It was August, 1995. I was a freshly minted college graduate, had just accepted a job as a public-school teacher, and was attending my first professional development training program the week before school started. I sat in the auditorium with an optimistic attitude as the first workshop began, all the more so since the topic was “Leading Dynamic Classroom Discussions” (and the program said the hired speaker was a noted expert on the topic).
I spent the next 3 hours listening to someone lecture on how to lead a discussion. OK, that’s not quite true–I walked out halfway through it. A colleague later told me that the speaker continued lecturing for another hour and a half after I left, never once seeking input from the large crowd of assembled teachers (and veteran discussion leaders). I remember thinking, “Does he not see the irony of lecturing us on how to lead a discussion?” I wondered, “How could he think this method of training would be well received?” During the time I was at the workshop, I watched faculty across the auditorium read newspapers, grade papers, write lessons plans, or—in a few cases—sleep (all behavior they would never tolerate in their own classes), providing evidence of the little value they assigned to this professional program that, at least on paper, was designed for our improvement. Such was my first experience with professional development and training, and I wish I could say this negative experience was an anomaly.
Over the next two decades of my professional life, I would attend numerous required training and development programs, many of which proved fruitless—often because the content was irrelevant, the delivery misguided, or credibility of the leader easily called into question. Additionally, the presentation of the trainings usually was ill-planned. They were often boring (no one likes being lectured to all day), sadly ironic (like that workshop I attended on “new media in education,” where the speaker only used the white board), purposeless (I don’t know how many times I wondered, “Why are we training on this subject again?”), and at times even condescending (workshop leaders surely realize their audiences are educated, right?). Over the years, my friends in the business realm shared with me similar experiences from their world. To this day, many people I speak to say they don’t enjoy professional development and see it as a necessary evil imposed upon them by their leaders.
We Can Do Better
In the third part of our “Embracing a Growth Mindset” series, we focus on how we can seek out and take advantage of training and development opportunities that encourage this kind of mindset. Effective professional development should do more than meet some kind of requirement; it should empower us, foster more purposeful involvement and investment within our organizations, and motivate us to continue our development after the formal training has ended. To that end, we’re going to take a brief look at some learning theories that, while originally conceived to improve secondary and higher education outcomes, provide equally valuable strategies for use in workplace training. A lot of that training may be going online for a time during the COVID-19 crisis, but that doesn’t change the principles that should be at work within it.
Training and Development in the Workplace
Despite sometimes being lamented by employees, professional development remains an important and integral part of successful organizations, and rightly so. Most companies offer some form of PD via monetary support for conferences, external workshops, retreats, and summits, while larger ones tend to hire learning and development specialists to provide internal training and oversee outside opportunities. Still, some of the largest devote entire branches to professional development programming, like AT&T University, Deloitte University, and other leading large-scale companies.
Check out Monster’s “8 Companies with Awesome Training and Development Programs” for more examples.
In working with businesses like Nissan, DCI-Artform, Deloitte, as well as various universities, I’ve come to know some of the leaders in these kinds of programs. All whom I’ve met are well-versed in learning theories and share a sincere passion for providing meaningful programs that lead to sustainable and long-term improvements for both employees and their companies. One such person, Bob Tweedie, VP, Leadership & Learning at Revantage, a Blackstone Portfolio Company has devoted much time and energy to researching ways that leaders can positively influence the effectiveness of training and development programs. “Learning professionals face increasing pressure from business leaders to maximize the effectiveness of their programs and enhance employee performance,” Tweedie says.
At the same time, he points out, studies show that “as little as ten percent of training expenditure results in effective behavioral changes on the job.” We can’t put the entirety of that weight on learning professionals, though. Some of the burden for moving that needle must be accepted by leaders themselves, and Tweedie’s research points to specific pre-training processes that can aid in doing just that. We will examine those ideas more toward the end, but what about the training itself? What role should leaders take when it comes to the content and teaching methodology associated with professional development training?
First, leaders should acquire at least a basic understanding of what constitutes effective pedagogy. Secondly, informed by that knowledge, leaders should seek to hire training professionals or implement training programs that embody these same values when it comes to the learning process. There’s more to it than that, of course, but in our limited space here, let’s at least dig a little into helping with the first of those suggestions: acquiring a basic knowledge of what constitutes effective pedagogy, and at the end I’ll offer some suggestions about how to go about working on the latter.
The Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Ten years or so before Pink Floyd would release The Wall (1979), and, along with it, their famous critique of public education via the song popularly known as “We Don’t Need No Education,” a Brazilian educationalist, Paulo Freire, published a controversial and long-lasting influential work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I won’t spend time delineating the reasons for the controversy, especially on the political side of his philosophy, as that has little to do with our purpose here, but you can read more about it via this link, if you like. Most important to our conversation, however, is the influence this work had on debates in the 60’s and 70’s surrounding traditional teaching and learning methodologies, especially as it concerned the epistemological relationship between teachers and their students, which Freire fought to renegotiate. In short, Freire argued that unless students were active participants (i.e., co-creators of knowledge) in the classroom, then the instruction ultimately oppressed the student’s creativity, development, and freedom.
