User:MartinPoulter/Training on one leg

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16 June 2012

I realise that I hadn’t set out expectations for last week’s Train the Trainers event, and what we’re doing with the Train the Trainers programme. So, with my apologies for that, here is quite a long essay about how I personally see it, which I’m sharing with the community as a whole.

We’re already delivering training in various contexts. A lot of it is professional quality, because Wikimedia UK is very lucky in the amount of expertise and experience we have available. However, our luck won’t always hold, and we need to be serious and systematic.

In the long term we want our training programme to be flexible, sustainable, professional quality, credible, and owned by the community. It will be trapezoid shape: an “upper” layer training and accrediting another layer of trainers, cascading skills and knowledge through a system that ultimately reaches a large volume of training recipients. Since WMUK has diverse training needs and we each have different, complementary skills, our training will be diverse, avoiding any kind of “one size fits all”. People will be able to specialise in GLAM outreach, education outreach, events for other experienced Wikimedians, or whatever they’re best at. They’ll also be encouraged to develop individual approaches to training based on their own strengths.

This all means we are going to have to train and accredit people who train and accredit people who train and accredit... indefinitely. I’ll call this the Hard Problem. The training workshops last week and forthcoming in October are our first stab at tackling the Hard Problem.

We were invited to take part *both* as participants in the training and as observers of the process. As a participant, I found myself often thinking “I already knew that” or “I wouldn’t want to do that in my training”, but I picked up some useful tips and suggestions. It was as an observer that I really learnt an enormous amount.

We spent a lot of time on social skills: Candy acted in a role as a terrible presenter, and we had to give feedback. There was feedback on the feedback, and we discussed the process of giving feedback on the feedback -very meta! People were generally very good at this task, but we had to address it.

If you do a lot of training for WMUK, you will face that situation for real at some point. Someone very like Candy’s character will come to you. They’ll be wildly enthusiastic about getting their town or their local society involved with Wikimedia, but they won’t yet have developed crucial skills. You’ll have to handle that in a way that avoids wasting that person’s enthusiasm. Wikimedia UK won’t come in and sort this out: as the trusted volunteer, you will be Wikimedia UK in that situation.

You might even see this problem at a meta level, if a colleague gives an enthusiastic volunteer really unhelpful feedback which discourages them. You’ll need to give feedback on the feedback.

We discussed conveying professionalism and authority, and how this has to be interpreted differently when talking to t-shirted sysadmins or sharply-suited legal professionals. One participant thought this part of the training wasn’t relevant to them. At the time, that set off an alarm bell in my mind, but it seems that over the course of the weekend this person did come to see this as something they needed to think about and see that it only meant a small change to what they were doing.

There was an assessment and accreditation aspect to the weekend. Even when you already have skilled trainers, this is important. Some people are excellent at training but don’t know they are, and we saw this among our group. As a community of trainers, we need to build confidence in each other, and also to see that people approach training in distinctive ways. That was a very valuable aspect of what happened in the workshop.

We talked about coping when things go wrong. If you do lots of training for WMUK, at some point you’ll be in a room with librarians or archivists who have the misconception that you’re there to undermine their jobs. Or the event organiser will have given you the wrong impression about the audience and what they are expecting. You’ll find yourself having meticulously prepared a session but ditching it and going back to first principles.

To boil it down, I’d say that to help with the Hard Problem, we’re above all looking for trainers who can train people to draw cartoon sheep on a whiteboard.

Some people will have a very negative reaction to that last paragraph. They’ll tell us that Wikipedia doesn’t require people to draw cartoon sheep, that WMUK has no identified training need for cartoon sheep skills, and that the very idea is a nonsensical distraction from our mission. That’s the reaction I used to have. In a way, that reaction is an acid test.

If you do a lot of training for WMUK, at some point you’ll be in a room with people who have been sitting at their computers all day, are getting restless, and are just not seeing the point you’re trying to make about good faith collaboration. You’ll need some activity that gets them on their feet, is fun and memorable, and non-intimidating. Cartoon sheep, or something similar, are ideal. People don’t need any specialist jargon or cultural background to understand the task. It’s a good task for showing people that:

  • they can get better at anything through practice
  • even in a highly constrained task, people can show a distinctive personality, even eccentricity
  • doing a good job involves being prepared to erase your previous work and start again
  • relentlessly negative and relentlessly positive feedback.are both undesirable for different reasons

If you wanted to teach people about being a Wikipedia admin, one way to start would be to get them to draw their best cartoon sheep. Then without warning you could summarily erase all the sheep. That would kick off a discussion of how people feel about having their work deleted, and how we should prepare them for it. I hope we don’t have WMUK trainers who think that being a WP admin is something you do “on the computer” and therefore all the training has to take place at the computer.

I could go on and on about how cartoon sheep are useful in WMUK training, and I’d still miss all the benefits that better trainers can see. With some imagination you could say the same about card games, improvised comedy sketches, or circus skills: at work, I once attended an enjoyable hour-long training session on how to stand on one leg. I work at a university, not a circus, but hopefully I don’t need to explain why that was a good session.

So as I said, people’s reaction to the sheep suggestion is an acid test. If you think it’s nonsense, you may well be excellent at showing people how to use Wikipedia, but I’m interested in the Hard Problem, and for that WMUK needs people who take the expansive view of training. Yes, there are decisions to be made about which Wikipedia policies newcomers should learn about in their first session, what to put in the handouts in a session for university managers, or what the training needs of our partner organisations are. These need attention, but they’re the easy problems. We’ve solved them already or we have the collective expertise to. If you’re an experienced Wikimedian who delivers training and you think you need dedicated training for these issues, you probably have too low a view of your own expertise.

If you were at the workshop last week, please write up the activities you’ve devised in the relevant section of the WMUK site: see . My ideas for activities to do with school teachers are written up at . I’ve used wrong terminology in places, and I’m terrible at estimating how long an activity will last, but I’m hoping those improvements will come through the wiki process. Think about what events you could run with partner organisations, with other Wikimedians, or other audiences. We all have different interests and if we work as a community to design and deliver new events, we could rapidly build up an impressive training programme for Wikimedia UK.

The feedback we’ll get from the trainers, individually and as Wikimedia UK, will help us find the roles we’re suited for in the overall picture, and so help us towards that long-term goal I talked about.

I hope everyone training for WMUK will keep a reflective log: to write down, for each training experience, a few bullet points about what went well and about what you could do differently or better next time. This is private to you, for personal reflection, but you should be prepared to discuss it with a mentor as part of future accreditation, or show it to someone you’re mentoring as an example of reflective practice.

If you were not at the workshop, but you’re interested in being involved in WMUK’s training programme, I urge you to sign up for the weekend in October. Whether you’re already an outstanding trainer, just beginning, or somewhere imbetween, it will give you opportunities to learn a great deal, and above all WMUK will benefit from your input. There will be an accreditation process with a chance to get individual feedback and a certificate: professional quality work should not just be done, but be seen to be done.