When Less is More....

10th Mar 2014

During my recent visit to Finland one of the local guides I was working with taught me how to make a snow shelter Finnish style.  I learnt lots of new ideas, even though in the whole procedure he didn't say more than about 20 words.  The shelter was easily the best I've ever built and it struck me how easy it is for instructors to over complicate the way we present things when, as educators, we should really be striving for as simple an approach as possible......
I recently ran a mountain leader refresher day for a client and he admitted he was confused by some aspects of the rope work elements of the syllabus.  I asked him to demonstrate various things he had been shown during training and it was soon clear why he was mixing things up.  Despite no background in climbing he had been shown a host of knots and techniques that simply weren't required.  His trainer had either completely failed to take account of his background knowledge and the need for simplicity, or maybe he was trying to show off the extent of his own knowledge?
I listened to a trainee first aid trainer who shared endless anecdotes about first aid incidents he had been involved in, but completely failed to ensure the group had grasped the key skills they really needed to be taught.  Maybe the odd example of real life situations has a place in first aid training but this trainer was so keen to dazzle the group with his own experiences that the quality of his teaching suffered as a result.
I watched an instructor on a potential leader assessment demonstrate harness fitting to a group of children.  He gave them all a harness and started explaining what to do.  Within 30 seconds they were all completely switched off from his explanation because they had a harness in their hands and couldn't help trying to work out how to fit it themselves instead.  Maybe he should either have let them experiment without an explanation first or have explained before he handed out their harnesses.  In the end he mixed 2 delivery styles and the result was chaos.
A winter skills instructor was demonstrating a buried axe belay incorporating a bucket seat.  He spent at least 20 minutes showing the group the whole process including a range of options for tying in and how to operate a waist belay.  After all those steps he was surprised when they couldn't replicate his text book set up.  He wasn't remembering what it was like for a novice because the system had, after countless practices, become second nature to him.  Breaking each element of the complicated process down and getting the group to complete each part separately would have made far more sense.
When I learnt to roll a kayak the skill didn't come easily.  I'd worked with the same instructor for several pool sessions and yet I was consistently failing to get the final hip and paddle movements to pull off a successful roll.  I kept looking to the instructor for new ideas, but unfortunately he'd reached the bottom of his ideas barrel.  By a lucky chance there was another instructor with us the following week.  He watched what I did, moved to the bow of my boat and made a small adjustment to my paddle position.  Another handful of attempts and I had my first roll in the bag.  Clearly this instructor was drawing on his own understanding of the rolling process and had also seen countless other novices making the same mistake I was.  One simple change was all that was needed.
Another winter instructor shared some thoughts on snow pack analysis and part of his presentation included construction of a pit to look at layering.  His knowledge was excellent and he shared lots of relevant information with the participants, but having demonstrated a pit he then moved on without letting them embed the skill by constructing one for themselves.  This key part of their learning process was skipped.
A colleague was running a review session with a large group of 15 and 16 years old who had been working in small teams.  He wanted them to share their thoughts on what had and hadn't worked for their team with a particular activity.  He threw a series of questions at them and expected immediate and meaningful responses.  He was disappointed when their mumbled contributions were shallow and lacking substance.  Surely giving the students time to consider their responses would have given them the chance to come up with some more valuable contributions.  It was too complicated and too rushed.   
The end of my trip to Finland and the Finnair stewardess presenting the safety brief put the need for simplicity into perspective again.  She organised her resources on the seat next to her, took a deep breath and dived in to the presentation.  She had obviously been taught to deliver a series of steps that were honed down to the bare minimum but it got across the information required and her presentation was fluid and faultless.   I knew all I needed, I hadn't been shown any added fluff, and it had all only taken a couple of minutes.  
From now on I will be instructing like a Finnish guide and a Finnair stewardess - book your place :)
Posted by Paul