Definitive guide to best-practice teaching

Poorly delivered training programmes can erode benefits from new systems or leave people ill equipped for dealing with change, writes Andrew Burgess

Things change in treasury all the time. New systems, new regulations, new procedures and new policies get introduced and rolled out across various parts of the firm.

This means a lot of people both inside and outside treasury may need to get up to speed on how to understand, apply and function with whatever the latest change is.

That’s not going to get covered with a presentation, no matter how good the PowerPoint. People don’t just need to know about something; they need to know how to do something. Of course, if it’s just a matter of raising awareness, you can probably confine yourself to forwarding an email.

However, as long as treasury is responsible for implementing changes, you are in a teaching situation. And sometimes budget limitations, the time frame or sensitivity in terms of the material, means that bringing in external specialists is not an option. It’s down to you to set up a training programme.

 Does the class actually need to explain the why behind the lesson content, or just be able to apply the what and how? 

Luckily, we are all experts at teaching, having spent years in school observing at first hand, right? And it’s pretty simple: those who can do and those who can’t teach, right? Usually, when people disparage something, it’s a way of dealing with their collective fear.

Because there’s another saying: if you don’t think teaching is a skill, you should try it sometime.

Seriously, how often have you seen an expensive change-management process flounder because the end users were unsure how to operate with it once in place? Isn’t that often a failure of investment in the instruction and teaching element of the change rather than in the actual process or system itself?

None of this helps with getting your training programme set up, however.

The good news is, if you can remember the last really bad class you had to sit through, you are halfway to beating that low bar. The question is, how confidently you want to clear it.

1. Before you begin

The lead instructor needs a fairly thorough understanding of the existing situation and what the change will result in. Also useful would be an understanding of why the change is taking place, and how it’s to be implemented. That way, they can map out the whole learning process needed.

They will also need to be familiar with the resources available for teaching. There are three main ones:

The first resource is time, both in terms of how long before the lessons need to be embedded in the learners’ heads, and how long they will be available for those lessons.

The second is the instructors themselves – how many and how qualified in both the subject matter and training skills? (There might be resources available via HR, and your organisation may also run to internal education experts, who are able to advise and support the set-up of the programme – and certainly worth a quick call.)

The third resource is physical: rooms, computer access and so forth. Organising these elements is also a time consideration in itself.

2. What to teach

What population of the firm are you aiming at? What do they need to be able to do? What can they do at the moment? These and other related questions need to be addressed.

There is a balance to be struck between how much is actually needed to enable people to function (including reaching the point where they can troubleshoot for themselves) and the added skills that you might want to class as ‘nice to haves’. There is a phrase used in teaching – lies told to children – for the deliberate simplification of details to keep the complexity reasonable for the group’s understanding level.

Another way of looking at this is to ask: does the class actually need to explain the why behind the lesson content, or just be able to apply the what and how?

Assessing those questions will give an indication of what load you, as a teacher, need to take on.

A good way to do this is the old sculptor’s trick – take a large block of stone and cut away everything that does not look like an elephant – edit down from a full to needed level of knowledge.

3. How to structure teaching lessons

Now you know the actual objective to reach, it’s just a matter of implementing it. Look at the skill(s) to be taught, whether it is: recognising a potentially suspicious transaction to highlight for investigation; booking derivative transactions; or generating an investment strategy. Break the process down into the finer pieces of skills and work to teach these.

Build the class level up in each separate skill gradually. For complex processes, begin with the straight-through, everything-works-first-time version. Do not be lazy and try to teach the whole process once by mentioning every possible permutation along the way: “if this happens… if that happens… if the other happens…”, because that structure can barely be followed by an expert.

Instead, build up slowly, getting gradually more complex in stages. That approach means you can lead a group to do things that they’d consider impossible at the start.

Get the learners used to how it should work. Then show them how to deal with the most likely, or most serious, problems if those exceptions occur.

Think of it this way: do you really need the whole class ready to deal with ‘I’ve never seen these happen, but both are theoretically possible’ events, or just know who and when to call for help?

4. How to teach

Listening is more important than talking as a teacher. The answers you get to questions let you know whether it’s time to move on, step up the pace or step back and go over something fundamental more fully. Listen not just to what is said, but how.

Is the learner confident? Are the questions coming just from the one individual who has ‘got it’, while the rest of the class tries to avoid being asked anything? Is apparently confident questioning based on a misconception? (Forward points are always positive!) The questions that appear to interrupt the class are valuable for assessing this.

Did you know questions can be open or closed? How is an open question different from a closed one? Open questions require an extended answer to how/what/why questions and probe understanding (like the second question), while closed questions only need a short, often yes/no, answer to quickly confirm facts the learners know (like the first question).

Empathy helps. Sometimes an expert is the worst teacher; they just don’t understand that people don’t understand. So the computer specialist who programmed the application for the past two months and nothing else can’t always relate to why the booking clerk who uses it once a week isn’t familiar with all the sub-screen options.

Patience shouldn’t even need to be stated. Your objective is to get a certain level of ability to act into the learners to enable them to carry out actions as needed, not to finish in 15 minutes. The learners’ needs are the important ones; you must go at their pace.

However, while simple is good, the lesson should progress at a pace that allows people to stay engaged and interested. Be flexible and jump ahead to more active exercise areas if people are zoning out. If that means the class splits up into subsections, so be it. Having a teaching assistant available to step in is a luxury to grab, if you can get it.

Imagination is also useful; rephrasing a key concept as an image enables it to stick in the brain better. I explain to project controllers that treasury hedging is like a submarine, very powerful at dealing with any threat in the water, provided we get the information it’s there via the ‘narrow periscope’ of exposure data that the controllers show us.

Or that an excess exposure in the enterprise resource planning system is a zombie – it will never die unless actively closed out.

Repetition is the mother of clarity. But it’s undeniably boring to keep repeating your message to reinforce it. Save repetition for the important key takeaways. And vary the format of the repetition to keep it fresh to the audience.

5. After instruction

Once the active teaching phase is over, it’s the students’ learning time. The most effective teachers step into the background and support this out of the limelight. Providing good support documentation after the class for referring back makes learning by application and practice more effective.

Encouraging revision both in the immediate follow-up period and after a pause of days, weeks and (ideally) months improves retention rates. Being available for questions is helpful, but don’t become a crutch.

The principle of answering questions with questions that lead the student back to find the answer for themselves has a long history in teaching – it’s called the Socratic method.

It takes a little more time and effort in the short term, but the payoff is the pupil becomes less likely to ask for support, because they don’t need as much.

Testing your learners is a good way to reinforce key learning points and build confidence when done right. It’s also a good way to test the training package effectiveness and adapt to make it better, especially if repetition is likely with other or similar classes.

As we said, teaching is a skill, too, and that means you can get better at it. It would be a shame to waste the learning opportunity…

Do…

  • Invest time in lesson planning, leaving enough time to adapt the programme as needed.
  • Test for understanding.
  • Animate and engage the whole class.
  • Phrase the same point in different ways; one good insight is worth gold.

Don't…

  • Get sidetracked so that the material becomes irrelevant to a large portion of the class.
  • Provide handouts with new information in advance.
  • Get cheap on training time and have overlarge classes.
  • Try to mix classroom and teleteaching groups.
  • Delude yourself that one full-speed demonstration is teaching.

About the author

Andrew Burgess is FX manager at GE Alstom.

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This article was taken from the May 2017 issue of The Treasurer magazine. For more great insights, log in to view the full issue or sign up for eAffiliate membership

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