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The Growth-Mindset Workplace, Part III: Purposeful Training and Development

It was August, 1995. A freshly minted college graduate, I had just accepted a job as a public-school teacher and was attending my first professional development training program the week before classes started. I sat in the auditorium with an optimistic attitude as the first workshop began, all the more so since the topic was “Leading Dynamic Classroom Discussions,” the hired speaker a noted expert on the topic.

I spent the next 3 hours listening to someone lecture on how to lead a discussion. Ok, that’s not quite true; I walked out half way through. A colleague later told me that the speaker lectured for another hour and a half after I left, never once seeking input from the large crowd of assembled teachers (and veteran discussion leaders). I remember thinking, “Does he not see the irony of lecturing us on how to lead a discussion?” I wondered, “How could he think this method of “training” would be well received?” During the time I was at the workshop, I watched as faculty across the auditorium floor read newspapers, graded papers, wrote lessons plans, or—in a few cases—slept (all behavior they would never tolerate in their own classes), all providing evidence of the little value the assigned to a program that, at least on paper, was designed for our improvement. Such was my first experience with professional development and training, and I wish I could say this negative experience was an anomaly.

Over the next two decades of my professional life, I would attend numerous required training and development programs, many of which proved fruitless—often because the content was irrelevant, the delivery misguided, or credibility of the leader easily called into question. Additionally, the presentation of the trainings usually was ill-planned. They were often boring (no one likes being lectured to all day), sadly ironic (like that workshop on “new media in education” where the speaker only used the white board), purposeless (I don’t know how many times I wondered, “Why are we training on this subject again?”), and at times even condescending (workshop leaders surely realize their audiences are educated, right?). Over the years, my friends in the business realm shared with me similar experiences from their world. To this day, most people I ask say they don’t enjoy professional development and see it as a necessary evil imposed upon them by their leaders.

We Can Do Better

In the third part of our “Growth-Mindset Workplace” series, we’re going to focus on how we can build upon our understanding of growth mindset to improve our training and development programs. Effective professional development should do more than meet some kind of requirement; it should empower those we lead, foster more purposeful involvement and investment within our companies, and motivate participants to continue their development long after formal training has ended. To that end, we’re going to take a brief look at some pedagogical theories that, while originally conceived to improve secondary and higher education outcomes, provide equally valuable strategies for use in workplace training.

Training and Development in the Workplace

Despite often being lamented by employees, professional development remains an important and integral part of successful organizations, and rightly so. Most companies offer some form of PD via monetary support for conferences, external workshops, retreats, and summits, while larger ones tend to hire learning and development specialists to provide internal training and oversee outside opportunities. Still, some of the largest devote entire branches to professional development programming, like AT&T University, Deloitte University, and other leading large-scale companies.

Check out Monster’s “10 Companies with Awesome Training and Development Programs” for more examples.

In working with businesses like Nissan, DCI-Artform, Deloitte, as well as various universities, I’ve come to know some of the leaders in these kinds of programs. All whom I’ve met are well-versed in educational theory and share a sincere passion for providing meaningful programs that lead to sustainable and long-term improvements for both employees and their companies. One such person, Bob Tweedie, a senior learning manager at a leading professional firm, has devoted much time and energy to researching ways that leaders can positively influence the effectiveness of training and development programs. “Learning professionals face increasing pressure from business leaders to maximize the effectiveness of their programs and enhance employee performance,” Tweedie says.

At the same time, he points out, studies show that “as little as ten percent of training expenditure results in effective behavioral changes on the job.” We can’t put the entirety of that weight on learning professionals, though. Some of the burden for moving that needle must be accepted by leaders themselves, and Tweedie’s research points to specific pre-training processes that can aid in doing just that. We will examine those ideas more toward the end, but what about the training itself? What role should leaders should leaders take when it comes to the content and teaching methodology associated with professional development training?

First, leaders should acquire at least a basic understanding of what constitutes effective pedagogy. Secondly, informed by that knowledge, leaders should seek to hire training professionals or implement training programs that embody these same values when it comes to the learning process. There’s more to it than that, of course, but in our limited space here, let’s at least dig a little into helping with the first of those suggestions: acquiring a basic knowledge of what constitutes effective pedagogy, and at the end I’ll offer some suggestions about how to go about working on the latter.

The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Ten years or so before Pink Floyd would release The Wall (1979), and, along with it, their famous critique of public education via the song popularly known as “We Don’t Need No Education,” a Brazilian educationalist, Paulo Freire, published a controversial and long-lasting influential work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I won’t spend time delineating the reasons for the controversy, especially on the political side of his philosophy, as that has little to do with our purpose here, but you can read more about it via this link, if you like. Most important to our conversation, however, is the influence this work had on debates in the 60’s and 70’s surrounding traditional teaching methodologies, especially as it concerned the epistemological relationship between teachers and their students, which Freire fought to renegotiate. In short, Freire argued that unless students were active participants (i.e., co-creators of knowledge) in the classroom, then the instruction ultimately oppressed the student’s creativity, development, and freedom.

For example, Friere argues that the absence of dialogue in traditional approaches to teaching enables learning to function as “exercise of domination,” and he describes this oppressive model of teaching as “banking education.” In banking education, teachers view students as empty vessels, waiting to be filled with their superior knowledge. Traditional education, Freire argues, treats teaching as “an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.” The teacher, often through lectures, provides the information, and students “receive, memorize, and repeat.” I think we can agree that such a model offers little in the way of creativity or critical thought.

