August 23, 2006

Excerpts: Teach What You Know by Steve Trautman

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 8:52 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Before my career here at 8cr I taught and coached swimming in my spare time for eight years. I tailored my approach to each student according to how they learned. Reading this excerpt from Teach What You Know reminded me of recognizing each student's style and tailoring my approach accordingly. Learning has never been a one way teaches all sort of thing.
How can you be a better teacher by understanding your "students"?
---- Why? Learners

Why? learners need to know why theyre learning this topic at this time, why it is so important, and why they should focus on it versus all of the other input coming in. If you were teaching Why? people how to build a bridge theyd likely ask
  • Why are we building a bridge?
  • Why are you teaching me how to build a bridge right now?
  • Why are we doing it before we work on the road?

All of these come down to the biggest question theyre really getting at: Why do I care?

Some learners simply cannot learn effectively before they get over this hurdle. When youre teaching them, part of their brain is asking these questions and demanding an answer before allowing learning to proceed. Picture yourself as the peer mentor explaining the six steps in the process youre teaching. The script for a Why? learner would flow like this:

Mentor: Explaining Step 1 Apprentice: Thinks, Why do I care? Why are you telling me this right now? Is it important? Mentor: Explaining Step 2 Apprentice: Thinks, Why do I care? Why are you telling me this right now? Is it important? Mentor: Explaining Step 3 Apprentice: Thinks, Why do I care? Why are you telling me this right now? Is it important? Mentor: Explaining Step 4 Apprentice: Thinks, Oh! Now Ive heard enough to know why I care about this. I understand why Im supposed to learn all of this and now Im ready to go. Mentor: Explaining Step 5 Apprentice: Thinks, Wait, I seem to have missed something here! He covered that first part so fast that Im lost now. Mentor: Explaining Step 6 OK. Now, do you have any questions?
Why? learners use their brains to figure out why they care first. If given enough time, theyll figure it out on their own. While theyre working on it, though, they wont be able to focus as much on the true tasklearning the skill. Such learners often struggle with missing the first part of every explanation because theyre occupied trying to figure out why theyre listening in the first place.

Dont think of this as some sort of childish belligerence. Theyre not actively folding their arms across their chests and daring you to motivate them or else. That may be exactly what is going on inside their brains, but it isnt something theyre doing on purpose or to make you crazy. It is just part of their learning style.

My workshop is often attended by apprentices who come to learn how to be mentored. They either come alone, or in the best circumstances, they come with their peer mentors so that they can develop their plan and strategy together. I remember one apprentice who listened to my explanation of Why? learners and said, That is definitely me. I have a really hard time getting engaged in the topic if I dont know why it is important to me. The truth is, I cant imagine how it isnt everyone! Who wouldnt benefit from knowing why they should lock onto a certain chunk of information? Everyone is throwing new stuff at us all day long. It really helps if they tell us which bits we should prioritize before they launch into the details!

Teaching to Why? Learners

As the story illustrates, everyone benefits from knowing why they care about completing a task, so youll never do any damage by making this part of your repertoire, regardless of who youre teaching. All adult learners seem to appreciate this information and it rarely takes much time. The Peer Mentoring tools Ive introduced in this book already support providing contextthe Why.

Remember the first step of the demonstration technique presented in Chapter 5, Telling What You Know: Give a reason for the demonstration. The example I used was teaching you how to plant a treebecause this weekend were going to have a tree-planting work party in the neighborhood. It isnt hard to picture an apprentice needing to know why Im teaching him how to plant a tree. Without that simple explanatory sentence, he might spend too much time wondering and never get the information Im trying to deliver.

Step 4 in the Demonstration Technique Worksheet also says Demonstrate again and explain the logic behind each step. Logic means why we do it and the consequences of not doing it.

The 5-Minute Meeting Plan also has support for this learner. Step 2 is explaining the relationship to the job, which gives you an opportunity to tell your apprentice how often he will use the skill and how important it is before teaching it. This explanation will definitely help answer why questions.

Some of your apprentices will have figured out how important it is to know why they care before they let you teach them. Theyll simply ask a few questions at the beginning. You can encourage these questions when they arise. This is the best scenario, because the apprentices can satisfy their needs and you can simply respond with answers.

