Warning: Explicit

While procrastinating the other day I found an article on dyslexia and mathematics.  The standard reading intervention for dyslexics is known as explicit teaching in phonics and other reading skills, which is in contrast to the “whole language” approach that introduces kids to rich language and meaning but leaves out the mechanics. Most kids don’t need explicit teaching in order to learn to read, but a goodly percentage need the rules spelled out for them in excruciating detail. This article pointed out that for dyslexics struggling with math in school (as I did terribly), explicit teaching in math is necessary, too. The article pointed out that, for example, you need to actually tell a student that “2x” means “2 multiply by x,” even if you have already defined x as a symbol for multiplication.

Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? Sometimes learning isn’t.

What if it isn’t just us dyslexics who need this boring, repetitive, explicit teaching, though? What if we all need explicit teaching in different skills? Yeah, I need it for spelling and math, but I understand big-picture concepts more intuitively. I know people who really grok numbers, who have close-to-photographic memories, but who need help rising up out of the details to see the bigger picture. Lately I’ve been thinking about strengths-based growth at work, the idea that you should aim to build on skills that you are already good at, rather than trying to remediate skills that don’t come so easily. But maybe not all weaknesses are real weaknesses, but instead are evidence of ill-matched education methodology.

I wonder if this is true with many work skills. Think back to your first months on the job: did anyone explicitly teach you how to best write an email to a donor versus one to a project director versus one to the finance officer down the hall? Were you handed a style guide for such things? Ha. No. How about putting together your first budget? Were you given a step-by-step procedure to follow, with specific requirements? Probably not. What about facilitating your first meeting or conference call? Did you have a cheat-sheet on the organization’s processes for scheduling, length, norms about who speaks, and note taking? Doubtful.

I bet you learned most of this stuff on the fly, but there are things that still mystify you. I know there are things that still mystify me. What if we see these mystifying skills not as our areas of weakness, but as areas we need explicit teaching? I’m not talking about the things we just really don’t like, or are unsuited for – I am not mystified by public speaking, it just makes me break out in a cold sweat – but those things we don’t understand. I don’t think we can expect explicit teaching to be provided to us, served up as we need it, across the entire workplace. But I do think we can ask for it, or search it out, when we realize that something that other people seem to just know or understand comes more slowly to us.

Where do I need explicit teaching these days? It might seem silly, but note-taking. I was always terrible at note taking in school, and I still am. I fill notepads with my notes, but never actually use them, and meanwhile my memory is…well, is there a word beyond abysmal? That would be my memory for facts and figures and dates and names. Maybe I’ll ask someone who seems really good at it to teach me their system.

Just make it explicit, please.

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