Banking Education vs. Problem-Posing Education

In his description of this unproductive methodology, Freire offers an extensive—but surely not exhaustive—list of practices and attitudes associated with those who embrace this pedagogy. See if any of these sound familiar.

In banking education,

  • the teacher teaches and the students are taught.

  • the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing.

  • the teacher thinks and the students are thought about.

  • the teacher talks and the students listen-meekly.

  • the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined.

  • the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply.

  • the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher.

  • the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who are not consulted) adapt to it.

  • the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his own professional authority, which he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students.

  • the teacher is the “subject” of the learning process, while the pupils are mere “objects.”

Freire offers us a better model that he refers to as “a problem-posing education,” which differentiates itself in four distinct ways:

  • While banking education operates by “mythicizing reality” (i.e., keeping certain knowledge hidden to generate more dependence on the teacher), problem-posing education works to demythologize it. It does not seek to treat the teacher as a “priest of knowledge” with privileged information students can’t access.

  • While banking education demands compliance and acceptance, problem-posing education seeks to create critical thinkers. “Banking education,” Freire argues, “treats students as objects of assistance [never resistance],” but “problem-posing education makes them critical thinkers.” In this kind of environment, the instructor invites scrutiny of the material being taught, never shying away from questions or challenges that seek to test their position.

  • Whereas banking education “inhibits creativity,” Freire’s model thrives on it. Such creativity can easily be seen in the presentational style common to problem-based pedagogy. If you popped in on a training and development workshop built on this model, you would find participants active much of the time—discussing, creating, and problem-solving together. You would not observe them just sitting, listening to someone talk at them for long periods of time.

  • While banking education sees the act of learning as an independent action, problem-posing education functions cooperatively. Freire argues that traditional pedagogy maintains that humans exist as abstract, isolated, and independent learners, “unattached to the world,” but “education as a practice of freedom” encourages us to learn in concert with each other.

At this point, you might be pondering the connection between Freire’s proposed educational practices and our discussion on growth vs. fixed mindsets. The relationship is subtle, but powerful. Let’s assume that as a leader you’ve adopted a growth mindset and want to your employees to do the same. You give them permission to fail (see Part 1), and you encourage interdisciplinary approaches and reflective practices that lead to a deeper appreciation for skills sets outside their own (see Part II). That’s a great start, but if the training and development programs you offer them do not embody these same principles, then you risk undercutting the authenticity of your devotion for creating a workplace that encourages a growth mindset. If we truly believe in the ability of those we lead to grow and develop in meaningful and purposeful ways, then the training and development opportunities we offer must connect to those same principles. To that end, let’s take a look at a few key steps we can take to ensure that our educational programs seek to actively engage participants in the learning process in the manner Freire outlines above.

  • Think critically about the content of the training your offer, and demonstrate thoughtfulness toward the choices you make. For example, you might survey your employees to see what areas they think they need training in and why, and allow that information to inform your choices.

  • Don’t be merely content-driven in your exploration of professional development opportunities, however. Avoid training programs that operate merely as a “data dump.” In other words, don’t sentence your employees to “Death by PowerPoint” style training sessions. No one deserves that. Look as carefully at the teaching practices of those leading the training as at what they teach. Look for teachers and trainers who demonstrate an awareness—and put an emphasis on—their teaching methodology.

  • Familiarize yourself and look for ways internal and external training can embrace a cooperative learning model. Read more about that here:

  • Create a “Pre-Training” process to enhance motivation during the training process. Bob Tweedie’s research on this topic shows that when supervisors took time before a specific training to discuss its significance, benefits, and process, employees demonstrated a marked increase in motivation, during and after the training. Also, he points to the importance of supervisors setting clear expectations “about the rewards of application of the content and potential desired outcomes” in advance of the training.

  • As with the pre-training process, develop a post-training reflective process as well. Move beyond the traditional, individual evaluation method most use. Try including a group feedback session that encourages honest dialogue both on the content and delivery of the training.

  • If your organization is lucky enough to have training and development experts on staff, spend time getting to know them and their areas of expertise, and make sure they know your priorities when it comes to this area.

  • Finally, when it comes to training and development programs, follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Put yourself in your employees’ shoes, and let that perspective inform your choices. For example, if you wouldn’t like sitting in an all-day training session being lectured to on a topic you had no hand in choosing, don’t make your employees do it. If you are trying out new training at your company, sit through it yourself first to see if you find it engaging and worthwhile.

The above list represents just a few ways leaders, advisors, trainers, coaches, and managers can more critically engage their professional development programs. I’m sure you can come up with more. What’s most important, however, is to remember that at the core of Freire’s critique of traditional education practices is its habit of treating students are disengaged, passive “objects” in the learning process. Our goal here should be to provide training that treats employees with the respect and credibility they deserve, seeks to draw upon their existing knowledge base, and actively engages them in the learning process. Along the way, it won’t hurt if such programs also turn out to be fun, right?

Rod C. Taylor, Ph.D., is the President and CEO of Performance Learning Concepts, a development and training company, and a fellow at the d. school in Paris France. He is an award-winning educator, scholar, author, keynote speaker, and professional musician who has been active in teaching, writing, technology, and music for over twenty years. Through PLC, he offers energetic, interactive training and development programs on communication, leadership, creativity and innovation, and the arts, and his dynamic form of teaching actively engages participants in the learning process. PLC’s clients include large-scale businesses like Nissan North American, Deloitte Global, and DCI-Artform, as well as universities like Stanford, Lispcomb University Graduate School of Business, and Colorado State University. Before founding PLC, Rod taught at Stanford, Indiana University, and the Honors College at Tennessee State University. He currently lives in Nashville, TN. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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