Wednesday 29 January 2014

Learner-Learner Interaction

I went on Adele Graham's Train the Trainers course last week, which started with an activity called "fears in the box". We were prompted to list any fears and worries we had about being in a training role and to circle our biggest concern. Each person wrote their name on the back of their list and posted it in a box at the front of the room. At the end of our training our fears were returned to us. We were asked to strike from the list any that had been addressed, then pick one lesson to share with the class.

One of the things I had written was "I have to keep remembering not to just tell them". What I meant by this is that I struggle to not respond to direct questions with an answer. In a training environment the trainer must encourage participants to think for themselves. There is no impetus for critical thinking where the answers are given readily. As a trainer I have to keep reminding myself that a question is not a loop to close, but rather an opportunity to encourage further learning.

Adele had addressed this fear by teaching us activities that facilitate learning rather than dictate it. But she went further by introducing me to a simple teaching principle that fundamentally altered my view of my responsibilities as a trainer. Being prudent with direct answers is not enough. I should also strive not to be the sole point of expertise in my classroom.

There are three types of interaction necessary for effective learning; learner-instructor, learner-content and learner-learner [1]. The first two were already part of my training room; the communication between teacher and student is present in any classroom and our exercise-driven training material is designed so that students engage intellectually with our content. But learner-learner interaction was a revelation.

Learner-learner interaction is the "communication between and among peers with or without the teacher present" [1]. By adding this layer of interaction you change the interactive topography of your classroom. Traditionally the teacher is considered the sole source of truth, which creates a centralised network of communication where dialog flows between the teacher and each individual learner. The learner-learner environment acknowledges the presence of other experts in the room, changing the dynamic to a fully connected network in which students interact with and learn from both the teacher and one another.


Learning about learner-learner interaction was a freeing experience. I had previously felt that all teaching in my classroom was my responsibility. It was nerve-wracking to stand in front of adult students with years of experience and shoulder the burden of expertise alone. Now I understand how I can recognise knowledge in the room and facilitate learner-learner interaction to supplement and enhance my teaching. I have strategies to identify the strengths of my students and activities that control the delivery of student contributions.

Fortunately I was in the classroom this week, putting what I learned into immediate practice. I was teaching to a class of ten graduates from a wide variety of subject disciplines. The material included a practical technical exercise to introduce performance testing. Limited computer hardware meant that the students had to work in pairs.

To start the session I asked the students to stand in a line up. I labeled one side of the room "I know nothing about performance testing" and the opposite "I can confidently explain performance testing and have experience in it". The students were instructed to identify their place in the line between these points and stand in it. The majority of the group stood in the middle of the room, reflecting a basic understanding of performance testing but no practical experience. However, there were two confident Computer Science graduates and two uncertain Arts graduates at the outer edges.

I used this activity to pair the group for the exercise. I took one person from each end of the line to form a pair. This meant that those who identified themselves as experts were paired with those who felt they had no prior knowledge. As the students took their seats I instructed that the member of the pair who was closer to the end of the line that knew "nothing" should use the mouse and keyboard, with the other person assisting.

During the exercise I was really pleased to observe how well the pairs worked. The exercise provided a basic starting point then a set of goals to drive independent learning. By pairing the outliers the ability of each couple was roughly equal; the pairs progressed through the independent portion at a similar pace.

By recognising the knowledge in the room, I was able to utilise it. My time as an instructor was mostly spent with those pairings from the middle of the line up. The two students who self-identified as requiring the most assistance had personalised instruction from their peers. Facilitating learner-learner interaction made my job as a trainer much easier, without compromising learning. I'm looking forward to applying more of Adele's material in future.

[1] Moore, M. (1989). Three types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6. via wikipedia

Tuesday 14 January 2014

Through the looking glass

I created some training material late last year that has since been adopted by my colleagues and tailored to their style. Today was the first time I heard it presented back to me; the same and yet significantly improved. It was a really interesting experience.

As a presenter, you're often working in an overloaded state. You try to maintain a confident persona, while attempting to remember what comes next in your presentation slide deck, and monitoring your listeners for signs of boredom. You adopt selective attention to filter aspects of the challenging environment.

When you sit in a classroom as an observer, your perspective is entirely different. Without the pressure of public speaking, your mind has space to see and to think.

After watching my colleague today, I could see that the underlying structure of the material I had given him was not as good as it could be. The independent exercise was failing because the presentation assumed a higher level of prior knowledge than was warranted. We were drowning our students rather than leading them slowly in to deep water.

