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Learners as Trainers and SMEs

Subject-matter expert, instructional designer, trainer, learner.

These are some of the important roles in the training business. In my training activities, I have been mixing up these roles just to see what happens. My field research--and other people's research--reveals that several interesting things happen when we ask learners to pretend that they are trainers or instructional designers or subject-matter experts.

Learners as Trainers

A pithy saying suggests that an effective trainer should continue to be a learner. This principle makes a lot of sense. So does the opposite principle: An effective learner should be a trainer.

EACH TEACH is an example of a game that makes use of this powerful principle. You use this game to help learners master a step-by-step procedure such as calculating tax payments, writing a business memo, determining the price of a new product, or drawing a flowchart. Let us assume that the procedure that you are teaching involves four steps. During the first round of the game, divide learners into four groups and teach each group how to apply one of the four steps. During the second phase, reorganize the learners into teams of four members, each of whom has mastered a different step. Give each team a set of application exercises that require the use of all four steps of the procedure. Initially, the teams complete the task, with different "experts" taking care of different steps. Later, each team member is encouraged to learn the other steps from the other members. Eventually, this mutual teaching and learning process results in all learners mastering all steps of the procedure.

Here's another example: You can use a game called MLT (Multi-Level Training) for helping people learn physical skills such as first-aid procedures, karate moves, yoga postures, juggling technique, or magic tricks. Begin the game by appointing four learners as "Prime Trainers"--two for the red team and the other two for the blue team. Train these Prime Trainers on the physical skill and ask them to recruit and train as many of the other learners as possible, one person at a time. When a Prime Trainer feels confident about a learner's skill level, they make him or her an "Associate Trainer" and a member of their team. The Associate Trainers continue the process by recruiting, training, and certifying more learners. The game ends when all learners are trained. At this time, the team with the most Associate Trainers wins the game.

Immense amounts of research data reveal that when learners teach others, the overall effectiveness of the training activity increases significantly. Apparently, fellow-learners speak a common language and relate to each other better. As a result, learners learn more effectively from their peers than from expert trainers. An important and intriguing side effect of peer-teaching activities is that the teachers also learn in the process of teaching others. And the more often a learner teaches others, the more comprehensive and stronger his or her mastery of the skill and knowledge becomes. Although recent research strongly establishes this fact, people have been aware of this principle for several centuries. Even the ancient Romans had a Latin expression that clearly summarized the principle: docendo discimus ("teach in order to learn").

Learners as Subject-Matter Experts

Here's another time-honored principle: Adult learners bring rich, varied, and relevant experiences with them. This principle implies that you should not treat adults as inexperienced children to be enlightened or empty containers to be filled. Instead, you should build upon adults' experiences.

Unfortunately, however, this principle is more often violated than followed. Until recently, role assignments in training have been that subject-matter experts create knowledge, instructional designers package it, trainers deliver it, and learners consume it.

Fortunately, this paradigm is shifting rapidly. Knowledge and content are no longer hoarded by Brahmins and doled out to the privileged few. Today, anyone can surf the Internet for immediate access to esoteric content, including items that were Top Secret only a few years ago. Also, the new field of knowledge management is ignoring self-proclaimed experts and collecting and distributing best practices from typical practitioners. In addition, new hires from the Nintendo generation enter the workforce with more computer expertise than their trainers from the earlier generation.

For several years, I have been experimenting with structured-sharing activities that treat adult learners as subject-matter experts who have a wealth of tips, tricks, and shortcuts based on their experience. In a typical structured-sharing activity, you invite people to share their best practices and reward them for doing so. This approach works effectively with interpersonal skills (such as conflict resolution) and technical skills (such as computer programming).

Here's a sample structured-sharing activity called 101 that treats experienced adults as subject-matter experts. You conduct this activity in several rounds that are separated by one or more days. Before the activity begins, randomly recruit a panel of five judges from the pool of participants. During the first round, assemble the participants, identify a topic, and invite everyone to write at least one-and not more than five-practical tips, each on an index card. After 10 minutes, collect all the tips and inform the participants that they will continue playing several rounds of the game until they have generated 101 useful tips. After the players return to their workplace, give the collection of tips to the judges and have them identify the top five tips. The next day, distribute a "gameletter" with copies of all the tips and a Hall of Fame announcement listing the names of the participants who contributed the top five tips. Also distribute instructions for the next round, which invites participants to send more new tips by recalling their personal experience, reading books and journals, or interviewing others. Specify a deadline for the round, collect all new tips, and ask the judges to select the next batch of five top tips. Continue conducting the game for several more rounds until you have collected 101 tips. At this time, ask the judges identify not only the latest batch of the five top tips, but also the best ones among the previous batches. In the last issue of the gameletter, recognize and congratulate the participants who contributed the most tips. Invite everyone to select and implement his or her own set of high-impact tips.

CONCEPT ANALYSIS is another activity in which the learners act as subject-matter experts. In contrast to 101, this activity deals with conceptual knowledge rather than procedural skills. To conduct CONCEPT ANALYSIS, select a fairly ill-defined buzzword such as leadership, empowerment, inclusion, or coaching. Explain that the goal of the activity is to share, discuss, and identify critical features of the concept and to come up different examples. Organize participants into teams and ask them to provide a variety of examples of the selected concept in action, ranging from obvious, clear-cut illustrations to subtle, borderline cases. Ask teams to identify higher-level concepts (such as interaction between two people as a higher-level concept associated with coaching) and lower-level ones (such as giving a pep talk as a lower-level concept associated with coaching). Continue the activity by asking for synonyms (such as counseling and mentoring), antonyms (such as ignoring and punishing), word associations (such as sports and teams), metaphors (such as farming and bringing up children), and graphic representations. Throughout the discussions, keep inviting participants to identify the critical features (which should be shared by all examples of the concept), variable features (which may differ among different examples), and desirable features. At the end of the activity, participants end up with a better understanding of the concept and a common definition.

CONCEPT ANALYSIS, 101, MLT, and EACH TEACH all increase learning effectiveness by following a simple guideline: Don't treat learners as learners all the time.