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A Training Veteran Weighs In

Posted 2014-05-08 by Christina Koch in Instructor Training.

I'm not sure if I qualify as a "instructional training veteran", but having participated in both the online Software Carpentry (SWC) instructor training, and two versions of the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW) (on which the latest "live" SWC training was modeled) at the University of British Columbia, I'd like to share a few comments comparing my experience with both and what I've valued from each. Feel free to add your own impressions of the SWC or other instructional training in the comments at the end.

Theory

One of my favorite parts of the SWC training was our use of education text How Learning Works. I remember reading chapters and reminiscing about teaching first-year calculus, saying: "Oh! That explains why my students struggled! I wish I had known this before!" How Learning Works addresses practical teaching concerns but also provides the theory and research behind its claims about how people learn, which had been missing from my other instructional training. If you haven't read it, do!

Lesson Planning

Any instructional training should include lesson planning. I appreciated both my ISW and SWC training in this area because they emphasized different aspects of the process. In the ISW, I learned about the pieces of a lesson (objectives, pre- and post- testing, etc.) and got to put them into practice by giving three trial lessons. With SWC, I finally grasped how you come up with lesson objectives (hint: write the "exam" first) and how critical they are to lesson development. For both, I learned (over and over), that it always takes longer than you think; in a 15-20 minute lesson chunk you can cover about three ideas max.

Putting Ideas into Practice

It's challenging to create a workshop that impacts people long-term and instructional training is no exception. Everyone has some sort of default teaching beliefs/habits, and it can be hard for any short-term training to introduce new habits and skills. I think the ISW and SWC training both made a fair stab at this by making the participants write lessons and do activities based on the principles we were supposed to be learning, in addition to having dialogue about new and potentially unfamiliar ideas.

Feedback

By the time you complete an ISW, you want never to hear the word "feedback" again. Everything has feedback - each session, each presentation, each day - and sometimes the feedback is multi-faceted - written, verbal and a group summary. That said, feedback is one of the most important skills I learned at that workshop, because learning how to solict quality feedback and then reflect on it is crucial to teaching well; good feedback drives improvement. This is one place I'd be keen to see SWC grow, in both instructor training and in bootcamps themselves.

Training Experience

When I think about my actual experience as a participant, the difference between SWC instructor training and an ISW is like comparing apples and oranges: an ISW is in-person, 4 days, and relatively small (my workshop had two groups of six) while SWC instructor training is, of necessity, online, intermittent, and begins with a fairly large cohort. Both had advantages and disadvantages, which I won't detail here.

Aside from these unavoidable differences, one thing elevates the ISW experience and makes it unique amongst training workshops I've attended: the ISW model practices what it preaches. Every segment of an ISW is planned with care to model the instructional techniques that you're learning. You can see, in practice, how instructional practice works even as you're learning about it; you're exposed to a plethora of instructional techniques; and because this workshop teaches best practices, you get an incredible learning experience.

Humility

To conclude, my biggest takeaway from both my ISW and SWC training was the (shocking!) idea that teaching is not about me, or even the material. Teaching is about the learner. My purpose as an instructor is not to "say all the things" or even "organize all the things" (which is my natural tendency) but to genuinely communicate with people in ways that they will remember and understand. That means knowing the research, getting trained, getting feedback from other instructors and frequently doing things that might seem a bit silly and out of my comfort zone. That's scary and it takes a lot of work, but ultimately leads to the rewarding moment when a roomful of learners "gets it" for themselves and are empowered to be better than they were before. We're all in this learning game together, so in the wise words of an eight-year old: "Do not be worried and you will not make mistakes."

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