What? Learners

What? learners just want the facts without a lot of fluff. Give them the information in the cleanest language possible for the best results. They need documentation or, at least, an outline or an agenda. They really like step-by-step processes. What? learners dont do well if youre winging it or talking without a plan. They really appreciate being taught by people who are prepared and focused.

If you were teaching What? people how to build a bridge theyd ask the following:

  • What kind of a bridge is it?
  • Is there anything I can read to be prepared?
  • Where is it located?
  • What is the plan?
  • What are the steps?
  • Is there a standard to follow?

All of these come down to the biggest question theyre really getting at: What do I need to know?

Some learners just do a lot better when everything is in order. That is especially true of What? learners. Theyve been conditioned to expect this sort of information will be available to them, because the traditional educational system caters to them very nicely. Schools are often set up with straight rows of desks. Students learn and regurgitate facts, read and report on findings, analyze data, and apply it to problems. All of these approaches are very comfortable for a What? learner.

In fact, many What? learners did extremely well in school because the learning environment was so well suited to them. Their report cards reflect their success with lots of As. When they become peer mentors, many What? learners develop a sort of arrogance that comes from those good marks. They draw this conclusion:

  • I learn by reading.
  • I got As in school.
  • Smart people get As.
  • Smart people learn by reading.

Youll even here them say, Im surprised youre asking that question. Didnt you read the documentation I gave you? That was covered in the third section. If youre a What? learner and youre teaching someone who isnt, youll likely run into a problem. Remember that this isnt about intelligence or ability. It is about style. Consider working differently with your apprentices, as needed.

What? Learner Example

We worked with a senior engineer who was a What? peer mentor for a How Does It Work? apprentice. Both worked for a software development company that creates and maintains software for the stock exchangeshigh pressure and fast-paced. Up-time is critical. When the company introduces new software, they run old and new systems in parallel, because if their software goes down, trading on the floor stops. This senior engineer, considered to be a genius by many, learned by reading documentation, a true What? learner. He could take the software and manual and in less than three days, become an expert. He would not only know how to use the program, he would know all of its limits, capabilities, shortcuts, and potential uses and drawbacks. Because he always read the manual cover-to-cover before he ever used the program, he expected everyone else to learn in the same way.

I overheard him once, when he was chastising an employee who didnt have any prior experience with a new software package and had come into his office after reviewing the manual. The senior engineer started asking the employee questions, difficult questions, and the employee who had started answering with confidence began to hesitate and falter in his responses. Clearly he didnt have the answers. At one point the engineer stood up from his desk and pointed out the window to a homeless person sleeping on a bench in the park a few stories below. See that bum down there, he bellowed, He could pick this up faster that you. Now get out of my office! I dont want to see you until you figure it out. The end of the story is that the employee scrambled to get his hands on the software and asked another colleague to give him a demonstration. Once the employee was able to play with the software (like a true How Does It Work? learner), he was able to succeed. He just couldnt do it by using the manual. In the end, he demonstrated that he could do the job, but the process was obviously much more painful than it needed to be.

Teaching to What? Learners

Once again, there is good news here. Everyone benefits from having a peer mentor who is prepared with documentation, lists, plans, standards, and so on. Preparing with What? learners in mind wont be a problem for others. If youre a What? learner yourself, this will come naturally, but for others, the preparation will need to be a little more deliberate.

It is a good idea to offer any documentation as a matter of course. and then notice how your apprentice takes advantage of it. If he comes back talking about specific sections of the documentation and has questions related to the text, you know youre working with a person who learns by reading. Be sure that before you hand over anything in writing to this sort of learner, you provide a warning label for each piece. The warning might include areas to focus on, areas to read with some degree of caution (because they are somewhat out of date), and areas to avoid (because they are irrelevant or hopelessly out of date). This warning is important because the What? learner will most likely read whatever he can find. You dont want him to learn the wrong information.

If you use the 5-Minute Meeting Plan in this book to prepare for your peer mentoring sessions, youll be doing a great service to these learners. Step 3 creates the outline of the content to be presented, in order. Step 6 offers other resources, which often translates to more documentation or reading material. The lesson plan is designed as both an outline from which you can teach in a more linear, focused fashion, and as documentation for use after the session. What? learners do much better when they have something to follow when they are learning.

How Does It Work? Learners

How Does It Work? learners need to see the relationships between what theyre learning and the big picture. They need to see the context relative to the workflow. They need to get their hands dirty and practice the skills and ideas. For them, the information doesnt line up in neat rows, it comes in connections to ideas and skills they already understand.

