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Change how you present technical training for better value

Most HR departments simply don’t get it when it comes to technical training. They set up the training in a practical method: first create an outline, second identify a speaker and third find a conference room or video conference bridge to deliver the training. In some instances, HR might even get a technical manager involved in the process to make sure the topic selection is appropriate. But sometimes, the technical manager knows less about how to create an effective educational experience than HR.

As I see it, the problem with technical training stems from a lack of awareness about the fundamentals of educational psychology. If you don’t know the basics of how people understand concepts and how learning takes place you run the risk of running costly training sessions that essentially go through the motions, with little or no tangible results.

The key to deliver effective technical training is to understand that learning is a developmental process. Learners progress through distinct stages of cognition to master a given subject. Each stage has its own characteristics. The teaching techniques and evaluation instruments used in a given stage are special to that stage.

The trick to get the most bang for your training buck is to understand the stages of learning and make sure you use the appropriate teaching techniques related to each stage.

Allow me to elaborate.

Understand the stages of learning

The first thing you’ll need to understand to get the most bang for your buck on technical training is the stages of learning. In educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom’s book The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Bloom categorized learning into three domains: the Cognitive (knowledge-based), Affective (emotion-based) and Psychomotor (action-based). For our purposes, we’ll focus on the Cognitive domain.

According to Bloom learning in the Cognitive domain is divided into six hierarchical stages: knowledge, comprehension, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. (See below)

Stage Description Example Teaching Technique Evaluation Instrument
Knowledge Basic facts “Here is how Docker works” Seeing and listening True and false questioning
Comprehension Understanding terms “What is the difference between a Docker image and a Docker Container?” Interactive training Multiple choice and written exams
Application Working with terms and facts together in a logical way “Create a Dockerfile for a web application running on Python Flask” Teaching concepts to others Solve a simple problem using what you have learned
Analysis Understanding how terms, facts and technologies work together “Name 3 ways to optimize the performance of a Docker container.” Demonstration of given ideas in similar but not exact situations Solve a related problem that only indirectly relates to what you have learned
Synthesis Creating new components and ideas from facts you have been given “Create a microservice architecture that leverages Docker technology.” Focused instruction that demands creativity on the part of the learner Create new products or generate new ideas on peripheral topics based on what has been learned
Evaluation Being able to judge, and evaluate ideas critically “Improve this Docker based microservice architecture.” Evaluation of others Be able to provide intelligent feedback on the ideas synthesized by others

Bloom further divided each domain into six stages. The Cognitive domain’s six stages include: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation. It’s essential that anyone who devises a technical training understands these stages. They also need to know that the needs and abilities at each stage, along with the proper teaching techniques to use at each stage, are different. While Bloom largely based his work on children, the underlying concepts still apply to learning at all ages.

Typical training techniques are inefficient

Now, you might not see the connection with Bloom’s taxonomy and technical training, but it does exist. Let’s dig deeper.

The answer has to do with the actual mechanics of how to teach a particular topic. As mentioned above, most technical training — either virtual or in-person — involves an instructor delivering content and conducting exercises around that content in real time. Typically, most of the instruction is focused on the lower stages of Bloom’s Taxonomy — Knowledge, Comprehension and Application — while limited attention is given to the higher stages — Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation.

And, practically no consideration is given to the student’s ability to retain the information. For example, the instructor talks, the students listen and maybe a few questions are asked. The might be a “quiz” activity. There will probably be accompanying PowerPoint. Then, the class moves on. This is the typical approach and one that’s intrinsically wasteful.

Using instructor time to teach to the lower level stages the Cognitive domain is wildly inefficient. Essentially, we ask the instructor to be little more than a narrator of facts, terms and techniques. Even if the instructor is the most entertaining narrator in the world — which many are — there is little guarantee that the student will actually retain the content. While this has become the most prominent method to technical training, it’s not the optimal one. Fortunately, there’s a better way.

How to save money and get better results

Technical training costs money, a lot it. I would know: I’m a technical instructor. It takes me about three weeks to prepare a course that will be delivered over three days. I charge accordingly, too.

Yet, for all the planning, expertise and time I put into my work, I find that at least 50-75% of my time in class is spent on rote learning instruction. That’s right, I spend at least half my time on “Here is technology XYZ; Here’s how it works; Try it out.”

Now, let’s get to the center of the problem. What can be done? The answer is to use machines to teach the lower stages of Bloom’s taxonomy and use humans to teach the higher stages.

If you segment the educational experience into machine-based and instructor-led sessions, I believe you will save money and get better results.

For example, let’s say a company wants to offer an introductory, three-day course about Kubernetes. The ultimate educational objective is that a student will be able to create a secure, container-based, microservices oriented application (MOA) and deploy that MOA to a Kubernetes cluster with command-line tools.

Instead of three days of instructor-led training, we transform it into a four-day course. The first two days are spent engaged in self-paced learning with computers to acquire the basic facts, terms and techniques that will be used in the final two days of instructor-led training. The final two days will focus on the creation and deployment of the application while incorporating the knowledge learned in the previous two days.

In terms of dollars and cents, the cost of the four-day course is actually lower because only two days of instructor time is required instead of three. There is some additional expense with subscription fees that are common to formal interactive learning environments, but such fees tend to be dramatically lower than the day rate of an instructor. If you really want to save money, you can always have a tech-lead in your company create the list of YouTube videos that attendees will be required to view before they attend the instructor-led sessions. Not only can this list be shared with the instructor as an informal course outline, but it can also be used repeatedly as part of an overall reference library.

Put it all together

Continuous learning practices are essential for the modern professional, particularly in technology. Companies that want to get the best talent will go to great lengths to offer the best benefits. One such benefit is an ongoing support for technical training. However, these companies often fall short. It’s not for a lack of desire, but usually because of a lack of awareness of the basics of educational psychology.

However, companies that understand the six stages of Bloom’s taxonomy will be able to provide a more effective technical educational experience at less cost. The bottom line is that you want to have students do rote learning at their own pace with computer-based instruction and provide instructor-led delivery to satisfy the higher-order educational objectives that stress enhancing analytic and creative skills. Not only is such segmentation a better approach to technical education, it’s a more efficient use of your company’s training budget.

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