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  • Tom Brooksher

Show Me...Teach Me

Show me how to prune this tree.”

Teach me how to prune trees.”

I would suggest that these statements are fundamentally different and, I suspect that for most people, they evoke different expectations. But we often confuse them and don’t stop to consider the difference.

If I show you how to prune a particular tree, you may be able to prune that tree and possibly other trees that have similar characteristics. But you won’t necessarily be prepared to prune trees that are much older or younger, structurally different, diseased or damaged, in different growing seasons, and so on. And just by watching me “show” you, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can do it competently by yourself.

The difference between “show” and “teach” is fundamental to training, and it’s often confused in the workplace. On-the-job “training” usually consists of a more experienced employee “showing” a new employee how to do something. Assuming the more experienced employee knows how to do the task correctly (which is a big assumption), that’s a good start. But it doesn’t ensure that a new employee can competently perform on their own in the variety of circumstances they may face. That requires training.

Training requires a clear understanding of what the student needs to know to be able to perform the task being taught—these are the learning objectives—and an opportunity to perform the task in a variety of situations, receive feedback and practice correct performance.

"Learning" via YouTube

More and more, we’re running into people asking, "Why we do need training, when we have YouTube?" But can you learn how to do anything on YouTube? Largely, peer-sharing video services like YouTube are valuable, but there’s very little teaching and a lot of showing (not to mention a lot of incorrect and incomplete “showing”).

Another misapplication of training can be illustrated by the difference between “tell me about our new benefits selections” and “train me on our new benefits selections.” The former is about providing information, while the latter is about teaching someone to act on the information. When you roll out a new program or initiative, you almost always need to tell someone about it. And sometimes, you need to teach them what to do about it.

But often, the need to share the information is called "training." I suggest that it’s not really training. When you bring a group of employees together to tell them about the new benefits program, it’s an information session, not a training class.

If you bring the HR team together to prepare them to administer the new benefits program, including how to fill out forms, how to counsel employees with different health and family needs, how to troubleshoot problems with the new benefits system and so on, that’s training. And training requires a clear set of learning objectives, instruction that achieves the objectives, an opportunity to perform the tasks required, and a way to measure and provide feedback on the learning that's occurred.

Finally, these differences are more than semantics. Whether you’re a trainer, business owner, product manager or HR director, being clear that showing and telling isn’t training and being aware of whether the challenge you’re facing requires showing/telling or training may be the difference between success and failure.

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