Operating systems

Chasing rabbits - in a training environment

What does hunting have to do with training? Bruce explains the rules of chasing rabbits—or getting off on nonrelated subjects—in the classroom.

Some of you are, no doubt, looking at the title and saying, “Huh? What does hunting have to do with training?” For those of you who are not privileged to be either from the country or the South, the term “chasing rabbits” simply means going off on a tangent—in our case, in a teaching situation.

It’s a common technique, used by sly students everywhere. Ask the instructor about a subject outside the stated lecture, and if you strike gold, he or she will tell you everything he or she knows about the topic and forget what’s supposed to be covered.

We, as trainers, are just as susceptible to rabbit chasing, caused either by a student or by ourselves. Let’s take a look at the phenomenon, and then figure out when and how to hunt those hares.

Rabbit chasing rules
A definition of “rabbit chasing” might be: The inclusion of, and possible discussion of, a subject matter not part of the stated curriculum. There are times when it’s good to be tangential. The conscientious teacher analyzes the situation by considering the following five topics, which we will take a look at individually:
  1. The audience
  2. The schedule
  3. The reaction
  4. The response
  5. Know thyself

Consider the audience
Who is your audience? Is it office workers learning Word, or would-be MCSEs? Once you know your audience, ask yourself: Do they need to learn about this? Someone taking a Word class doesn’t usually need to cover NetWare security, while someone learning to integrate Windows NT and NetWare would benefit from the discussion. Even then, the needs of the specific class you are teaching may dictate keeping the discussion to a minimum. An advanced discussion of hacking probably doesn’t belong in a beginning network administrator class. Follow this rule: See the target before you shoot the arrow, translated as, “Always know why you are teaching a particular topic before you teach it.”

Consider the schedule
Are you ahead or behind? If you’ve got some slack time, chasing a few rabbits won’t hurt, especially if they’re interesting ones. Discussing the merits of StarOffice on Linux might be a fun way to fill a few moments, especially if you happen to have it available to demo. But if you are already behind, spending any significant time outside the curriculum is a no-no. These folks paid good money to learn what’s on the syllabus, and if they don’t, you can be sure someone (like your boss) will hear about it.

Consider the reaction
Sometimes a student will raise an issue that’s not in the material, and you suddenly realize that 16 pairs of eyes are eagerly looking at you, waiting for the answer.

 

Aware instructors realize that lesson plan or not, they’re going to have to pay attention to this one. (Sort of the proverbial two-ton rabbit!) If you see that one coming at you from full speed ahead, go with it—there’s obviously a need there, and you’ll only frustrate the students if you don’t fulfill it. Conversely, if you start to answer a question and see lots of shuffling (feet, hands, or brains), then cut it short. You and the student who asked may be interested, but you’ve been outvoted.

Consider the response
You don’t have to chase every rabbit publicly, you know. Some can be saved for break time. If the student really wants to know more (and isn’t just pulling your chain), but the class as a whole either doesn’t need or doesn’t want to hear about it, tell the student you’re deferring the answer to break time and you’ll talk to him or her then. Of course, make some sort of note so you’ll remember to actually cover it at break time. You may find that other students want to hear about it, and you will have satisfied both them and the ones who don’t care.

Know thyself
Why are you chasing this particular rabbit? Are you meeting a need of the class or a need of your own? Is this one of your own interests, some piece of the technology world that just really turns your crank? If so, be careful—the rest of the room may not share your passion. There is nothing wrong with being excited; all of us have areas that we love to talk about, as we should. Why would we spend our lives teaching others about technology if we didn’t love teaching, people, and technology? Just don’t let your passions cause you to chase that rabbit and leave the rest of the class in the tall weeds. If, heaven forbid, you are chasing that rabbit out of some psychological need to prove what you know, immediately put a sock in it. You’ll lose your class faster than you can say Brier Rabbit.

Happy hunting
You can’t go through all your classes without chasing a few rabbits. Beginning hunters just blast away at anything that moves. The good hunter picks a target and uses the right weapon. Consider the rules above, and you’ll soon bag your limit. Good hunting!

Bruce Maples is a writer, trainer, and consultant living in Louisville. His latest project is a recipe for computerized rabbit stew. Follow this link if you’d like to comment on this article or writeto Bruce .

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