August 5, 2013 in Education
The idea of “unteachable things” is still on my mind. I’ve heard writers, programmers, managers, research scientists and entrepreneurs all make this claim about their fields, amongst others. As I’ve talked about recently, I believe that even though some skills and ideas might not be teachable through traditional instruction in a classroom, in all cases a person can somehow be instructed.
I suspect the ability to teach these difficult subjects is pretty key to our industry.
There’s been an interesting conversation going on about mentor/investor whiplash within accelerator programs (see the original Fred Wilson article, and Brad Feld’s response). Mentor/investor whiplash is what happens when a decision maker gets confused by being pushed and pulled in x,y,z opposite directions from multiple advisors. When a problem is large, with many unknowns, and no single right answer, giving someone an overload of seemingly correct yet sometimes contradictory advice from respected, authoritative individuals can end up just disorienting them further.
Jesse Rodgers (@jrodgers) waded into the discussion and talked about the importance of learning to manage whiplash, suggesting that “the scary thing for entrepreneurs is that accelerator programs are too often run by people that donâ€™t know how to effectively educate people”. Whiplash is a great example of one of those difficult yet key to the industry subjects.
How do we go about teaching these sorts of things then?
One thing we can do is use heuristics. When finding an optimal solution is too time consuming, we can use heuristics, or best practices, to find acceptably good solutions to problems. Heuristics are important in software usability, where optimal solutions aren’t an exact science. In Jesse’s post on whiplash, he actually gives a list of heuristics for mitigating and avoiding whiplash.
Another technique is experiential learning. Experiential learning is most succinctly described as “learning by doing”. But it’s not just about jumping in the water to learn how to swim. That’s just doing. Properly done experiential learning involves a period of reflection after a burst of doing, where the learner reflects on their actions and results in order to learn from them. This period of reflection may include the development of new heuristics based on these experiences, and the development of new hypothesized approaches for the next burst of doing.
There is an important role for the teacher in helping the learner to reflect. The teacher can make the learner aware of options they don’t know about, or help the learner make insights they wouldn’t come to on their own. Sometimes all it takes is asking the learner the right questions. The teacher either has to be a good match for the learner’s personality, or have the sensitivity to understand what the learner’s personality will require from them and adjust accordingly. Some people benefit from a gentle approach on the part of the teacher, and some benefit from a more coarse approach because that’s just what they need in order to listen.
As an educator I’ve become skeptical of the various theories of education and learning. Some of them seem to come and go in a manner akin to management fads. But experiential learning is one of the better ones. It seems particularly well-suited to the education of entrepreneurs. You see it referenced in a lot of programs to educate entrepreneurs (XCEEi, OSU, Cornell, etc.).
I wonder how we can improve the educational techniques themselves and their dissemination to the right audience(s)?
I’ve got a few thoughts on this, but I’ll save it for next time, I’m trying to keep my articles more blog-sized than thesis-sized…