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Navigating the Instructor/Learner Partnership


Traditional teaching often postures the instructor as the ‘all-knowing person in power’. But in the words of John Wooden, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” In this episode, we explore the concept of a ‘knowledge economy’ and breaking the mold of the traditional roles of the teacher and student with Janette Williams IMBA, PhD, Senior Consultant at Maven Consulting LLC.

Janette has over twenty-nine years of experience and extensive insight working in private, public, non-profit, and government sectors. She has a passion for system thinking to integrate the wholeness of individual, team and organizational effectiveness and development. She also teaches a variety of courses (business, leadership, and organizational psychology) at several colleges in SD.

Host – Steven Maggi: We’d like to welcome Janette Williams today, senior consultant at Maven Consulting LLC. Janette is particularly the right person for this because she’s got a background in psychology that she applies to leadership development and training.  How much does your psychology background, Janette, kind of get into everything you do?

Janette Williams: That’s a great question, Steven. I would say that it’s a good part of it because when you think about learning, the unit of analysis is the person. It’s, in fact, everything that is between the ears. And so, I think a lot of it — a lot of the psychology part of it, but also the causative science of how the brain works and how it takes in information — I feel like those two components are extremely important frameworks to understand when someone is engaging a learner.

Steven: Yea, and I think the fact that you’ve worked for over 29 years with, not only private companies, but public, nonprofit and government sectors; that kind of gives you the whole work industrial complex, right? So, you’ve seen everything from all different types of organizational structure?

Janette: That’s correct, and what I’ve found across all of them is that people are people. When you start to think about the unit of analysis of a person and how do I help that person make meaning of the information, based on where they’re starting from — it’s a consistent theme that I’ve seen, regardless of whether they’re a novice or someone who’s an expert, whether they’re in one sector over the another, very technical, nontechnical. You know, I find it to be a theme about how do we engage the learner — not only from a cognitive perspective, but from a psychological perspective — that really allows them to take in information and immediately apply it to something that they want to do with it.

Steven: Boy, and learning means a lot to you, I mean, you teach courses in several colleges but interestingly enough, 16 years in school, receiving six degrees – talk about an overachiever! How do you achieve six degrees?

Janette: Yea, you know what? I’ve really enjoyed learning, and what I’ve learned through that journey is that there’s not a right or wrong way to do learning if you give someone the right exposure and experience with learning and make it fun. I think one of the things that I enjoyed through that time of doing so many different learning experiences or adventures of my own is that, you know, when I was having fun — the brain actually takes in more information and can do something useful with it — than if I thought I had to cram it in there for the sake of having it in my head. So, I think that was one of the big takeaways is making learning fun. There’s not a right or wrong way, because everybody uses it differently. Everybody will learn differently, take in information at different intervals, different chunks, different size of information. And so, it’s important that we think about learning as a mosaic of so many different ways that people can take information and make meaning.

Steven: You can just hear your passion about this. When you look at an organization, how do you integrate all of this stuff, because isn’t that kind of the key — it’s not only the person themselves, but the team and the organization and what they want to accomplish as well?

Janette: Yea, one of the things I find to be very challenging for organizations is — we all know there’s been research on so many different learning modalities — is there’s not a “one size fits all”; nonetheless, some of the learning that we’ve done has been one size. And so, I think it’s important to engage your learner, especially with different content. Some content is really easy to learn online — just-in-time learning, virtually-led training sessions — but some of it’s not, where someone has to be maybe physically in a room with someone working through the process. So, I think sometimes, based on funding and the number of people on a leadership and development team, it can get challenging to really think about the learner as an individual, and how multiple individuals make up the cohort of who they’re trying to teach.

Steven: Janette, you talk a lot about partnership, and I found this fascinating. It’s not just the person bringing in the information, it’s also the person giving the information, and you kind of have to work as a team. Can you kind of expand on that a bit?

