Employee Training: The Power Of Facilitating Learning

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Allen Summers

Say the words safety training and sooner or later what you’ll hear next is a comparison equivalent to watching paint dry. Day-long training sessions with 4-inch binders and delivered by Mr. Monotone have taken their toll on participants over the years.

Early in my career, I was exposed to some exceptional training that left quite an impression. In fact, the little old lady chasing me away from the mock spill scenario with a cane was completely unexpected and served its purpose of facilitating the learning process quite well. I’ve never forgotten that experience or the lesson learned that day. It was the first time I stopped to consider the difference between training and facilitating learning.  

The facts and skills associated with the typical training experience are of little use without understanding. The process of facilitating learning exercises the participant’s existing capacity to reflect on the problems they have encountered and engages them to apply their knowledge and skills to find workable solutions. Our experience has shown the best learning experiences come when we immerse the participant in an environment that is as close to real life as possible. When it comes to teaching the four-day Emergency Response to Agricultural Incidents course, participants are practically entertained by the real-life equipment and the wide range of spill/release scenarios based on actual incidents we have been involved with over the years. The course builds both in intensity and complexity over the four days. Participants love it because they are eager to see what is in store for them next. It’s obvious to both the participant and their employer when the learning experience is relevant and presented in a meaningful context, because a greater understanding is achieved and more importantly, retained.

An Agricultural Background

Being raised on a farm, I genuinely enjoy the agricultural industry, especially the people. By nature they are much like MacGyver, the talented TV star from the 1980s who, when given a pack of chewing gum, a roll of duct tape and two clothes pins, could repair a 747 airplane while in flight. This kind of unique skillset is what drives the need for hands-on learning experiences and makes participants receptive to opening their minds and willing to learn new things. Overall, the participants we interact with are mechanically-inclined and possess a very high level of problem-solving skills. While this can challenge non-ag instructors, it proves beneficial when participants are immersed in a hands-on environment rich in equipment, scenarios and other visuals.  

There are several ingredients to facilitating learning, but perhaps the most important is the lead instructor. It is absolutely essential the instructor has the experience of “been there-done it” over a respected number of years. Anything less isn’t credible and results in run-of-the-mill training. Delivering a high quality learning experience consistently, especially over a four-day class, requires passion and a certain charisma, not to mention stamina.

When it comes to scenarios and equipment, we’ve all heard about the training held in the parking lot at a hotel. You know the one where a 55-gallon drum with a hole in it is turned over creating a mock spill. I suppose it’s better than no training at all, but it’s not what we’re talking about when we describe the process of facilitating learning. One key to effectively facilitating the learning process, is having the right equipment available, in sufficient quantities, that is specifically designed to illustrate and support the points being made. This is critical to delivering a high quality experience, but often shorted due to the cost of the equipment. It’s also an important element to immersing the participant in a realistic environment.

We’ve responded to the needs of ag in building five hands-on courses. With the launch of the new grain course later this summer in Bloomington, IL, we will have invested more than $1 million over the past decade in scenario equipment, training props and related equipment.

The First Of Their Kind

Four of the five courses are the first of their kind to be offered in the U.S. In the case of the Ammonia Technician Course, a client approached us and asked that we develop a course specifically for the personnel responsible for the mechanical integrity of the equipment used to store, transport and apply anhydrous ammonia. There are any number of courses that teach product safety and transfer procedures, but none that met the description of the client’s request. In talking with the client, it became obvious that part of the issue is the information on how to properly maintain ammonia equipment isn’t being passed down from one generation to the next effectively. There seems to be the older, more experienced personnel that typically has 20 to 30 years experience with the product and equipment. This generation of workers is naturally aging and retiring, while the new younger generation entering the workplace doesn’t have the experience the desire to work with ammonia. This generational difference is essentially what precipitated the need for the new course. One year and $220,000 later, the Ammonia Technician Course was launched to sold-out classes.  

You don’t have to be down on the farm long these days to figure out that technology, especially that used in the spray application of crop protection products, has advanced at a rapid pace over the past decade. We were asked to bring back the old Professional Applicator Training with current new equipment, and an added emphasis on spray technology — especially nozzle and controller equipment. This course made its debut in November 2011 and there are 36 classes scheduled around the U.S. for 2012.

An important part of facilitating learning is monitoring and measuring the end result. In every course, we utilize evaluation sheets and require the participant to complete and hand them in at the end of the course. Participants are prompted for new ideas they would like to see or that would improve the course in the future. This has been an important part of our program since the beginning and I never get tired of reading the comments. Some of the best ideas come from participants feedback.

We’re excited about expanding the number and scope of real life training opportunities over the next decade. Education literally means “to lead forth,” but most instructors want to “pass on,” information which encourages “surface learning” of facts or the performance of narrow skillsets. I hope you will consider the switch from just training to actually facilitating the learning process.   

Summers is president of The Asmark Institute.

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