This insight was not at all clear to me when I was the person presenting the material. I had felt that something wasn't right; the material wasn't flowing smoothly and it was difficult to generate enthusiasm in the class. But I had no opportunity to step back and work out the root cause of the problem; my thoughts were instinctive not conscious.

And, importantly, I hadn't had this feedback from observers of the original presentation. Though I had valuable pointers on how and what I was presenting, it was mostly trivial or cosmetic. Giving blunt and far-reaching feedback without ownership of the material is a daunting task. It was great to go through the looking glass to offer feedback on my own work.

This is likely to have been an exceptional case; I can't imagine I will often find another person who can or will want to present my material back to me. But it was an incredibly enlightening experience that felt like something between pair testing and rubber duck debugging. I had all the benefits of watching a version of my presentation on video without the horrific awkwardness of hearing myself speak (nothing worse than listening to your own voice).

Have other people tried this?

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Bold Goals

I was asked some very good questions at work today. They were the kind of questions that really got my brain going. I thought I would share them here in case they activate thinking for anyone else.

What is your bold goal for 2014? 

Not one of the goals you trot out with ease when prompted, but rather the one that feels like a stretch. Something daring and brave; the thing that you don't really want to voice because there's a risk you won't achieve it. Share it with someone you trust to change it from a dream to a possibility.

What is your biggest challenge for 2014? 

When I think about my challenges, I often focus on my frustrations. Paying so much attention to noise can be counter-productive. What's your biggest challenge? Identify it, then focus your fight on the general and not his soldiers.

What's your first action to make 2014 what you want it to be?

Trite but true, a journey starting with a single step. You know where you want to go and you've identified the biggest thing standing in your way. What's the first thing you need to do? Make it a priority. Steadfastly completing the pieces can turn our boldest and biggest in to everyday.

Three simple questions that gave shape and direction to my year.

Thursday 2 January 2014

Training Witches

It's holiday season in New Zealand. In the past week I have been reading the Modern Witch novels. There are seven books in the series that each tell a story of a new witch, from their discovery to independent practice. The process that is used to train each witch is consistent across the novels and has interesting parallels to software testing.

A practical evaluation of skill

The first step when encountering a new witch is to evaluate their skills. A healer scans the witch to determine the type of power they possess, then a witch with the same type of power conducts a practical evaluation of their skill in a controlled environment. There are parallels to a job interview where a person from human resources scans a CV to determine which role an applicant is most suited to then calls on someone from an appropriate department to conduct an interview.

I think the witches are ahead of us in what the interview contains. In every case the new witch is asked to demonstrate their skill. In my experience a software testing interview is a conversation to assess personality. A skilled interviewer may be able to extrapolate testing skill based on the responses of the applicant, but rarely is a practical demonstration requested that would confirm their suspicions. In many cases, the first time a new tester will actually test a piece of software is in paid employment.

When we skip a practical demonstration we are guessing what the practical skills of our new testers are based on the way they present themselves.

Apprenticeship training

After evaluation the new witch is assigned a trainer with the same type of power. The trainer teaches by demonstration; knowledge is transferred verbally and not by written word. The new witch sees the spell executed successfully before attempting to replicate it. They question what they observe and have a safe environment for failure in their own efforts. Witchcraft is taught via apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships give a new generation of practitioners competency in a set of basic skills. They are prevalent in manual trades but seem largely ignored in white collar work. This type of mentored learning would allow us to teach software testing in the workplace within a formal and acknowledged relationship. It gives the apprentice permission to seek, question and learn. It gives the trainer permission to guide, review and suggest.

When the practical education of a new tester is not prioritised and owned by an individual trainer the education path becomes varied. Though this is not universally bad, those who are impressionable may take a wrong turn. In the absence of personal assistance the learner may seek out textbooks and certifications to support their journey, which will have variable quality. Those who are trained by a team may miss core competencies as knowledge arrives from multiple sources. The potential of a new tester may not be realised.

A training circle

New witches work in a training circle to protect the environment from the power of the witch. The circle allows the new witch to experiment freely, failure is contained within its boundaries. 

A test environment is intended to be a place for the tester to experiment freely, but how much freedom do you feel? Often testers within these environments are still constrained; by limitations of our test data, by vulnerable links to third party systems, or by a single environment supporting a test team. To exercise our testing skills without fear we need a dedicated bubble in which to operate.

I think these fictional witches have a training path that we should strive for in software testing. What do you think?