Janette:  I’d say that in the past philosophy, we’ve had so much understanding or thinking that the instructor was the guru in the room, of which would be passing on this information being the subject matter expert, which is to some degree true; however, when you come from that kind of approach, you’re creating an environment of more of a power, as opposed to this exploration of learning, where both the instructor and the learner should get something out of the interaction. Learning should always be beneficial for everyone. And so, as an instructor, sometimes I find that it’s the saying that John Wooden said, that “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” I feel like sometimes instructors kind of fundamentally stop learning, because they’re just pushing content, as opposed to learning in the moment with the person — the learners themselves — and allow for more of this holistic understanding of information being passed amongst everyone.

Steve: Well, isn’t it important for the instructors too, because it’s not a one-time-only situation, so you are going to be doing this again and again. And this is the way, going back to that Wooden quote, this is the way we continue to improve, as opposed to just reaching a certain point and not being able to get past that.

Janette: Definitely, definitely, because, you know, we’re working in a new era of employees; they’re more what we call a “knowledge economy” or “knowledge workers”, where a lot of what they do is not necessarily as a manual worker, where you could see the progression of what they do. A knowledge worker might be working a lot behind the scenes, and then have to come with a result. And so, that being said, as instructors, we have to understand what those knowledge workers — we have to actually investigate what those knowledge workers are doing. How do we help them to continue to progress in their skill, so that they can deliver that result? And that might be interpersonal skills, that might be working across teams, that might be learning about a particular technical skill. And so, that’s where it’s important that we have this partnership of learners with instructors, facilitators, or faculty; so that way, there’s more of an understanding of what’s needed, as opposed to thinking that we have the answers.

Steven: And I think this is really where the 21st century learning comes in. You call it “force field” of this modern learning, and I love that expression because it really is that sort of thing. It’s not a one-way arrow — it’s arrows going back and forth, back and forth, and I guess, the more you have there, the better the whole learning experience is.

Janette: Absolutely, you’re so right. You know, the modern learner is getting so much information about so many different things all the time. You think about, not only just their learning experience, but their whole life around them. And so, the more that we can identify factors that influence the situation — what’s creating friction or frictionless paths, and the way that they go about their learning goals — the easier it is for someone to transfer that knowledge or that information into something that’s useable.

So, there’s a great quote, do not know who says it, but it’s “learning without action is entertainment”.  And today, we don’t have time to be entertained at our jobs. There is so much pressure to get things done, be almost like the unicorn in many different ways. You know, there’s an 8-hour day that’s turned into a 12-hour day.  And now, the demarcation lines between home and work are blurred since we’re practicing social distance and various things due to Covid-19.  So, being able to do something with what they’ve learned is really how someone can achieve their goal, as opposed to maybe — that information is great — it’s true, but not useful.

Steven: I love this philosophy, because it not only works in this whole consulting approach and in learning, but really in communication itself, right? Because if you have this kind of force field, this is the way we communicate through the highest effectiveness, so if you can learn these tactics, this will apply across — you know, once we leave the classroom — we’ll be doing this all the time.

Janette: Absolutely, yeah, and this is transferrable beyond just the classroom experience. This is to your point of a new way of communicating and really have intentional interactions with people. Our time is valuable, that is the one resource that you can’t get more of and you can’t buy it if you wanted it. So, being very mindful of your time — time attention, time intention — is beneficial, not only to the individual, but to the organization as a whole.

Steven: So, let’s look at three different ways you talk about to partner with the learner. So, let’s start with the first one, which is initiate what content. So, take us from there?

Janette: Yea, so you know, understanding what the learner needs to know. And so, sometimes we as instructors or facilitators will come in thinking we know what the learner has to learn. We have our objectives and everything else, which is important. I think there is also a place in there maybe to have a bullet point of objective that is something that is adaptable or something that is revealed through the learning itself, of which the leader or the person in the room, the learner brings. So, based on performance indicators of an employee’s job, what skill set did they need to learn today, and also, what other skills in their technical field or what they do on a daily basis — what do they need to know next?  What’s that next skill that we should be priming them for? So, really partnering to discover the best modalities to get them the knowledge they need to perform at the optimal level that the organization is requiring of them. So, initiating that content is an intentional journey of getting the information that the learner needs to do their job well.

