How to Spot an Amateur Trainer

In Brief: The money you spend hiring a trainer can either be an incredibly good investment.  Or a disappointing waste of money.  How do you make sure you hire the right person?  It comes down to how they see the role of trainer, their commitment to link training objectives to business objectives and understanding the science of learning.


Last month I complained that some amateur media trainers are giving good trainers a bad name.  These trainers suffer two problems that give professionals a bad name.

  • They’re trapped in the industrial mindset of traditional media which, as most of us know, is slowly dying.  They’re teaching yesterday’s tricks for tomorrow’s world.  Go figure.
  • They think they can train but they don’t understand the science of learning.  And learning is a science.

Last month we discussed the first problem, today we’ll look at the second.

Trainers equip learners with skills to do a job

When an organization hires a trainer, they are buying skills for their teams.  These skills somehow link to the organization’s objectives – maybe it is expressed in monetary profit or in social value.

I was told by a participant at the end of one of my training sessions that I’d saved her organization $5000 because she could now do the tasks she was going to hire contractors for.

This is the sort of value trainers need to offer.  What makes it sweeter is that when an organization buys training for a group of staff, they are buying skills that last way beyond a contractor’s consulting time.

Amateur trainers are unable to leave their client with the confidence that that organization is better equipped to do the task.

Professional trainers understand the science of learning and how to use it to change and improve performance.  Ask potential trainers to describe cognition and what happens in the brain when learning takes place – not how well they present content. Ask about the role of emotions and social experience in learning.

How to spot an amateur

A lot of amateur trainers proudly offer training services.  While some of them are good, a lot of them are not.  In fact, there are a number of things they regularly get wrong.  Here are three.

  • Curriculum
  • Delivery, and
  • Organization

In this post, I’m going to touch on curriculum.

Curriculum – link it to the job

Two of the biggest mistakes amateurs make is designing curriculum around their experience, and getting the grammar wrong.

An important question needs to be asked that strikes at the heart of a trainer’s values as a professional.  Who are we doing this for?

Vocational trainers are hired to help people do their job.  We equip learners with the skills they need to perform their job to a standard of excellence.

That’s why curricula must be structured around the job and its workflow.  I see a lot of amateurs teach from their personal experiences rather than the organization’s new workflows.

Does this mean we de-value the trainer’s experience?  Not at all.  It’s her experience that that breathes life into the curriculum.

Smart organizations link workflow, training, and performance reviews together.  This way the training is designed to help people do their work better and get better annual reviews.

Curriculum – ‘write it right’

The second issue for curriculum is that it needs to be properly written.  One of my pet peeves is that so few people understand how to write a curriculum.  And it’s something I see time and time again.

There is a professional grammar for writing curriculum.  It’s designed to make the whole learning process easier for both the trainer, the learner, the learner’s manager and the organization.

A good curriculum enables you to do a number of things including:

  • better plan your learning delivery strategy,
  • create clarity for your learner,
  • evaluate and fine-tune your success as a trainer
  • assess your learner’s performance, and
  • provide better performance support such as handouts

But guess what?  Many trainers either don’t know how to write it or they are too lazy to get the detailed work done first.  Getting your curriculum done right makes it easier to develop and deliver training.

In vocational learning, a curriculum is structured around learning objectives.  They are also known as behavioral objectives and learning outcomes.

Learning objectives should describe the task the learner can perform at the end of the training and the standard to which it will be performed.

A lot of amateurs don’t get the importance of describing a task.  They talk about knowledge, skills or attitudes required to do a job.

Knowledge, skills and attitude are all important elements in task performance.

But to be sure someone actually learns to perform a task, the task needs to be described as an action.  There is a set grammar for writing learning objectives, that the talent and training profession follows.  Based on the work of R. Mager, it’s describes learning in terms of concrete actions.

If you’re looking at curriculum and see the word “understand” used throughout, you can bet the curriculum writer doesn’t understand learning outcomes.  Task descriptions need an active verb.

If you want to learn more about how learning outcomes should be written, there are plenty of resources on the Web.  Type “Mager objectives” into Google or buy his book on criterion referenced objectives.

It’s a science, not witchcraft

I think that poorly structured and poorly written curriculum gives professional training a bad rap.  I meet managers who think training is a witchcraft rather than science.  They think learning events have little to do with their company’s day-to-day operations.   And they fail to see that training is in fact the tool they need to improve performance, especially in hard times.

Unfortunately, these managers can’t be blamed for their misconceptions.  There is every chance that amateur but well-intentioned trainers have helped create this perception by providing vague workshops that don’t have a properly written curriculum.  One that fails to link to an organization’s goals and objectives.

Training is not a vague, folksy witchcraft where trainers hope for the best.  It’s a well researched social science that equips professionals to predict results and stand by what they offer.

We’ll discuss the other two issues – delivery and organization – in later posts.  In the meantime, if you’re hiring a trainer, make sure she or he can talk about curriculum and the science of how your learning is put together.  And make sure the trainer can write good behavioral objectives.