Career development

Effective Professional Development: Can You Teach What You Learned?

Teaching others is an effective way to learn. You may find out that there are things that you didn’t know you didn’t know.

Skill Set
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When I was 29, my manager assigned me to write the initial draft of a Tubulars Design Manual for the corporation. Then, as a throw-away line at the end of the kick-off meeting, he added that for the next 6 months, he expected me to present lectures on casing and tubing design at the company’s training center.

I expressed some concern that, at that point, I might not know enough to present even pre-existing lecture materials and/or have as much experience with this topic as some of the people attending these courses. His response to this was: “Ah, but you will after the first few attempts! There is no better way of learning about something than having to share not only what you know, but also what you are in the process of learning with your peers. By the way, I am sure you’ll find lots of stuff that merits upgrading, but focus your energy and time on improving the in-class exercises, rather than the lecture materials The attendees will learn more form doing something rather than listening to you.”

This was my first introduction to the concept of “Learning Pyramid.” The concept was developed in the 1960s at the US National Training Laboratories Institute of Applied Behavioural Sciences and the study suggested that we retain only 5% of what we hear in lectures. While there are criticisms about the model by educationists, and the original internal research work for the study is lost in time, the basic idea presented by the model that we learn better by doing than just listening still holds true (Mathers 2020).

Most of us are subconsciously aware of the upper part of the pyramid from our experience at high school and university. I certainly knew that making notes greatly helped in learning new concepts and remembering the materials that were presented in lectures in sufficient detail to do well in the exams. So, I should probably have recognized the benefits of doing example calculations as integral component of understanding the fundamentals and testing which problem-solving techniques work best my way of thinking about things. Nevertheless, I had always assumed that learning was a highly personal process, completely ignoring the benefits of discussions and collaboration.

When I tell participants of my short courses that they will only remember 5–10% of what has just been presented, it is almost guaranteed to create general amusement. Moreover, many are surprised to hear that I like to schedule discussion of the topic after a break. But over the years, I have discovered that the best, most perceptive and challenging questions are generally posed during or after a break, rather than during or at the end of a lecture.

In any event, if you are considering a stint in a specialist function or are working as a consultant, you will need to learn how to design and perform a presentation, as well as doing the real thing—learning a skill by doing that type of work, which is the basis of most continual professional development reporting programs. Unless you are a totally intimidated by speaking to a group of your peers, I’d highly recommend that you seriously consider teaching a course, maybe through SPE, or try mentoring a colleague. You’ll learn that there are a lot of things that you didn’t know that you didn’t know. Moreover, you will learn the topic very effectively.

Throughout my consulting career, I dedicated 15–30% of my time every year to training or to the development of training materials, even though training was a loss-leader for the company. It was a great way to sharpen and upgrade my skills and to keep abreast of the key issues faced by the operating companies and the solutions being proposed by the service sector.

Despite being familiar with the learning pyramid, I had to repeatedly relearn the initial lesson that while some lecture time is required to set the scene and introduce new concepts, in the final analysis the discussions and collaborative assignments are much more important.

Videos or physical demonstrations can help us retain about 50% of what we both see and hear. Models of the tools or the reservoir, performance simulators, site visit, and geological field courses are even better.

However, demonstrations don’t work in introducing new software. They are generally boring, oversimplified, or pre-canned in a way that masks the tool’s limitations. However, one can learn a lot very quickly from a hands-on applications workshop, especially by collaborating with 1 or 2 others. This allows us to

  • Take turns in manipulating the icons, screens, keyboard, or mouse
  • Discuss the challenges of making a new tool do what we want it to do
  • Absorb the learnings and to think about and discuss the assignment and the potential application areas for the software in our day jobs

It is not so much that many of us turn-off our cognitive powers when we turn on the computer, but we tend to be distracted by the challenges of data management and organizing the output.

I still find it very interesting that we retain much more when we work collaboratively in defining, analyzing, and solving a problem or in evaluating a data set. The best instructors help us to think by perfecting the skill of answering a specific question with another open-ended question to provoke further discussion within the small work group, and by making the time and effort to draw the introverts into this discussion.

If you are asked whether you would consider presenting at a training centre or simply to show others in your team, company, or an SPE section how to do or analyze something, I recommend that you

  • Jump at the opportunity. You will learn a lot along the way
  • Take the time to ensure that the audio visuals are effective by including video
  • Leave plenty of time for questions and be prepared to provoke a discussion if no questions are forthcoming
  • Develop some collaborative exercises or break-out sessions
  • Capture the lessons learned during each presentation in order to continually improve the product

In the final analysis, we must also apply what we learn in a real-life application within a short period of time, knowing that our first attempts will likely not go so well. Professional development is no different from learning how to ride a bike or drive a car. Having an expert or consultant do it for us just teaches us to be good project managers.

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