Training in the 21st Century: From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side

July 01, 2014
July/August 2014
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2014 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Imagine you have just walked into the classroom. Right now the teacher is standing at the front, explaining some of the finer details of the second law of thermodynamics. The students are sitting at tables, listening intently (or looking a bit lost), taking notes. One student raises his hand and asks the instructor to clarify a point he did not understand.

This particular class is taking place in 1914, not 2014. And yet I bet you could recognize this same scene if you went into many of the classes where building science is taught today. And what’s the big problem? Since 1914 we’ve had the invention of television, the Internet, mobile devices, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and more. So, given all this change, why are we still teaching like it’s the 20th century? Why haven’t our educational models caught up to the 21st century? Why are we all still listening to an instructor tell us how it is, while he or she hands out training materials and expects us to memorize details in the same way we did in the last century?

Amanda Hatherly
is the director of the New Mexico Energy$mart Academy at Santa Fe Community College, where she teaches BPI, RESNET, and Healthy Homes classes. She is the principle investigator on a National Science Foundation grant to create online building science games.


Times They Are A-Changing

At least in 1914 we had strong apprenticeship models. The scene we played out at that time was most likely taking place in an academic setting, while so much more learning went on through the relationship of the master (builder, welder, and so on) and the apprentice preparing to enter a trade. Given that, it’s even weirder to expect energy auditors and others working in the home energy field to be doing so much of their teaching and learning in a text-based, old-style classroom-based environment.

Students at Santa Fe Community College exploring how an insulation machine works. (New Mexico Energy$mart Academy at Santa Fe Community College)

New Mexico Energy$mart Academy at Santa Fe Community College

Getting hands-on with a blower door. (New Mexico Energy$mart Academy at Santa Fe Community College)

A Day in the Life of Learning


Peer-to-peer learning—figuring out how to program a manometer together. (New Mexico Energy$mart Academy at Santa Fe Community College)

Students at Santa Fe Community College taking a break to discuss a problem. (New Mexico Energy$mart Academy at Santa Fe Community College)

There are a lot of great hands-on training centers out there. I guarantee you, though, that in nearly all of those fine places, students are still spending part of their time in this traditional classroom-style mode of learning. Why are we still fixated on this type of training method?

I think we still tend to teach in the old-fashioned way because it is the type of teaching and learning environment that most trainers themselves learned in and feel comfortable with. They enjoy being the Sage on the Stage, expounding and explaining their hard-earned knowledge. But most trainers know that they have learned a lot more about their subject by teaching it than they learned when they were in class listening to someone else teach.

Learning theory has advanced enormously since the start of the last century, when we were training people for an industrial economy. Workers then needed to be able to take direction, fit into the system, and stay focused on their particular job. Back then, we created an educational model to fit that style of world. Now, however, we are in a century where more information than we would ever need is available in everyone’s pockets; the top ten in-demand jobs last year didn’t even exist in 2004; and people need to be flexible, creative problem solvers who know how and where to find information, not just how to regurgitate it.

Wouldn’t you expect a doctor to know something about the theory of medicine? Well, we have many instructors who have never been exposed to the theory of how people learn, so it’s no wonder so many of us teach as we were taught.

A New Model for Teaching: Guide on the Side

We now know that people learn effectively when they construct their own learning, rather than being told about it. The instructor moves off the stage and becomes the Guide on the Side. How can this be done in a typical class? Don’t the students need to learn a certain amount of subject material, and isn’t that best done with a PowerPoint and a teacher explaining it? Well, one thing some instructors are doing is flipping their classroom. This means taking the information that they cover with the students sitting passively and recording it in short bite-sized videos that the students can watch on their own. There are many great resources to help you do this. Some of them are listed at the end of this article. These resources can be posted on YouTube, Vimeo, or your web site, and instead of sitting in class listening to you talk, students can access them anywhere, at their convenience. And often you don’t even need to learn to record videos—there are great ones already available online, from places such as Weatherization TV, Southface, Building Media, Incorporated, and more.

That way, when students are in class, they can spend their time more productively—discussing questions, working with their peers, or learning in the field. No more blank, bored faces staring up at you as you talk. This also means that students don’t need to spend as much time in class, enabling you to keep your class fees more competitive and attract students who cannot take too much time off work. (See “A Day in the Life of Learning” for specific examples on being a Guide on the Side.)

Or how about even more of a flip: Have your students record audit steps, for example, at home using their smart phones, and then share them in class with their fellow students. Or in class they can pair up and make mock documentaries about what they are learning, which can then be shared and critiqued in the time that they would otherwise be spending watching you tell them how to do it.

And that’s another way that people learn well—in social settings. Learning is a social experience. Students will usually learn better from their peers than from you, while they make mistakes and correct each other. Giving them the time and space to work with each other rather than showing them how you do something makes for a better learning experience.

Why are we still listening to an instructor tell us how it is, while he or she hands out training materials and expects us to memorize details in the same way we did in the last century?

Students are also connecting with each other online socially, so why not encourage them to connect with their peers professionally? There are many well-known people from the industry on Twitter and Facebook; there are groups such as those on LinkedIn and Home Energy Pros. Home Energy magazine itself is a wonderful resource for them to know about. Encourage them as part of their classwork to go online and find answers to questions you pose—either researching informational web sites or asking others. That way, once they have left your class, they have the networks and resources to continue their learning. The model of the all-knowledgeable teacher is not necessary in this always-connected world.

Think of the debate going on in the industry right now around ventilation. What textbook or instructor can provide a better, more current view of the various ideas involved than blogs like Green Building Advisor or Energy Vanguard do, with their direct interviews with the key players and the back and forth that goes on in the comments. Encourage your students to read them and even get involved in the discussion themselves.

Learning from Games

Think about how engaged you feel when you are playing a good game. The sense of involvement and participation you feel, the challenge, and the fun. Well, trainers are now using games in classes and online to engage their students. From simple Jeopardy and polling games to more complex simulations such as Intercaz, Energy 2-D, or Second Life, these provide students with another way to engage in their learning experience. Santa Fe Community College and the Concord Consortium are creating an online simulation game (SimBuilding) exploring building science concepts. This should be available in the few years. Some of the concepts students need to grasp in building science are difficult, as they are either on the macro or micro scale. Houses operate over long periods of time, through different seasons. And it's hard to imagine water vapor movement inside walls. SimBuilding will use innovative simulations so students can interact with the building in these macro and micro worlds in a game-like environment. Expect more and more of these types of training tools to become available in the coming years. Well-done simulations and games have proven to be excellent vehicles for learning.

But I’m Old-Fashioned!

You may be thinking that you’re not that good with technology. Record videos? Use Twitter? Play simulations? I’m just not up to all that.

As John Cotton Dana once said: “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”

We shouldn’t be expecting our students to learn without going through the experience ourselves. Challenge yourself to try one new thing every class you teach. Step outside your comfort zone, and you’ll find it’s a lot easier than you think. It can be really fun to be a student!

Some information in this article is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1304479. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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