a point where I was talking and they had ceased to learn. I also learned that given a choice (“Would you like me to talk about Foobar for 30 minutes or have you had enough?”) people always asked for more.        

Second, when I started out I used to include the Agile Manifesto and a whistle-stop-tour of Lean. After all, people should know where this came from and they should understand some of the theory, right? But with time I realised that the philosophy of the manifesto takes up space and isn’t really important. Similarly, Lean is very abstract and people have few reference points. To many (usually younger) people who have never lived “the waterfall” it can seem a crazy straw-man anyway.

Over the years I’ve tried to make my introductions to Agile more experiential. That is, I want to get people doing exercises and reflecting on what happened. I tend to believe that people learn best from their own experience so I try to give them “process miniatures” in the classroom and then talk (reflect) on the experience.

These days my standard starter 2-day Agile training course is three quarters exercises and debriefs. My 1-day “Requirements, User Stories and Backlogs” workshop is almost entirely exercise based. I’m conscious that there is still more stuff – and that different people learn in different ways – so I try to supplement these courses with further reading – part of the reason behind printing “Little Book of User Stories” is to supplement “Agile Reader” in this.

I’m also conscious that by allowing people to learn in different mediums, and to flip between them they can learn more and better.

My own thinking got a big boost when I learned about Constructivist learning theory. Perhaps more importantly I’ve also benefited from exploring my own dyslexia. (Reading The Dyslexic Advantage earlier this year was great.)

Why is dyslexia relevant here? Well two reasons…

Firstly, something I was told a long time ago proves itself time and time again: Dyslexics have problems learning the way non-dyslexics do, but the reverse is not true. What helps dyslexics learn helps everyone else learn better too.

Second: dyslexics look at the world differently and we have to construct their own meaning and find our own ways to learn. To me, Agile requires a different view of the world and it requires us to learn to learn. Three years back I even speculated that Agile is Dyslexic, as time goes by I’m more convinced of that argument.

So why am I thinking so much about all this?

Well, I’ve shied away from online training for a few years now – how can I do exercises? how can I seed reflection?

Now I’ve accepted a request to do some online training. I can’t use my existing material, it is too exercise based. I’m having to think long and hard about this.

One thought is to view “online training” as something different to “rehearsal training.” That is, something delivered through the online medium might be more akin to an audio book, it is something that supplements a rehearsal. But that thinking might be self limiting and ignore opportunities offered online.

The other thing is the commercial medium. As my training has got more experiential and better at helping people move from classroom to action it has actually covered less. The aim is to seed change, although the classroom is supplemented the actual material covered in class is less; learn less change more! – Thats a big part of the reason I usually give free consulting days after training.

In a commercial setting where there is a synopsis and a price tag the incentive is to list more and more content. One is fearful of missing something the buyer considers important. One can imagine a synopsis being placed next to a competitor synopsis and the one with the most content for the least price is chosen.

So, watch this space, I will be venturing into online training. To start off with I’m not sure who is going to be learning the most: the attendees or the presenter! (O perhaps I shouldn’t have said that, maybe I’m too honest.)

If you have any experience with training (as a teacher or student), and especially online training, I’d love to hear about them. Please comment below or email me.

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