Is the word “trainer” the wrong word to use?

The scope of this podcast is not just training, it’s anything to do with learning and development – so perhaps I misnamed it.

Oh well – we are where we are.

I have been challenged before on this point: why do I call the podcast “Trainer Tools”, or why I might occasionally describe my job as a Trainer, when the word “trainer” feels a bit old hat and not an accurate description of a dynamic profession that is so much more than a bunch of poorly-dressed people teaching workplace skills.

It can sound as if you’re stuck in the past when the trainer (sometimes even called an “instructor”) was little more than a workplace version of the schoolteacher. Someone who worked with flipcharts and marker pens rather than chalk and blackboards, but essentially someone who did the same thing: knowledge transfer by talking a lot.

Clearly this is an inadequate picture of what a trainer does nowadays, so I thought I would propose a nomenclature that would better encapsulate the role, and mean I don’t need to change the name of the podcast.

First off, the objection to the “trainer” word seems to come from two broad schools of thought, both of which are correct:

The L&D School who argue that we should describe ourselves as Learning and Development somethings (Consultants, Professionals, etc.), people who advise and consult about the whole arena of workplace learning and personal (and maybe even organisational) development.

The Facilitator School who argue that we should describe ourselves as Facilitators. We make things happen not through the old-fashioned teaching of content (not often anyway), but by the skilful application of process. We enable discussion and dialogue which is where knowledge is created and where real learning happens.

I agree.

I think we do all of these things at the same time.

The Learning and Development Professional

A learning and development professional is an expert in the application of the L&D cycle within the organisation.

  1. The strategic understanding of the learning needs at the individual, team and organisation level, based on what they are trying to achieve in the short-, medium- and longer-terms
  2. The planning and development of learning events (both formal and informal) to help meet those needs, including activities to contribute to creating “learning organisations” (organisations in which quality learning just happens informally as a matter of course)
  3. The design and delivery of formal learning events (such as training programmes, courses and workshops
  4. The evaluation of all of the above, and ongoing recommendations for improvement.

When I use the phrase “formal learning events” I am borrowing from David A. Garvin’s work, and I mean any learning event which is outside the day job (e.g. training course, workshop, action learning set)

The Trainer

A Trainer is the expert in “the design and delivery of formal learning events”, where those formal learning events are some sort of face-to-face group session.

The Trainer will operate along a continuum (that I shall call the Training Continuum), sometimes delivering content (presenting), sometimes facilitating a discussion, sometimes just quietly observing.

  1. Presentation: is all about the one-way delivery of content – a method much favoured by University lecturers and old-fashioned teachers. A “sage on the stage” with all the answers speaks to the silent attentive masses. The Presenter is mostly active, the Learner is mostly passive
  2. Teaching: is also content-focussed, but there is more interaction and participation from the students. The Teacher still must pass knowledge to students, but the methodology differs – the Teacher is active a majority of the time, the Learner is active only a minority of the time
  3. Directive Facilitation: is more about managing the process of learning. The Facilitator is actively directive and makes choices for the group, providing guidance and some content, but mainly they guide the group through activities and discussions designed to create knowledge – this is somewhere around a 50/50 split in terms of passive and active.
  4. Cooperative Facilitation: is much less directive. It is much more about enabling the process and much less about content. The Facilitator asks questions to challenge and “move” the group (in Structural Dynamics parlance), they suggest choices and actions and share ideas – the Learner is now active the majority of the time
  5. Autonomous Facilitation: here the Facilitator doesn’t do a lot. They offer support and clarity on process, and will intervene only when necessary – perhaps to keep things to time, or challenge only when things get off track. The Facilitator is almost entirely passive.

A Facilitator is an expert in the skills required to deliver on 3, 4 and 5 above (skills that can also be applied beyond formal learning events).

A Trainer will use all the above methods, depending on which will be most effective given the content and the audience, but within the context of formal learning events.

This is where most disagreement sits.

The controversial bit

People think of a Trainer as operating only at positions 1 and 2, and a Facilitator at 3, 4 and 5.

This makes sense.

The “training” professional has shifted from the old days when it was largely indistinguishable from “presenting”, so much so that the terms were often used interchangeably as if they described the same thing, probably because they did.

As training developed, it moved along the continuum, becoming a lot more about creating learning and understanding through structured and challenging dialogue, discussion, and activity – and in doing so it got more effective and its practitioners got more sophisticated and skilful.

To get away from the old image of dull boring teachery sessions led by verbose presenters, the word “trainer” got left behind, synonymous with the old way, leaving the shiny new word “facilitator” free to take the profession forward.

I think this is an over-reaction.

I think the word Facilitator is too narrow and sounds too much like it was made up last week to describe something of questionable value.

I think the word Trainer is sufficiently well-recognised to become the general description of the professional who applies the methods from across the entire Training Continuum as and when they are needed, which includes being a Facilitator.

Summary

  • A Facilitator is an expert in applying parts of the Training Continuum in formal learning events (and other settings)
  • A Trainer is an expert in applying all of the Training Continuum in formal learning events as appropriate (therefore a Trainer is also a Facilitator sometimes)
  • An L&D Professional is an expert in applying the L&D Cycle, including formal learning events (therefore an L&D Professional can also be a Trainer (who is also a Facilitator))

Click here to see all written articles on the Trainer Tools website.

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