Contractormag 2092 Training1

The kid in all of us contractors

Dec. 9, 2014
The next time you’re teaching, whether in a classroom, in the shop, in the field, or with your own family, try using some of these techniques: Hands-on Provide manipulatives Positive reinforcement Stickers Recognition

Down deep in there we’re all still kids. Hooray! This isn’t just a good thing — it’s great.  It means we still love to learn, to play, to get praise and recognition, and to show and tell. 

It isn’t a refusal to “grow up.” It is us human beings at our best.

In the plumbing and heating industry it’s the way we are. We may think that we ought to be something else. But instead of trying to be serious and intellectual, staring at Power Point presentations and Excel spreadsheets, we learn best by playing with things. Our playthings — furnaces, air conditioners, boilers, toilets — keep the world safe and happy.

I recently hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (and back up). One of my fellow hikers, Jean, was an early childhood educator from San Francisco. “Early childhood” is the first half of elementary school, pre-kindergarten through about third grade. 

It turned out that this elementary school teacher and I — a trainer of HVAC technicians and plumbers — have identical approaches to teaching. We get to work with fat pencils and lots of colored wires. Our students get to crawl on the floor and dump things out of a big plastic buckets and play with trucks. Yes, that is part of our business — and in a very positive way! 

Here are some of the basic principles of childhood education that you learn if you go to school to be an elementary teacher. Don’t they look the same as how we all learn best? 

I challenge you. The next time you’re teaching, whether in a classroom, in the shop, in the field, or with your own family, try using some of these techniques:

Hands-on: To learn about a thing, we need to touch it and manipulate it. It’s not just nice, but necessary, for us to tear things apart and put them back together again. Don’t worry, we will get it back together again. After all, that’s what we do for a living.

Provide manipulatives: That’s a big word for simple and fun stuff. It means things like Tinker Toys. Keep the hands busy and the mind will follow. Manipulate means to move with the hands. In this biz, and I suspect in the general population, we love to mess with things. Stretch the rubber band until it breaks. Then we know more about rubber bands — and about pain. You can’t learn that from a book or U-Tube.

Positive reinforcement: It can be as simple as one word, one syllable: good, nice, wow, cool. Bump it up to two words: nice job, good work, love it. Although my introverted engineer friends would disagree, words don’t cost anything. They are never going to show up on the company P&L. And you get a heck of a payback for saying them. 

Stickers: We joke about getting a gold star. Try giving them out and you’ll experience their magic. If you’ve been to one of my classes, you know that I reward with pig stickers. It’s amazing the melt-down that happens when I offer a sticker to plumber who really doesn’t want to be in electricity class. He transforms from a “No-way” guy to “Geez, you got any more of these for my little daughter, grandson, the guy back at the shop?” He sticks it on the guy next to him, and suddenly everyone is having fun being in a class after work.   

Recognition: This is a form of positive reinforcement, but bumped up a step or two, so it happens in front of other people. How about giving out a achievement certificate (the cost is a sheet of paper and a little printer ink), or a round of applause? Cost? Next to nothing.  Payback? Pretty darned high.

Reinforcement on the job: So you learn something in class and then what? Admit it or not, we all know that what usually happens is to forget it. That’s not what we intend —it’s just that when learning isn’t reinforced, it goes away. Time the training so that there’s a very space between instruction and doing. A couple minutes is better than a few days.

Clear direction: When you tell someone how to do something, make it “linear.” Think “straight line.” No talking in circles. No tangents (oh that reminds me). Here’s how it goes: “Do this. Then do this. Next do this. Now do this.”

Repetition: Repeat again and again and again, but a different way each time. Tell them.  Show them. Ask them to show you. Ask them to show someone else. Draw a picture. It’s said that it takes exposure to a new idea at least seven times before most people are ready to take it in. What is learning, but incorporating new ideas?

Flexibility: They don’t get it? Try it another way. Ask someone else to explain it while you listen and re-group. Ask the student “how would you?” or “what if you had to?”

The teachable moment: Timing is everything. Anywhere is a potential classroom.  Instead of the “drop and roll” for putting out a fire, try “stop and train.” A couple minutes at the teachable moment can accomplish more than hours at the wrong time.

Ask “What did you learn today?” It’s common to ask a kid “What did you learn at school today?” Yet we don’t think to ask a trainee, “What did you learn?” With the kid you might just be making conversation. With the trainee, we might be afraid of putting him on the spot. But actually you’re giving him the chance to review what he learned, and to show that he remembers it. If not, you have a chance to do another repetition.   Remember, it often takes more than one exposure for learning to stick.

Ask “What was useful once on the job?” Only the learner knows how effective any training is. And you don’t know until you ask.

I tell you, you tell me: So much of education is “I’m the expert and I’ll tell you how it is. Now you know.” But we all know that’s not the end of it. Put yourself in the learner’s shoes. Just because someone told you doesn’t mean you heard it, understood it, believed it, or remembered it. The “you tell me” part is about finding out if learning stopped somewhere along the way, and taking it from there. Repeat. Repeat it differently. Better yet, show.

I show you, you show me: This is the best part. Showing is so much better than telling.  And “you show me” is the best part of all. Can the learner do it? If he can’t the first time, that’s OK. Again, most things take repetition. That’s normal for everyone. And do it again. And do it again. 

Teach someone else: Teaching is a perfect opportunity to learn. Those of us who do it know there’s no better way to find out if there’s a gap in your knowledge. Teaching the teacher in “I show you, you show me” is way different from teaching someone who doesn’t already know.

Everyone loves show and tell: Elementary school teachers say that many kids’ favorite part of school is show and tell time. Remember it? The fun part isn’t about being shown.  It’s about when you get to show off your own stuff. Want to be a great teacher and not work very hard? Let the learners do the teaching. You ask, “How do you think this works.” Or you say, “Show us your best guess for how to do this.” They get it wrong, that’s OK, it was just a guess. They get it right? Bring on the positive reinforcement. See above for details. Repeat. J

Carol Fey is author of a series of hydronics and HVAC books, including “Quick & Basic Hydronic Controls: A Contractor's Easy Guide to Hydronic Controls, Wiring, and Wiring Diagrams.” To review purchase these books go to:

Carol Fey is a veteran HVAC industry trainer and writer. She is Mountain West Regional Manager for the Viessmann Manufacturing Company,  You can find her at, email [email protected].

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Contractor, create an account today!