Training Wheels Don’t Work: A Philosophy of Training Employees

I had been a production tree climber for my entire arboricultural career, until the last few months. I have an immense passion for fieldwork and what I call the “hard skills” of climbing, cutting and rigging. I never identified myself as a business owner, consultant or trainer, even though these “soft skills” are my most influential roles to our operation. The decision to cross the drip line into the office was not easy or convenient, but it was absolutely necessary for many reasons.

My goal is to develop a more autonomous staff that will allow me to balance management, production and home-life responsibilities with little effect to production and safety. If we find success, I may be a tree climber again, and soon.

Training is the critical element to fulfill that goal, and my new perspective grants me insight to my success and failures of training arborists for the last decade. I discovered my biggest mistakes in training men while watching a baby girl. I was always the expert when training an apprentice, but as a new father, if I know anything, it’s that I don’t know anything.

Most of us in a position to teach and train our new employees are very familiar with training wheels. We grew up in an era when training wheels were the preferred method of preventing bike accidents for learning riders, and we probably got our first set of training wheels before anyone considered wearing a helmet. Whether you are aware of it or not, you often carry those same philosophies into your professional world and approach training arborists like children learning to ride a bike with training wheels.

The author and his daughter, Elowen. Notice that there are no pedals – or training wheels! Photo courtesy of the author.

Step into your local bike shop, and you are likely to see these newfangled, pedal-less bikes that look small enough to be a toy instead of a vehicle. They are known as balance bikes, and they are made small enough that a toddler can operate one. The logic is that the foundational skill in bike riding is balance and that training wheels reduce the ability to learn this skill by instead focusing on pedaling. With kids learning balance much sooner, they are able to shortcut the entire process of training wheels and grasp the pedaling skills much faster than we would otherwise think.

If you want to shortcut the redundant use of training wheels, trainers have to ask themselves:

• “What are the foundational skills of our services?” and

• “When and how do I teach these skills to my new apprentice?”

For brevity, I will answer the first question, but it is worthwhile also to explore this on your own.

After weeks of chipping away at every skill we employ as production arborists, critical thinking came out as the least-common denominator. This may sound like a cheap answer, but it’s not; it’s an extremely complex answer when your goal is to “teach” critical thinking as a foundational skill.

My answer to the latter question is “Yesterday.” Most of us are investing training resources into a younger generation that grew up with easy access to information and in an educational setting that presented them with spoon-fed answers and standardized testing. Research strongly suggests that this learning environment stifles critical-thinking abilities by acting like training wheels for learning. The introduction of the Common Core State Standards is intended to rectify this issue, but the effectiveness is still unknown. Many scientists have cast doubt on the ability of the standards, and all we know for sure is that we will have to adapt our training methods when these students enter the workforce. For now, at least, when you start working with a 20-something employee, they are usually behind the curve in their ability to navigate the complex environment of tree care.

We often fail in training and retaining these employees because we jump straight into teaching the skills to perform a task – pedaling – and can’t figure out why the employee is unable to implement it appropriately – balance. This is when things get ugly. We are frustrated that they cannot perform, they become isolated in their ignorance and we compensate by throwing a lot more time and money at their training, or we hold them back and keep the training wheels on. The longer we keep these training wheels on a green employee, the more reliant they become on micromanagement and fall into a perpetual state of learned helplessness.

So here we are with some understanding of the skill and the consequences of not developing it, but we are left with some pretty significant questions: “Is critical thinking coachable? If so, how?”

Fortunately, we are not alone in asking this question, and there is tons of research dedicated to answering it for children, students and adult professionals. The problem is trying to define what critical thinking really is, and therefore, much of the research is difficult to translate to our needs as tree care trainers. So the key for us must be to define critical thinking in a way that suits our needs and can be understood by our students.

