Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks Is Like Pushing A Rope Up A Hill


They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Maybe that’s true. Maybe not. Never tried it, so I can’t say. But what I can say is that it is downright difficult to teach an old dog how to teach someone else new tricks.

“Huh?” you may be asking.

Well, take out “old dog” in that sentence and replace it with “experienced Air Force technician.” Then take out “new tricks” and replace it with “what he knows.”

Now you know what I did in the Air Force toward the end of a long, happy career. I taught experienced technicians how to take all that stuff they had in their heads — and hands — and teach it to troops who were fresh out of tech school.

I spent my last seven years in the Air Force as a training and education adviser. Sounds like some kind of fancy schmancy job, but it wasn’t. Most of the “advice” I gave came in the form of three courses I taught. Two of the three had the same purpose: Teaching someone how to teach. The other one was for officers who had been chosen to administer a training program.

The officers course was a short little thing intended to let an officer know something about the enlisted training program. It wasn’t necessary to tell the enlisted folks about the training program because they had been a part of it since they donned Air Force blue. But our officers were college men, reservists. What they knew about the Air Force was learned in college ROTC classes or in a 90-day stint in Officer’s Candidate School.

So I taught a week-long course to help them understand the program they were about to become part of, usually as a figurehead since there weren’t many decisions to make. It was an odd course. After teaching it for a while I realized that an important part of my teaching was convincing officers to stay out of the way and let their NCOs do the training. That was fine with them.

For many of them their primary assignment was to fly an aircraft, perhaps even a fighter jet. Ground duty was secondary. I suspect their main purpose was to be the fall guy if something went wrong.

The other two courses I taught had more meat in them. Air Force courses do something that civilian schools have yet to learn. Get to the point. Teach a man or woman what he or she has to do. Leave out the fluff. Save the theory for later.

So in my classes I didn’t bother with the reason why it was important to teach to measurable objectives. I just taught what objectives are, how to write them, how to teach to them, and how to test to make sure you got the job done.

Here’s the difference: In a civilian course they might teach to a goal like this: “Students will become familiar with operation of a turret lathe.”

But what I taught my students to do was to write objectives like this:

“Each student will be able to turn a piece of steel to within one ten-thousandth of an inch of the specified diameter.”

See the difference, Johnny?

What does becoming “familiar” with a turret lathe mean?

That you know one when you see one? That you can turn it on and off? That the two of you have been formally introduced?

Truth is, being “familiar” with something means whatever the person doing the teaching feels like making it mean. It’s about as good a guide for teaching as a dictionary is for teaching grammar. Too many words, too many different meanings. Equally useless goals are “to know,” “to understand,” “to realize,” or “to appreciate.”

But if an objective says you can turn down a piece of metal to within one ten-thousandth of inch ...?

Hey! That can be measured. It gives you something specific to teach, and something even more specific to test. When a student is done you can hand him a piece of stock, put him at a lathe, and see whether or not he can do the job.

You can see the difference if you go into some civilian classrooms and test kids who are supposed to have learned a skill. Some math classes, for example. Sure, the kids can do set tasks, but ask them to solve a “word problem.”

They fail because they “know” things, but they don’t know how to apply what they know.

It’s fine, I guess that some civilian schools, particularly colleges, teach to “universal” goals. They aren’t teaching people how to win a war. In the military we always had one thing in mind when we taught: You better get it right the first time because you aren’t going to have a chance to do it again. Ain’t no best two out of three in a war.

Air Force training is very specific. If you are supposed to teach the men to torque down the wheel in the nose gear you do it. You don’t teach them to torque down the wheels on the main landing gear and say, “And it’s pretty much the same on the nose gear.”

I knew a master sergeant who did that once — much to his regret. He taught some troops how to torque down the wheels on the main landing gear of an F-111, but not on the nose gear as he was supposed to. As a result, one of those troops made a mistake.

Consequence: Plane takes off. Nose gear retracts. Plane flies. Plane wants to land. Oops! Nose gear will not come down.

So-o-o-o. Eleven million dollar aircraft lands on belly.

Resulting unusable mess is charged to one master sergeant.

That’s hard on a career, Johnny. Tends to end it — abruptly.

So for seven years I taught people how to teach. Not how to teach something high flown and theoretical, but how to take what’s in your head — or maybe in your hands — and get it into the head or hands of a young man or woman who is actually going to be out there pulling on a torque wrench.

Think that was an easy job? Think again.

Seems like it would be, but it wasn’t.

Try teaching some of those moss-backed old NCOs that the answer to every problem is not to jump in and say, “Hang it, kid, get the %$#@! out of the way and let me do it!”

Tell you all about that problem next week.


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