Steven: Yea, and it’s really important to get those questions answered, really before you go the second step, right? Because it only happens if you do that.

Janette: Absolutely, absolutely. So, the second step is regulating the content. So, we know we are in a volatile world, of which the volume and the velocity of change happens way too quickly. And so, based on expectations — and that’s a key word is the “expectations” of the employees, you know, that is part of their maybe performance indicators —  that’s changing over time, or rapidly changing as maybe special assignments are being given. You know, how well is the content providing the upskilling information they need for future performance indicators? Is it getting them ready to continue to evolve as their technical skills or whatever they’re working towards? So, partnering with the learner to understand the trends of their job and the skills needed to handle those trends; that will keep the material fresh, and it also keeps the learner engaged in being a participant of “what is it that they need?”.

Steven: And then finally — and it goes right into that — is to sustain the learning, because that really is important. So many people do this type, take training and so forth, and they’re all excited when they come out, and then it slowly goes away, evaporates, and you’re back to a little better than you were before, whereas what you are talking about, is to be able to sustain this?

Janette: Yea, so reinforcing the learning is one of, I think, the biggest disconnects we see in a lot of different learning situations, whether that be in corporate America — you know, industry, leadership development — as well as academia. So, they get done with a particular class and then they never see that class again. So, the reinforcement of learning and seeing how transferrable one piece of information can show up in so many other places will really help the learner to recognize, remember and apply information in real-time settings. And, the technology — there’s many different technological platforms out there that can really help nudge the learner, provide that spaced practice that’s needed in order to retrieve and understand the information, and then also rehearse what they’ve learned. And so, it’s kind of almost like this real reminder, so partner to decide what tools will provide ongoing support that will help the learner continue to evolve in this learning journey.

Steven: Well, as we get into the 21st century and more things are done not face-to-face, I think you’re going to see this constantly coming up, and the idea that we can really communicate better, because sometimes you’ve got to concentrate a little more when you’re not right there and walk down the hallway or that kind of thing.

Janette: Absolutely, those days of being able to walk down the hall have kind of come to an end. We’ve seen through this pandemic, that we can work more remotely than we thought we could in the past. So, organizations are taking a look at where they want their employees to be sitting, whether that be at home or being in an office. And with physical distancing, we just don’t pick up and walk down the hall, even if we are in the same building. That being said, we are going to have to look at efficient ways to communicate well with one another, in order for us to not have the miscommunications, not have the misunderstandings of people’s intentions and lack of trust, and all that good stuff that goes with human dynamics, to really be able to move people in the direction that the organization is wanting to go in, while keeping the people and the dynamics of the team all intact.

Steven: And finally, Janette, I know you give advice to people when they say, “What do we do as our careers develop and so forth, and as the world keeps changing like that?” And, you say “It’s the lifelong learning” thing?

Janette: One of the things that I find to be troubling in what we see in leadership development, and in personal development, professional development — is that we have this kind of, we like to go to models and quadrants. So, we kind of say “Oh, you’re in this box” and “We’re going to use this model” and all these different things, which are all great in form — how we maybe put together things or understand it — but, they can be very limiting because it is less posturing our intellectual curiosity. It almost says or we always think about “Don’t think outside the box”.  But yet, if you look at so many models, they are in a box. And so, that is very stifling to the intellectual curiosity that really connects with the learner. And that’s for both the practitioner, as well as the learner — the person who’s in the training — is we continuously put ourselves in the box, saying “You’re one of these.” But reality is that we’re multidimensional, and no one sits in a box, regardless of whatever model you take on. But I think they all have their place and time, in terms of understanding, but not necessarily something to subscribe to and say, “This is what you are.”

Steven: Well, thanks Janette. I really enjoyed chatting with you today.

Janette: Very well, well thank you so much for your time. I appreciate the opportunity to share.