GIVE THEM 100 TRIES TO GET IT RIGHT
It always seemed to me that I did everything right the first time I was shown how to do it. Now that I am being more realistic about my “perfection”, I know it wasn’t true, but that was what I thought was expected of me and that was what I tried to do. I always wrote down my instructions, in detail. It was a point of pride not to ask my trainer to tell me or show me anything twice. I could usually get through the task by following my instructions. After a while, I would usually even understand what I was doing. Like most people that I have observed, though, I never looked at my instructions again after I could remember them, or thought I could remember them. So, it often happened that there was one step I missed or did incorrectly. If that one thing prevented the task from working, I would go back and find it. Otherwise, it has sometimes been years before I realized I was missing something every time I did that task.
I remember one complete failure when I tried to do something after having been shown how to do it one time. I was walked through the procedure for dialing into a server at the air force base and downloading some information. I watched the screen as the person instructing me did it and wrote down every single step. She checked what I was writing down and made sure I had it right. After showing me one time, she left me to do it on my own, but I wasn’t worried. I dialed in to the server and starting typing in the commands exactly as I had written them. The thing I forgot to do was wait for the computer to respond to a command before I gave it the next one. I just kept typing one thing after another. In about five minutes, I had locked up the server. My boss had to call the base and have it shut down. It was very embarrassing, because I believed that I should have been able to do it after having been shown one time, and so did my trainer.
I have tried many different ways of learning, and of teaching people: telling them, showing them, letting them do it themselves with instructions, audio tapes, video tapes, manuals, and figure it out yourself. I believe that different people learn more easily with a method that matches the way they learn, although I have not usually known the person I was teaching well enough to know what that was. Because what I was teaching was usually on a computer, I have most often used a screen projected demonstration with verbal instructions while the trainee was at another computer and could duplicate what I was doing, to combine the greatest number of modalities as possible at one time.
No matter what method I used to teach someone, what ultimately seemed to make the biggest difference in the success of my teaching was my confidence that I knew the topic well enough to be able to do it myself and my confidence that the person I was teaching was capable of learning it. If I believed those two things, and if my student and I were both willing to stick with it, we succeeded.
The first thing I had to learn was to adapt to each person. I didn’t always have the tools to provide each person with their optimal learning experience, or know what that was, but there were things I could do. Most of the time, it seems to me, people try to relate what they are learning to something they already know. By listening and observing, I could usually figure out where their model had failed and what other model would serve better. The next obstacle to overcome was their anxiety about not being able to learn what I was trying to teach. If they were too anxious, they really wouldn’t get it, because, in their anxiety, they would even forget the things they already knew.
I learned that I had to calm way down myself. I had all the time in the world. I had nowhere else to be but there. They were the most important people in my life. This was the only thing on my mind. When they learned it, it was going to be the most fun thing they had ever done. I took all the blame (and rightly so).
“I’m so stupid,” they would say, “why can’t I get it?”
“You’re not stupid,” I would tell them, “You’re very smart, look at all that you know. It’s just that sometimes I don’t explain very well, but let me go back and try explaining it a different way.”
After they thought they understood, or sometimes even before, we would get to the practice part. People often seemed to feel, like I had, that they ought to be able to do something that they had been taught the first time they tried it. But that was not the goal. The goal was to learn the skill, not to learn it the first time they heard it. There were always people that seemed to be able to do it right away. But that didn’t really matter. We weren’t testing for or offering prizes for that. It was irrelevant.
The things I was teaching them were things they were going to use every day. It wasn’t going to matter that it took them two days instead of one, or even if it took them a week to learn it. Once they had learned it, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the way they did it and the way someone that had picked it up right away did it. I knew from experience, they were going to be just as fast and accurate and self-assured once they had done it enough. And even though I considered myself to be very smart (and still do) and even though I had been the one to teach them, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before they would be better at it than I was.
I was sitting with someone that I was training one day and she was having trouble remembering all the steps in the task I was teaching her. A few times, she even forgot a few that she had remembered previously. She turned to me with a disgusted look on her face. I thought of all the things I could say to her, but it seemed shortest and best to say, with confidence, “You know, this is going to seem really easy once you’ve done it a few hundred times.” She laughed and went back to practicing.
When there is a teacher and a student, and something that needs to be taught by the one and learned by the other, it is the teacher who has the obligation to figure out how to make that happen. The student’s only job is to keep trying, to ask for help when he needs it, and to look for another teacher if this one can’t help them. If nothing is taught and nothing is learned, it is the teacher who fails, not the student. The teacher fails if he doesn’t find the right method for the student. The student only fails if he gives up.
It may seem like it works the opposite way, if you went to a public school like mine when you were a kid. It may seem like the teacher is only required to teach in a prescribed way, the same way for all students, and it is the student who fails if he doesn’t learn. Because that’s what they say, the student failed. But the student does get a tutor or special classes, in recognition of the fact that the student can learn the same things if they are taught differently. Our public schools have just developed that way. They teach using a method that works for most students and only individualize the lessons when they have to. It may be an efficient way to get everyone through the required 12 years of school with the minimum expenditure of resources, but it stigmatizes and demoralizes those that it fails, instead of just acknowledging that no one-size-fits-all teaching could ever work for everyone. If your goal is to teach everyone who needs to know and is willing to learn, that philosophy of education will not help you.
You need to give those you teach many tries to get it right, as many tries as it takes for you to figure out how to teach them. And you need to let those you teach know that they have many tries to get it right, so they don’t get anxious about having to do it right the first time or the second time. One hundred is a good number. You know you will find the right way long before you get to the hundredth way (and you probably don’t know that many). They know they will learn it long before then. And, a year from now, when they have done it correctly 10,000 times, it won’t matter how many tries or how long it took them to get it right.