Friday, June 6, 2014

Three steps for improving ESP training

I've always been proud of my customer satisfaction figures.  Naturally, when I conduct my appraisals of Kirkpatrick's 4 Levels, I continue to see a slight decrease in results from response to results.  But, what has recently impressed me was how the whole satisfaction curve is starting to shift higher.  Greater engagement, faster application, higher results across the board.  On the emotional side, it is great to feel the customer mindset change from, "It's great training," to "It's absolutely vital training."  On the business side, referrals are up and sustainable success appears within reach.  It's inappropriate to boast, but I am genuinely proud that changes I made in training style and course design are starting to make a difference.  I'd like to describe a few of those changes.

Anyone who has read this blog or met me will know how passionate I am about relevance in training and using performance-based training methods.  In practice, this often means using framework materials.  Taken to the next step, it means using only pens, paper, whiteboards and the internet.  The trouble with approaching training with such limited resources is that you are restricted to the collective memory of the learning team (me + the participants) and what we can immediately resource using the internet.  This poses a distinct challenge for handling ESP situations in which I am not an expert.  Google only handles ESP at a general level, and the participants doubt the ability of the trainer to understand the complexity of the topic.  So here are the simplified steps to ESP.

Step 1 - Get the critical mass of knowledge

Yes, that is right... research.  I know you have heard this before, but it actually takes less effort than you realize.  Here are few ideas for researching an ESP topic.

1.  The standard - have them present it to you in class.  No articles, no handouts, just a whiteboard and a marker.  "Explain this to me."  Check Evan Frendo's blog for an idea on how to do this.  Or simply draw this on the board.

2.  Have sticky fingers - someone brings up a concept or process in class, ask them to send you a diagram of it.  Visit them at their desk... collect artifacts posted around their cubical/office.  Can't take copies or get the information?  Contact your training coordinator to sign a non-disclosure agreement.  I've never had a client refuse... they want this level of relevance.  If a participant talks about a supplier/customer in class, bring it up on the internet and bookmark it.

3.  Text mining - Your chances of piercing the discourse community without text mining and corpus analysis are close to zero.  If you are relying on the ESL publishing industry for this, all I can say is good luck.  My dual language dictionary for engineering is twice as thick as my Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.  There isn't the time here to go into corpus analysis and finding key words or clusters, but it doesn't take that long.  I recently encountered the need for vocabulary around air-cooled systems.  It took me less than an hour to find 200 key words from 'fins' to 'obstruct'.  

Where can you get texts for mining?  Start general... wikipedia.  Then move to specifics by visiting suppliers/providers.  Copy and paste product descriptions into a concordancer for key terms (usually nouns) and scan the text for verbs.  But remember, the goal here isn't to immediately create materials... that step will come.

4.  Use professional associations - Nearly every specialty field has a professional association attached to it.  Want finance?  Go to IFRS.  Want software service?  Go to ITIL.  Want project management?  Go to PMI or search PRINCE2.  Read a bit.

Remember, you don't need to be an expert, just have enough knowledge for the next step.

Step 2 - Demonstrate your knowledge constantly

Okay, so you have some research and knowledge.  You know some key words, a few acronyms and you have a general idea of how theory works.  Now it's time for the next step, use your knowledge.

Situation:  I need to teach my participants in the software department the difference in meaning between will, going to and the present continuous.  For practice, I can:
a) bring in an illegal photocopy from Murphy with sentences like, "Mary ___________ (attend) the party on Friday."
b) bring in an illegal photocopy of a technical English coursebook with sentences like, "Hans ________ (investigate) the bearing failure next week."
c)  write "I _________ (finish) installing the new compiler version." on the whiteboard.
d)  create a two part controlled practice exercise in which participant A creates sentences, then a gap fill for participant B.
Which should I use?

You probably guessed it right, option C or D.  The materials-light approach allows us to continuously create our own example sentences and relevant exercises.  We picked up the key words from our text mining.  We have a pretty clear idea of functions (i.e. grammar) from our needs analysis, diagnostic test and 'explain it to me' activity.  The goal here is three-fold.  We need to teach them the material so they can notice it, test it and use it.  We need to provide them with clearly relevant language input.  And finally, we need to demonstrate that we understand their discourse community for the next step.

Step 3 - Keep pushing them into more detail

In the past I stopped at step 2.  That generated good results, but there was a limit.  It wasn't enough.  Then I accidentally learned that framework materials were the key.  One of my favorite frameworks was the fish bone diagram which is used to analyze the possible root causes of a problem.  In general, the head of the 'fish' is the resulting problem and then then you add possible causes and contributing factors (a term from text mining) into the diagram.  I typically used this framework for could have, might have, etc.  But, then I figured out that as we drove the diagram deeper, the participants lost the vocabulary.  Even more troubling, it wasn't vocabulary which would appear in text mining.

This diagram led to all kind of activities...
1.  Vocabulary, of course... you have internet right?  Don't forget to check the professional association for the right term.
2.  Functions... you can take the results and build them into whatever is relevant.
3.  Skills... most problems are larger than one person and emails for request work perfectly here, meetings, too.
4.  Materials development... check off the words they know from your key word list and make materials within their zone of proximal development.

So then I tried other types of diagrams, like mind maps.  With a financial/tax/legal English client, we now have a working mind map over 10 levels deep as part of a PBL task.  Just keep pushing them for more detail.  As my Germans say, "Ach... die W├Ârter fehlen."  (Oh... the words are missing.)  But this is exactly my point.  In their discourse community everything general is already understood.  We need to get to the detailed tit-for-tat of their community.  Without research and without demonstrating understanding, step 3 will never happen.

But pushing them into more detail is the difference between great training and training they can't work without.

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