If you were teaching How Does It Work? people how to build a bridge theyd ask

  • Is it like the bridge we built last time?
  • Is it going to be part of the state or national highway system?
  • Are we replacing or rebuilding an existing structure?
  • Who designed it?
  • What kind of traffic is expected?
  • Which contractors will join the project?
  • What is driving the timeframe for finishing it?

As you read through this list you might ask yourself how many of the questions are really about building a bridge. The answer is all of them, or none of them, depending on your learning style. For a How Does It Work? learner, the context and general information that they receive from questions like these are useful in preparing them to learn. For a What? learner, this list could be a bunch of random chatter. That is why there is sometimes a disconnect between people with different styles. My colleague, Sherryl, tells a story illustrating the point in the following sidebar.

How Does It Work? Example

I hired a new administrative assistant and asked her to help me with the consolidation of data from a text-based 360-degree performance feedback tool for a senior leadership team. The project involved lots of content: 12 people each had 12 others provide feedback. The administrative assistant had to download the information from the web-based tool, put it into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, sort it, create a report template in Microsoft Word, and then paste the content into the report. We were under a time crunch so I thought I was doing the right thing by providing great detail and organizing all the steps in chronological order. I didnt have them all written legibly, but had started an outline. I told her to take notes while we were meeting and to write down all the steps. I assumed that she was a What? learner and that I was doing the right thing by helping create documentation and being cautious to have all of the information in chronological order.

About 10 minutes into the conversation (that I assumed would take about an hour) my new assistant asked me to stop. She said, I cant do it this way. This is way too much information. I need to get into the tool, see what the data looks like in its raw form, see what you want the report to look like when its done, and understand how its going to be used. I dont want to know all the steps until I do those things. Send me a copy of a similar report, send me the link to the web tool, and Ill call you back in 30 minutes. When she called back, she had a list of questionsreally good, thoughtful ones, by the way. She was ready to go. I still dont have my list of chronological steps written legibly, but the project got done, on-time and error free, even though she had never done anything like this before. We were working remotely, and I wasnt very available to help her.

Teaching to How Does It Work? Learners

I am predominately a How Does It Work? learner. When Im learning something new, I sometimes describe my brain as a blank pegboard, similar to the ones they hang tools on in a hardware store. As I approach new content, I ask a lot of questions that give me context. Every time I get another bit of information, it is like putting a peg on the pegboard. When it is time to learn the steps in the process, or the details of the idea, I can take each piece and hang it on a peg. The pegs arent in any particular order, so the steps I learn dont line up in any linear fashion. The information, nonetheless, finds a home on one of the pegs and I learn it.

If I dont get enough contextual information early on in any learning process, I have a hard time finding a place to put the new content. I look for the pegs, but if there arent enough of them, the content doesnt have a place to hang and it falls away. Because of that, I might not remember it.

How Does It Work? people need that context, so it makes sense that when theyre peer mentoring they tend to deliver a lot of big picture information to their apprentices. This is great for the other How Does It Work? learners, but can be a real burden for apprentices who need less of it.

If youre teaching How Does It Work? learners then you can use the Explaining the Big Picture from Chapter 3, Focusing on the Most Important Information, to guide you. Remember that these learners like to see the connections and put themselves on the map.

The 5-Minute Meeting Plan has two steps to support the How Does It Work? learner. Step 2, Explain the relationship to the job, provides context, and Step 5, Identify practice opportunities, reminds peer mentors that these learners need plenty of opportunity to experience the tools or processes first hand. They often have trouble learning without hands-on practices.

What if? Learners

What If? learners learn by testing your ideas while youre teaching. Leave room for them to discuss some of the options you considered. They want to know if youve tried any of the ideas they might have come up with, and then, if you have, what happened. Theyre often called the devils advocate because theyre always poking around trying to find a better way of doing a taskeven if there is a smooth, established way of doing that task. Often you arent particularly interested in their opinions, but they will still ask challenging questions.

If you were teaching What If? people how to build a bridge theyd ask the following:

  • What if we built a ferry boat?
  • Have you considered how much faster and cheaper a boat would be?
  • What if we put two boats on line? Then wed have double the capacity.
  • What if we skipped Step 3 in the bridge-building process?
  • What would happen if we put Step 2 before Step 1?

