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Why Experts Make Lousy Teachers

April 4, 2019

Which direction is South?

Five of my kids and I were standing on the observation point in Kolob Canyon. It’s part of Zion National Park, but it’s unique because it is only accessible from an entrance off of I-15. However, even though you couldn’t get to the rest of the park from Kolob Canyon, you could certainly see the park. It was spread out in a majestic panorama.

My youngest son pointed and said,

It’s that way.

How do you know?

Because of the snow.


Well, the snow is only on one side of the ridges. That means the side of the ridge with no snow is South.

Yeah, I taught him that. The sun, especially in the winter is in the Southern portion of the sky. Even weak winter sun is enough to melt snow. If you look at a ridge and one side has snow and the other side doesn’t, the side without snow is facing South.

What other ways can you find South?

Looking at the sun?

Yeah, it’s not as effective, but this time of year, the sun is going to be more in the South. What about with a watch?

With a watch

You point the hour hand at the sun and half way between the hour hand and the 12 is South.

Or, with a compass

Or you could use a compass. Which shows that, yep, you were right. That is South.

Not all experts are bad teachers. Some experts can be quite good teachers. But, if they haven’t been trained, an expert makes a terrible teacher.

My favorite job during my time at Microsoft was as a trainer. Technically I was an instructional designer. And ID writes courseware. He (or she, we had some excellent women designers) also must be an excellent trainer.

Designing courseware can be a complicated process. It involves first identifying the objective domain. That is the objectives you are trying to meet by creating a course. Maybe you want to introduce the new features of a product. Maybe you want to teach how to read network traces. Maybe you want to teach how to resolve a software problem.

The point is, a course needs a purpose. Once you’ve identified the objective domain, you then have to actually create the course. There is text to write, typically a PowerPoint to display to the class, labs to create. Maybe an assessment. All of that takes time. It’s called the dev ratio, or development ratio.

A low dev ratio is 20:1. That would be acceptable for a simple course explaining a non-technical topic. A high dev ratio would be 60:1. That would typically be a programming course, with a lot of labs.

What that means is that a one day lecture course on the differences between eggshell-white and off-white would take a month to create. While a one day course on how to create a Java program that says, “Hello World” would take three months to create.

I’ve probably just lost a couple of you. Yes, THREE MONTHS to create a one-day programming course. And a month to create a one-day lecture.

That’s seems kind of high, don’t you think? So did our internal client at Microsoft. It’s eventually why my training org lost its contract with Microsoft support teams. They decided we were too expensive.

Why does it take you so long to create a simple course?

It’s called a dev ratio. It means. . .

Look, we have agents like Bob who, with a half day off the phones, could produce just the same course and it would even been more technical than yours are.

Bob is an expert then?


That’s the problem.

The power of an instructional designer is his ability to create content for a subject of which he is not an expert. She will be an expert by the time the course is created. But, in the beginning he’s not an expert.

Bob, from support could teach a course. He might even be good at it. But, it will be Bob’s course. It will be a course that he alone can teach. When an instructional designer creates a course, anyone can teach it. Not only an expert.

Over the years I’ve taught my sons, and daughters, but mostly my sons, things about the outdoors. The most important lesson is that in the desert, water is life. I’ve taught them that clean socks are the difference between a comfortable night’s sleep and a miserable one.

I’ve also taught them about finding directions. Like, how the snow melts on the South face first. But, much of what I’ve taught them, I don’t even think about. When we stood on the precipice overlooking the expanse that is Zion’s National Park, I wasn’t thinking that I needed to be prepared to teach my kids about directions. It’s just what I take with me whenever I travel in the wilderness, even for a short mile hike along a well travelled path.

I carry a pocketwatch with me always. Not just in case I need to find directions from the sun. I carry a very sharp pocket knife. I use it at least a dozen times per day. When I’m in the wilderness I wear a bracelet, pictured above. It has a compass, whistle, flint and steel, and 50 feet of paracord. I carry two liters of water in a shoulder harness. I also carry a walking stick that has an emergency whistle, compass and small magnifying glass.

While I consider myself a good teacher, I also consider myself an expert in the outdoors. And cautious. After all, I didn’t have a single compass. I had two.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.

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