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Guide on the Side - Guide on the Side Sampler

By Marie Wallace, Published on June 3, 2002
Previous Articles by Marie Wallace

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O'Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries' highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute's programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms "Life in Progress," which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art.  She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her "free" time to various non-profit and civic activities.


If lectures were the best means of information transfer, we would all test out at genius levels. The reality is that long term memory retention for lecture information is low. Lecturers commonly speak about things not of immediate use to the audience. As a result, much of what is said never makes it out of short term memory, even though the lecturer is the authority in the field, interesting and entertaining. The people who learn the most from lectures are the lecturers. Why? They are motivated and active.

Many years ago, a phrase-maker came up with memes to contrast two approaches to training: Sage on the Stage and Guide on the Side. The Sage model is subject oriented and instructor-lead, using the lecture as the predominant instructional technique. The Guide model is skills oriented and instructor-facilitated, using a variety of instructional techniques.

A familiar icon for the Sage on the Stage model (commonly available as clip art) is a speaker behind an elevated podium in front of a passive audience in a classroom configuration. By contrast, there are diverse icons for the Guide on the Side model. Common graphic motifs show activity, emotionally engaged learners and two-way conversation between the Guide and the audience.

You can guess my bias from the title of my LLRX column, Guide on the Side. I think the Guide model is not only more effective for the learners but much less demanding for trainers. It is easier and quicker to explain or demonstrate something than it is to prepare a lecture on the encompassing subject plus the helper role is more familiar than lecturer to most people. You may already be familiar with this sampler of ten Guide favorites:

1. Determine the "job-critical" skills and knowledge the learners need to know now.

Forget down the road at an indefinite time in the future. Identifying "job-critical" skills often involves creating information partnerships with staff and managers in your organization as well as with the learners themselves. Training also needs to be customized for individual groups. For instance, knowledge management may be relevant to personnel in many departments. In the Sage model, KM would be presented as a generic, one-size-fits-all lecture on the subject. In the Guide model, the specific skills relevant to each job group would be presented separately. This is similar to unbundling truck driving from car driving training. It is all about driving but the skills and knowledge for each are significantly different.

2. Find out the learners' existing skills.

The void between what the learners need to know and what they know already is sometimes called "the gap." The training you design should build on existing skills and "bridge the gap." There are many ways to find out what learners already know but one quick way is a self-administered quiz. This lets both trainers and learners know there is a gap. Sometimes "the gap" is obvious because of an exterior situation, such as poor job performance. Caution: if you plan to use Legal Research Teach-In or other shared material, remember to customize and target it for your organizational environment and focus. Terrific material may not be a good fit for your "gap."

3. Start the training with an icebreaker activity.

Some people think icebreaker activities are a waste of time but trainers find them very useful to turn on the brain, lay the social foundations for learning, focus on the learning tasks and form a community of interest. Round robin discussions and brainstorming are two icebreaker techniques that get everyone into the topic quickly and in a relaxed way. Also, these techniques help neutralize any remedial connotation of the training may have for some learners.

Another reason to use icebreakers is that there is often a 5 or 10 minute window as people arrive--some early and others late. Involving people immediately in some kind of activity keeps them from wasting time and sends two messages: "you will be active in this training and we start on time."

Example:  In a business writing class for junior level managers from four departments in a law firm, the first 10 minutes was spent discussing why writing clear, accurate and brief memos and reports was important to the firm.  The instructor didn't have to tell them why.  They already knew.  The second ten minutes was spent brainstorming why writing was difficult.  Immediately, members of the group pointed out "The rules keep changing."  "Writing on the job is different than writing in school." "The grammar books don't always agree." Again the instructor could have told them these things but when wisdom is self-discovered, the information is more likely to be processed into long term memory as important to survival.

4. Simulate work situations and use work-based scenarios.

Examples: When I designed cite-checking training for paralegals, I began with a role-play of an attorney handing off a document on the fly "Here this needs to be Shepardized." This was followed by group discussion of what they didn't know that they would need to know in order to complete the assignment, things like deadline and client.

Later I explained there were many additional questions they needed to ask to find out the parameters of cite-checking assignments such as:

            Were there any expense limitations on using online systems

            Should the document be checked for quotes

            Should statutes and regulations be checked

            Should non-law authorities be checked

            Were there any local court variations from the Bluebook rules

Rather than work with an exercise sheet of citations, I obtained a recent brief on a floppy from a partner and put in a variety of errors, everything from simple typos to overruled cases. From the beginning, they were working with "the real thing."

5. Define clear training objectives and share them with the trainees at the beginning of each session.Create and distribute a daily agenda to function as a road map to what will be covered and in what order.

6. Create a learning community relationship with the trainees.

Eliminate the podium, make it clear when and how you are available after the training sessions, provide regular and uncritical feedback to learners, encourage group interaction and invite experience sharing. Create teams for post-training cooperation and furnish a variety of supportive on-the-job tools: job aids, pathfinders, checklists and manuals. Build a "safe" learning environment where it is okay to ask dumb questions, display ignorance and make mistakes.

7. Chose the best approach to achieve the training objectives.

Discussion or role play are great techniques for soft skills training such as time management but not for teaching how to use PhotoShop where hands-on is preferable. Learn about the different teaching and communication styles and teach to a variety of different learning styles. Decide in advance how you and your information partners will evaluate and follow up on training results.

8. Become acquainted with professional training resources such as ASTD.org or Presentations.com described in more detail in Guide on the Side -
ASTD: Awesome Sites for Trainers and Others Who Develop Staff

and Guide on the Side - Presentations Magazine: Don't Go to the Podium Without It. Develop your presentation skills so you can approach delivery relaxed and confident. Observe techniques professional trainers use when you go for training and are a learner.

Use what works and avoid what does not.

9. Arrange for creature comforts. Uncomfortable people don't learn or think well.

Surroundings/facilities should be comfortable, relaxing and suggest a positive experience about to happen. This includes chairs and tables that can be reconfigured as needed plus:

Climate control

Refreshments

Provision for breaks

Everyone can see and hear

Noise and odor free

Best time of the day and week (when often affects the outcome)

10. Market the training you offer.

Promote training in terms of professional development. Keep everyone in the information partnership informed of the training schedule, benefits and results. Explore whether offerings qualify for CLE or other continuing education credit.

At the beginning of each training module, introduce yourself including your learning style, credentials, experience and life interests. Share your enthusiasm and expect to learn along with the learners. Acknowledge when you learn something new from one of the learners. Be open to changing and improving work procedures or "way of doing" things when warranted. Keep the benefits/value of the training greater than the cost to design and deliver. Remember to keep demonstrations short when making a pitch to upper management to offer training to a new group.

Example: I designed a New Employee Orientation program as requested. Senior Managers reviewed the outline and asked for a preview. Since many of the activities would be elementary to senior managers, I came up with the idea putting the managers in the role of a new employee by switching their names and titles on their name tents. The Chief Financial Officer was labeled Human Resource Director and so on. They complained "I'm in the wrong department, I don't know anything about the XXX Department." My response was "Now you understand how a new employee feels." The demonstration only took 90 seconds before the program was approved.