Each question is about understanding the boundaries and the options that were considered in shaping the information presented. The questions dont often sound like that to the peer mentor who hears them. Instead, they can sound judgmental, arrogant, and completely off-topic. It is hard for some peer mentors to keep from feeling defensive when questioned in this manner. They start to protect themselves whenever they sit down to teach a What If? learner. Youll hear the peer mentor say

  • Can we take questions like that off-line? (But there never seems to be an off-line time.)
  • Lets try to stay on the topic and be a little less random.

After explaining this concept in the classroom one time, one of my students shot up her hand and said, Im a What If? learner and people hate me! Every time I ask a question so that I can try to figure out what is going on, I get shot down. I always thought there was something wrong with me!

One group from a manufacturing client heard the explanation and then there was a big pause in the room. One of the managers said, We dont have any What If? people. We killed them. He said the last several people who had quit or been fired were all people who seemed to question the status quo and couldnt stay on task well enough. In reality they were all probably just trying to learn their jobs, but were going about it in a way that was different from the What?-oriented managers in front of them. Imagine what a loss it was for that company to miss out on all of the great ideas and creative solutions that would have come from this line approach to learning.

Teaching to What if? Learners

Perhaps more than the other learning styles, What If? learners need you to talk with them about their learning style and come to an understanding about how youll work together to transfer knowledge. If youre working with a What If? learner in a professional setting, that means they somehow survived the more What? oriented world of formal education. They had to have adapted in order to get a high school diploma and/or a college degree.

If What? people got As in school, then What If? people probably got detention! They just dont line up and do things in an orderly fashion very often. Still, if they survived school, that means they can probably survive learning how to do their job by making the best of whatever way you teach them. It will just be more fun and more efficient if you work with them somewhat on their own terms.

When I asked people who present themselves as having this learning style how best to teach them, they usually give me a few consistent answers. Some simply want to be given more than no time at all to ask their questions. Once theyve been labeled as the guy who asks the crazy questions, people pre-empt them and shut them down before the first question flies. They dont get to ask any questions at all. What would happen if you gave your What If? apprentice three minutes at the beginning of a meeting, or even the three minutes prior to it starting, to ask a few questions to get his head in the game? While this apprentice might like more time, a few minutes to ask questions is better than no time at all and will probably make a big difference.

Sometimes the best ways to teach to this style of learner is to have an agenda or outline as a focusing tool. If your What If? learner asks a question in topic four that you know youre going to address in topic eight, you can use this three-step technique:

  1. Acknowledge the question: I am going to address your question.
  2. State exactly where, specifically youll answer it: Im going to talk about it in Step 8.
  3. Give permission for the What If? learner to ask the question again: If I dont answer your question in Step 8, will you please raise it again?

Ive also heard What If? learners ask to be put on challenging problems as a way of learning. Such learners do well with scenario-based questions: How could you improve this process? Or, how else could you use this tool? They like turning the problem around in their minds and considering all the ways it could be solved. They can talk with you about their thinking, and you can guide them toward the right approach. Be sure to listen to their ideas along the way! Theyre often very creative; you might just hear something that is an improvement.

Rounding Out Your Teaching Style

Once youve begun to think about your own learning style and considered the learning styles of your apprentices, you might be overwhelmed trying to get this just right. Everyone is a little different and it might seem crazy to try to analyze each one so you can hit the mark.

There are two solutions that will ensure you reach apprentices with differing styles. One solution is to hand this chapter to your apprentice and have a frank discussion about what works and what doesnt for him. It wont take long, and youre bound to learn something from each other. At the very least, youll give your apprentice language that he can use to speak up and give you feedback. The last thing you want is to have him be a victim of your approach to teaching.

The second thing you can do is even better. You can round yourself out as a teacher, so you accommodate all learning styles all the time. All types of learners benefit from each type of information described. If you provide that information, you wont be wasting time. Itll just mean that no matter whom youre teaching, youll have a much better shot at hitting the mark. Using the list in Tool 6-1 will help round out your style.


This content is excerpted from Chapter 6 from the book titled, Teach What You Know: a Practical Leaders Guide to Knowledge Transfer Using Peer Mentoring, authored by Steve Trautman, published by Prentice Hall Professional, ISBN 0321419510, Copyright 2007 Steve Trautman. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. For a full table of contents, please visit:

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.