For example, Friere argues that the absence of dialogue in traditional approaches to learning enables teaching to function as “exercise of domination,” and he describes this oppressive model as “banking education.” In banking education, teachers view students as empty vessels, waiting to be filled with their superior knowledge. Traditional education, Freire argues, treats teaching as “an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.” The teacher, often through lectures, provides the information, and students “receive, memorize, and repeat.” I think we can agree that such a model offers little in the way of creative or critical thinking opportunities.
Banking Education vs. Problem-Posing Education
In his description of this unproductive methodology, Freire offers an extensive—but surely not exhaustive—list of practices and attitudes associated with those who embrace this pedagogy. See if any of it sounds familiar.
In banking education,
the teacher teaches, and the students are taught.
the teacher knows everything, and the students know nothing.
the teacher thinks, and the students are thought about.
the teacher talks, and the students listen-meekly.
the teacher disciplines, and the students are disciplined.
the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply.
the teacher acts, and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher.
the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who are not consulted) adapt to it.
the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his own professional authority, which he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students.
the teacher is the “subject” of the learning process, while the pupils are mere “objects.”
Freire offers us a better model that he refers to as “a problem-posing education,” which differentiates itself in four distinct ways:
1. While banking education operates by “mythicizing reality” (i.e., keeping certain knowledge hidden to generate more dependence on the teacher), problem-posing education works to demythologize it. It does not seek to treat the teacher as a “priest of knowledge” with privileged information students can’t access.
2. While banking education demands compliance and acceptance, problem-posing education seeks to create critical thinkers. “Banking education,” Freire argues, “treats students as objects of assistance [never resistance],” but “problem-posing education makes them critical thinkers.” In this kind of environment, the instructor invites scrutiny of the material being taught, never shying away from questions or challenges that seek to test their position.
3. Whereas banking education “inhibits creativity,” Freire’s model thrives on it. Such creativity can easily be seen in the interactive style common to problem-based pedagogy. If you popped in on a training and development workshop built on this model, you would find participants active much of the time—discussing, creating, and problem-solving together. You would not observe them just sitting, listening to someone talk at them for long periods of time.
4. While banking education sees the act of learning as an independent action, problem-posing education functions cooperatively. Freire argues that traditional pedagogy maintains that humans exist as abstract, isolated, and independent learners, “unattached to the world,” but “education as a practice of freedom” encourages us to learn in concert with each other.
At this point, you might be pondering the connection between Freire’s proposed educational practices and our discussion on growth vs. fixed mindsets. The relationship is subtle, but powerful. Let’s assume that you’ve adopted a growth mindset and want those around you to do the same. You grant yourself and them permission to fail (see Part 1), and you encourage interdisciplinary approaches and reflective practices that lead to a deeper appreciation for skills sets outside of your own (see Part II).
That’s a great start, but if the training and development programs we participate do not embody these same principles, then we risk undercutting our desire for creating a workplace that encourages a growth mindset. If we truly believe in our ability and those around us to grow and develop in meaningful and purposeful ways, then the training and development opportunities we engage in must connect to those same principles. To that end, let’s take a look at a few key steps we can take to ensure that our training and development options seek to actively engage participants in the learning process in the manner Freire outlines above.
If you determine the content of your organization's training (or have a hand in that process), think critically about the topics offered and demonstrate thoughtfulness toward the choices you make. For example, you might survey your colleagues to see what areas they think they need training in, and why, and allow that information to inform your choices.
Don’t be merely content-driven in your exploration of professional development opportunities. If possible, avoid training programs that operate as a “data dump.” In other words, don’t sentence yourself or others to “Death by PowerPoint”-style training sessions. No one deserves that. Examine the teaching practices of those leading the training as well as the content of what they teach. Look for facilitators who demonstrate an awareness of—and put an emphasis on—thoughtful teaching methodology.
Familiarize yourself and look for ways internal and external training can embrace an engaging and cooperative learning model that utilizes the participants in the learning process. You can read more about that here: http://www.co-operation.org/what-is-cooperative-learning.
Look for ways to create a “Pre-Training” process to enhance motivation during the training process. Bob Tweedie’s research on this topic shows that when supervisors took time before a specific training to discuss its significance, benefits, and process, employees demonstrated a marked increase in motivation, during and after the training. Also, Tweedie points to the importance of supervisors setting clear expectations “about the rewards of application of the content and potential desired outcomes” in advance of the training.
As with the pre-training process, develop a post-training reflective process as well. Move beyond the traditional, individual evaluation method most use. Try including a group feedback session that encourages honest dialogue both on the content and delivery of the training.
If your organization is lucky enough to have training and development experts on staff, spend time getting to know them and their areas of expertise, and make sure they know your own priorities when it comes to learning and development needs.
Finally, if you are a decision maker in the area of learning and development, follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Put yourself in the participants’ shoes, and let that perspective inform your choices. For example, if you wouldn’t like sitting in an all-day training session being lectured to on a topic you had no hand in choosing, don’t make others do it. If you are trying out a new training program at your company, sit through it yourself first to see if you find it engaging and worthwhile.
The above list represents just a few ways we can more critically engage their professional development programs. I’m sure you can come up with more on your own. What’s most important, however, is to remember that at the core of Freire’s critique of traditional education practices is its habit of treating students are disengaged, passive “objects” in the learning process. Our goal here should be to participate in training that treats us with the respect and credibility we deserve, seeks to draw upon our existing knowledge base, and actively engages us in the learning process. Along the way, it won’t hurt if such training also turns out to be fun, right?