Monday, August 10, 2009

A Practical Guide to Studentship: Part III

In our first article in this series we defined studentship and how we measure it. In the second article, we talked about the importance creating a vision of who we want to become when embarking upon a new learning adventure. In this installment, we'll talk about finding a teacher or mentor.

What Type of Student Are You?
What makes a teacher great depends largely on your studentship and what you want to learn. The stronger your studentship, the more options you'll have. The best teacher may be a single teacher, a group of teachers, or perhaps no teacher at all.

For example, if you struggle with motivation and persistence, then you may require a teacher who is a strong motivator and task master. If you're self-motivated and persistent, then you can focus more exclusively on finding teachers with strong content and understanding.

Consider learning to diagnose and fix computers. On one end of the spectrum, you could sign up for a yearlong course that provides a classroom, materials, a lab and many other students with whom you can share and work. On the other end of the spectrum, there's the old junky computer that someone is ready to discard, a couple of books, and google. Either of these scenarios can provide an optimal learning experience depending on your level and quality of studentship. There's no right or wrong answer, it's just important to calibrate yourself in a meaningful and accurate way.

Studentship Assessment

In the following assessment the answers involve a scale of one to ten. Before answering each question, calibrate your answer by first identifying someone who exemplifies a true ten and someone who exemplifies a true one. Then, place yourself on that scale.

For example, when answering the question on resourcefulness, picture of the most self-reliant, independent, never-needs-help person you can think of and make them the ten. Then think of the person who is the most opposite and make them a one.
  1. Do you learn better in a large group, small group or one-on-one (one-to-one being a ten)?

  2. How self-motivated are you (ten being strongly self-motivated)?

  3. How resourceful are you, that is, how good are you at finding resources, references, answers and tools without assistance (ten being the most resourceful) ?

  4. Do you learn more from lectures and reading, or do you learn more from doing exercises and homework (one being exclusively from lectures and reading and ten being exclusively from exercises and homework)?

  5. How quickly do you get frustrated when you can't find the answer to questions that impede your progress (ten being never getting frustrated and one being immediately frustrated)?

  6. How open are you to new ideas and concepts (ten being completely open)?

  7. How tightly do you hold on to who you are and your way of doing things (ten being completely unbound)?

  8. Are you a hard worker (ten being the hardest worker you know)?
Scoring Your Assessment
Add up your scores from the six questions above.

If your score was 60 or above, then you're probably ready to jump into a self-directed learning program where you avail yourself of many resources including practitioners, articles and books, and online classes and videos.

If your score was from 30 to 59, you may be ready for independent study, but want to find a coach or mentor who can help you structure your program and provide you feedback and guidance as you go.

If your score was below 30, then you'll likely want to start with a well structured more formal educational program such as those provided by community colleges or community adult education programs.

All of the above can work well and be quite effective. As you develop your studentship, you'll learn to rely less and less on formal structure and external resources, and more and more on your own skill set.

Finding a Teacher
In this series, we're focusing on the art of studentship itself, not learning a specific topic or skill.

For those of you who scored lower than 50, we'll address challenges such as working independently, becoming resourceful, gaining flexibility and staying motivated in upcoming installments.

If you scored 50 or greater, then the following is a set of tips on finding a great teacher or instructor who can help you work independently towards your goals.

Find Active Practitioners
There's an old axiom: those that can't, teach!

Oftentimes, the people who are best skilled at a task are not the best teachers of a task. They might not to be patient with novices or poor students. They can have little interest in providing motivation or guidance. They're quite interested, even obsessed by their area of skill and expertise. They want to share with others who are similarly motivated and have something to give back.

On the other hand, many teachers are more interested in teaching than doing. Oftentimes, the subject itself is only of marginal interest; they may not be particularly good at it. It's the process of teaching that they most enjoy.

The benefit of being a great student is that you can tap people who are amazing practitioners but have little interest in teaching. By showing up with a vision, passion, persistence, independence and resourcefulness, you can often coax great practitioners into sharing with you the things that make them great.

So, if you can ingest and digest input from a great practitioner (who may not be a great teacher), you'll be able to learn things that would never have been available to you otherwise.

Does the Teacher Actually Understand?
When I began working in technology, I encountered many concepts where I had never heard the words used to describe them, let alone understanding them. I would often ask people to explain them to me. Oftentimes, we would conclude that the concepts were simply to complex for me.

I shared this with my dad who himself had spent a career in technology. I said, "Dad, some of these concepts are so complex that even geniuses can't explain them to me."

My dad simply replied, "That's because they don't understand them."

Since then, I've decided that if I can't explain something, it's simply because I don't understand it. I've also used this as a metric by which I gauge the understanding of others.

As you interview potential mentors or teachers, ask them questions about their area of expertise. See how well they translate esoteric concepts into accessible language. If you find a lot of roadblocks, then you may want to move on to another candidate.

Hands On

The only way to really learn something is through hands on experience. Whether you're looking into a formal group training program or one-on-one guidance, make sure that you have an opportunity to apply what you're learning while being instructed.

For example, a great axiom when teaching something on the computer is, if they ain't typing, they ain't learning. So, if someone were instructing you on the use of a new formula in an Excel spreadsheet or how to play a riff on the piano or how to bake a souffle, make sure that you're the one doing the work and they're the one doing the instruction. If the teacher doesn't want to work in this manner, then it's time to move on.

Discipline vs. Religion

Many teachers develop an almost religious perspective on what they teach demanding near exclusive devotion to the discipline. They may insist that it's impossible to really understand what they're teaching or to put it into practice while pursuing or adhering to other "competing" disciplines.

There is some merit to focus and deep-dive pursuit of a field of study or specific discipline. If you're someone who's bounced from idea to idea or pursuit to pursuit, then this type of approach might be quite useful to you.

On the other hand, there's much to be learned by comparing and contrasting different approaches and disciplines. You may discover breakthroughs that exist in none of them alone. You needn't avoid the religiously committed teachers; recognize that you'll likely pass them by if your studentship is solid.

Alphabet Soup

Over the years, I've had the opportunity to work with hundreds and hundreds of people with advanced degrees, certifications and the like. I've concluded a several things.

First, bell curve distribution seems to apply to any population, even an elite population. The skills, capacity and understanding among a group of PhD's varies significantly.

Second, often times, the people with the credentials are not themselves the practitioners. Essentially, they're experts without experience.

Thirdly, many advanced education programs involve proving orthodoxy and compliance with a discipline. The burden of proving orthodoxy is that the process often drives out creativity and innovation.

When finding a teacher, set aside credentials and certifications. Instead, ask practical questions about their experience with and understanding of what you want to learn. You may find that the best teacher is the least credentialed one.

Step One: assess your level of studentship and learning style.

If you're someone who is resourceful, self-motivated, open to new ways of learning, and able to work independently then, it's time to find someone to work with you. If not, we'll address those challenges later.

Step Two: find yourself a great mentor or teacher with whom to work. Find a teacher who:
  1. is an active and passionate practitioner of what you want to learn
  2. really understands what they do as evidenced by their ability to explain it
  3. is willing to provide you guidance through hands-on instruction
  4. is open to other disciplines and ideas
Step Three: sell that great teacher on your great studentship.

Homework Assignment
With a strong vision of what you want to learn and who you want to become, and confidence that you have what it takes to be a great student, identify a set of people who would be great mentors or instructors. Using the attributes discussed in our survey, put together your pitch on why you would be a great student. Go make a connection.

Next Time
In our next installment, we'll being talking about motivation, independence, persistence, resourcefulness and flexibility.

Have a great Monday!

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