“Teach a man to fish…”

There is an old expression that goes,

“Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day; Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

I always loved that saying.

The idea here is that while performing a service for a person is helpful, it is even more helpful to teach a person so that he can perform the same service for himself. The first is a one-off gift, while the second is an ongoing gift, because the recipient’s capabilities are expanded for as long as he uses and maintains the skills. Rather than a one-off benefit, there is a relatively permanent, stable expansion of the person’s potential. There is also a corresponding expansion of the person’s autonomy and self-sufficiency. This is the beauty of teaching and training, the reward of it – to help others grow through learning.

This is why many of us got into the fields of education, teaching, and training in the first place.

I was reflecting on this idea of “teaching people to fish,” when the thought occurred to me: Can this same idea be applied to teaching and training itself? After all, teaching and training are themselves skills, and we ourselves, as learning professionals (or many of us, anyway) went to school to formally study these skills.

As teachers, as training designers and developers, we win our daily bread by helping subject matter experts translate their knowledge and skills into a form through which learners can effectively and efficiently assimilate those same skills and knowledge. We occupy a strange position between expert and learner, not necessarily experts ourselves, but midwives of sorts, helping birth something of that expertise to a new audience.

But what if, instead of helping in a one-off fashion like this, we instead focused more of our efforts on helping to spread our own expertise in needs analysis, instructional design, training material development. Let’s not misunderstand here; we ourselves have a certain legitimate expertise, and it takes time and effort to properly develop. It’s not something that can just be transmitted instantly to others. There’s room in this world for specialization and division of labor; no one has time to do everything. But what I’m saying is that if we believe in the power of our field of expertise, we should want to diffuse that expertise more widely. And we all know that often a few simple modifications to a lesson or style of delivery can make a world of difference.

There has been a big shift in recent years toward more informal modes of learning. Research indicates that people do most of their learning informally. Mostly, people learn, not by signing up for a formal course, but through less formal means: by searching online resources, asking questions on a web forum,  going on an FAQ, as well as asking friends, family, teammates, coworkers, and fellow members of communities of practice. How many interactions do people have in a given week that involve explaining something to someone else, teaching something? Everyone has times when there is a need to put on the hat of teacher / trainer, whether at home, at work, or at play.

More and more of this will happen as network and communication technology makes it easier to directly connect people that have questions with people that have answers. How much more effective and efficient can this be if across this mass of people is diffused even some basics about teaching and training? What if we were able, as a community of learning professionals, to disseminate enough of what we know to raise the effectiveness of the average learning conversation by even 5%? It really doesn’t take much; quality is probably more important than quantity here. Spread a few key basic principles and best practices widely over time, and give people a chance to practice so that they take it to heart. Overall, cumulatively, it adds up to a large return on investment.

So the question becomes, how can we do this?

What sorts of basic principles and practices should we focus on diffusing widely to the population?

What are the key bullet point takeaways?

What sorts of technology/media should we use for this purpose?

How can we evaluate the effectiveness of our efforts and recalibrate efforts on the fly accordingly?