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Instruct with meaning

June 1, 2015 - We all value our time and get frustrated when it is wasted. How often have you left a class or conference room and thought, “That is three hours of my life that I will never get back”?

May 22, 2015  By Chris Davison-Vanderburg

Teaching adults – your firefighters We all value our time and get frustrated when it is wasted. As Chris Davison-Vanderburg writes

As instructors, we must ensure the good use of our students’ time. To do this, instructors must fully comprehend the relevance of our lesson plans from the students’ perspectives, not our own. Then, instructors must transfer this understanding in a way that encourages students to believe it themselves. Done properly, this step sets the stage for a lesson and creates an environment primed for engagement and active learning.

Teaching adults – your firefighters, or your colleagues and peers – is different than teaching children. Adults need to know why they are sitting in a room listening to you talk about a subject in which they may or may not be interested.

Andragogy is the art and science of how to teach adults specifically. Malcolm Knowles popularized andragogy in North America. “Adults need to know the reason for learning something,” he said of the major difference between adult learners and children.,

An adult’s search for purpose is one of Knowles’ foundational assumptions related to motivating mature learners.


Having your students understand why they are learning doesn’t need to be overly complicated. There are a few common pitfalls that teachers can learn to sidestep once they become aware of them.

Typical missteps
A class will likely view a lesson as training just for training’s sake – or a waste of time – if an instructor makes one or more of these three mistakes:

  1. Failing to start the lesson with why
  2. Providing why from the wrong perspective
  3. Poorly executing the transfer of why

The first mistake is straightforward; if you don’t plan to begin with why, it won’t happen. Conversely, if you work hard to infuse the why step as part of your regular class-preparation routine, the benefits of having engaged and non-confrontational individuals in your class will be well worth the effort.

The second mistake – using the wrong perspective – needs a bit of clarification. Consider a training session on ropes; the chief wants firefighters to cover the NFPA 1001 job-performance requirements on rope because the organization needs to demonstrate that the fire department meets this standard of training. If the instructor walks into the classroom and says, “We are doing this training because the chief needs us to put a checkmark in the checkbox,” it is unlikely the students will be enthused to learn. Explaining the chief’s perspective does not resonate with the students.

If, however, the instructor starts the lesson by reviewing any past incidents at which ropes were actually used, then having groups brainstorm why a strong foundation in ropes is a precondition for individuals to progress to the rope-rescue team, the students will likely be motivated.

Keep in mind that individual students have different beliefs regarding training priorities. When caught among these priorities, instructors often become referees, translators and diplomats.

With different perspectives and priorities for what constitutes an efficient use of training time, the instructor’s job is to find the common ground and package the why message according to the different audience beliefs.

Be cognizant of the differing perspectives and ensure that everyone is on board before the lesson begins. Be patient. The goal is to ensure that you establish the right atmosphere for learning prior to diving into the topic at hand.

The third mistake – a poor execution of why – is the hardest to notice and avoid. A teacher may have a strong understanding of the importance of the lesson from the student’s perspective, but fail to deliver it in a meaningful or relevant way.

Using the ropes example, imagine that a teacher walks into the class and begins with a textbook-style explanation about why it is important that students know their knots for use on the fire ground. The teacher explains why without using any concrete examples, only with theory. “You never know when you’ll need to hoist a fan up three storeys.” The newer recruits might buy in to it, but some of the senior firefighters will likely mention that they never, or rarely, use a rope at an incident. Your credibility will be instantly shot, and the artistic doodles and whispered conversations will begin.

Convincing firefighters of the value of their training is a vital step that must become a part of an instructor’s regular classroom preparation, and one that can’t be skipped or glossed over. Starting a lesson with a PowerPoint slide headed Objective, followed by a reference to a standard or section of legislation, will not fire up anyone. Ideally, come up with an activity through which the students will discover the value of the lesson for themselves.

Time spent setting the stage is time well spent. I distinctly remember participating in Denver Assistant Chief David McGrail’s course on highrise operations at a conference put on by the British Columbia Fire Training Officers Association. McGrail spent more than an hour setting the stage, explaining why we were there to learn, and ramping us up emotionally before he even mentioned the words nozzle, hose, standpipe or stair. It was one of the best-taught courses that I have ever attended because McGrail took the time to re-engage the passion within us, his students. He had us believe it was important to pay attention and become active in our own learning. Chiefs from different departments were working hoselines up the stairs, sweating and fighting for the nozzle as if they had just shown up for recruit class.

This doesn’t mean that every training session requires a one-hour intro. My department, Brampton Fire and Emergency Services in Ontario, recently purchased new SCBA packs and rolled out the training to our 400 members. During the course-development phase, the discussion about why we were doing the training was seemingly straightforward – until we considered perspective. NFPA standards and occupational health and safety regulations are clear on the need for individuals to be trained on the use of any new SCBA equipment; it was tempting to state this as our objective and then go into a comprehensive and detailed explanation of the packs.

What mattered, however, to the men and women serving proudly on the front line was feeling comfortable and confident with their new equipment; they were already professional experts on SCBA.

As a training division, we decided the real objective of our training was to ensure that people felt comfortable and confident with the new equipment. During each instructional session we spent a few minutes discussing or mentioning that goal.

As soon as we stated that we were there to make sure crews were comfortable and confident with the new SCBA, you could see and feel the sense of relief from the members who recognized that this training was not going to be a long, drawn-out explanation on the use of SCBA. The members acknowledged afterwards that the lesson was a good use of their time.

Hopefully you can appreciate why the best teachers emphasize the reasons students need to know the material before launching into the lesson.

Sharing the why sets the tone for the day, grabs students’ attention and engages the group for a positive reception and exploration of the topic.

Chris Davison-Vanderburg is a training officer with Brampton Fire and Emergency Services. He has been a member of the fire service since 2004. Email Chris at or follow him on Twitter @CapHyphen

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