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( OR Why I refuse to accept that learning is only a teacher’s responsibility )

Learning takes more than listening. It needs home work to be done for days/months/years before you can understand and learn from someone.

The mistake which people often commit is trying to listen to every one with the same level of current knowledge, home work or skill. If they are not able to understand, they blame the one trying to educate.

It happened to me being a presenter at Test-Ed conference when I presented ‘The Death of a Passed Test Case’. Many of the testers didn’t understand what I was talking about. Some of the attendees were from one of the clients for whom I am consulting. I asked them did they understand what I had to say. They said they didn’t. In the month that followed, I demonstrated to them several times, how many of their existing test cases which they had marked as passed in reality should have failed, if they had taken them to the right layer. I have reported several blockers/critical bugs against the same tests via critical analysis of the checks done, which certain sections in testing industry considers a non-sapient activity when it comes to terminology.

The same has happened to my earlier presentations on Test Encapsulation, Design and Architecture of Test Automation Frameworks, Auto-Regression Test Automation and so on. Only a few understood what I was talking about. Two of them, happened to attend Test Encapsulation talk twice, and only on the second instance they said – “Oh! Now I understood.”

Learning is a mutual responsibility. Those who think they can learn something from me, can learn the same only if they gear up. They can not learn from me the way they learn from others. I undertake mostly technical talks in testing. Without the correct technical mindset in place, and without having explored the technical realities in testing, even I don’t expect people to understand what I am saying. In my presentation on design an architecture of test automation frameworks, for which only testers with test automation and programming knowledge should have sat, a bunch of freshers sit and give a feedback at the end – “The presenter did not discuss about Q**”. I stand there and talk about a subject on which no workshop has been formally conducted across the world in a testing conference, and what I get is a feedback about not discussing a commercial tool which was not even the subject. I wonder what these attendees thought or understood while sitting for 3.5 hours in the class-room.

I understand my side of responsibility as a presenter. I constantly work on how to present things. I always critically analyze every talk of mine on how to do it better. Many of the close friends have seen me very serious when I go through the feedback sheets after the presentation. They have chosen to believe that I mostly get very bad feedback for my talks. The truth is that I have always got highly positive feedback. I look through such positive feedback and try to assess who really got the point. A small percentage of attendees give negative points and those are the only things which I keep thinking about. They give me pointers for improvements in my work. They also give me pointers for how to decide my audience, when I have a situation where I can choose/filter the audience. I don’t want to waste any one’s time or money. There are only certain type of individuals whom I can help in learning, not every one. For two of my existing clients, I have taken some steps in this direction where I chose the attendees for various workshops based on current skill assessment.

I also want to make technical concepts easier to understand. Because of this, I teach testing theory using a cup of tea, code instrumentation using the game of maze, performance testing using roads and hotels, test doubles using snacks centers, security attributes using politics/love letters/airport/office/forts, intelligence in test automation using a fish tank, abstractions using a painting and so on.

From my end what I can do is trying to make things simple while explaining.

The learners would have to take a step forward to make it simpler. Following are some ways in which you can make your learning effective:

  • Read the topic and the summary of a talk/workshop carefully. Does it align with your interest areas? Is it something which you would like to know about? Can you be patient if you are not able to understand some stuff? Do you have the courage to accept that you have made a wrong decision while sitting through the presentation?
  • Read the pre-requisites given by the presenter. If not, try to derive the same from the first point. Ask yourself whether you meet the pre-requisites. If you don’t, are you ready to give the benefit of doubt to the presenter that if you are not able to understand anything, it could be your fault as well. Are you ready to do any home work – reading/experimenting required before attending the presentation?
  • Read who the target audience is – Does the talk cater to the role you currently play? Is the talk related to a role you want to pursue?
  • What is the talk promising as an outcome? What type of knowledge is going to be shared – factual/conceptual/procedural/meta-thinking? Depending on the type(s) of knowledge assess your readiness level.
  • Are you ready to take notes? Some people while summarizing my talks don’t even recollect what I talked about and they want to debate about the subject! Even if you were to refute anything that a presenter said, you should first know what s/he said.

You can always sit in a talk when you are not strictly eligible as the attendee for the talk/workshop, as long as you understand the shared responsibility part.

And then there are bad talks, bad presenters, badly structured programmes and so on. I have had my share of these as a presenter as well as attendee. No good presenter should shy away from this confession. The wisdom to identify what is going bad has to start with introspection rather than trying to find answers outside or plainly blaming the presenters or comparing two presenters.

Learning takes hard work – for both sides (audience and the presenter). I have been a part of both sides. I make it a point that whichever side I am, I am playing my part well. Are you?!

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