We have a mantra in our company, “Every action with intent.” If an action fails to produce the results we desire, we have instant feedback by knowing our intentions when we started. I failed for years by not recognizing the trainability of critical thinking and by not implementing it myself as a trainer. I may have had intent, but I did not systematically challenge my approach to training in an effort to reduce unintended results. So my crew has defined the word “intent” in our company to meet our needs by including the element of cross-examination. Actually, we redefined several words to meet our needs in our first formal lesson in critical thinking.

During a long car ride, I asked my foreperson to act as scribe in a brainstorming session with our second climber and me. I told them our goal was to identify foundational skills we can teach to our next new hire, and we engrossed ourselves for hours jotting down skills for chippers, chain saws, ropes, etc., and circling the words that kept coming up from one task to the other. Intent, accountability, assessment and critical thinking were among those circled words. We then set about to define these words according to our needs, so that we can effectively teach them to the future greenhorn.

It was exciting and fast paced, and all of our brains hurt afterward, but we learned more about what we do every day than we had ever considered, and identified that we are better able to think critically as a group. We had to think critically about how to think critically, and there’s a name for that; “metacognition” literally means thinking about thinking. After I admitted the intent of the session, I issued a homework assignment; choose a topic, from job-site setup to knot tying, and write a lesson plan that accounts for unintended results, and then write a 10-question exam.

Immediately, the crew recognized how they would need to use critical thinking to complete the assignment and the importance of experiencing that challenge to be better able to teach our next apprentice. Directing this lesson at our field leadership was intentional; that’s where we need this skill the most, and it’s where development of critical-thinking skills for new employees will happen.

If I had been successful with teaching critical thinking before this lesson, it was because of what I call the “bubble strategy” for training green employees. It’s not a new idea and I never really planned it; instead, it kind of happened out of trial and error. It’s the idea of letting an individual free in a controlled environment to learn and progress at their own pace while they build experience for later reference. It’s similar to teaching a child to ride a bike by taking them to a park or lazy cul-de-sac and outfitting them with the right protective gear. They can and will likely fail, but the key is that they fail within the bubble, and as they progress, the bubble gets bigger. I’ve found that a trainer will gain more trust and respect from the trainee, and vice versa, from the innate trust and respect required to implement this kind of learning.

It’s the idea of letting an individual free in a controlled environment to learn and progress at their own pace while they build experience for later reference. It’s similar to teaching a child to ride a bike by taking them to a park or lazy cul-de-sac and outfitting them with the right protective gear. They can and will likely fail, but the key is that they fail within the bubble, and as they progress, the bubble gets bigger.

Teaching happens before sending them into the bubble, learning happens on their own while they are performing and everything gets tuned and cemented with a post-work followup. In order for this strategy to work, the worker has to have critical-thinking skills; the experience is simply to compile reference for other lessons. I have failed with this strategy because I assigned blame to a weak performer as being lazy, incompetent or reckless when I should have been accountable to my inability to teach or motivate them. That’s critical thinking.

When we are training green employees, we should adopt a lesson from Socrates. When he was considered the wisest man on Earth, he humbly replied, “I am the wisest man on Earth because I know that I know nothing.”

We like to think that, because we can jump on a bike after 10 years as if we never stopped riding, we know the progression of skills required to operate it. I have the joy of watching my one-year-old daughter on her own bike, and, while I’m amazed by her courage and ability, I can’t help but wonder why learning took so much longer for me.

It’s the idea of letting an individual free in a controlled environment to learn and progress at their own pace while they build experience for later reference. It’s similar to teaching a child to ride a bike by taking them to a park or lazy cul-de-sac and outfitting them with the right protective gear. They can and will likely fail, but the key is that they fail within the bubble, and as they progress, the bubble gets bigger.

Geoffrey W.L. Manning, CTSP, is a Board Certified Master Arborist and has owned and operated Manning Arboriculture, LLC, a small tree care business and six-year TCIA member company based in Roanoke, Virginia, since 2014. His business focuses on mature and historic trees and managing tree risk. His staff is required to be extremely proficient in tree climbing and critical thinking to accommodate a wide range of tree care strategies. They have maintained an incident-free safety record since establishment while hiring predominantly green workers.

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