So my 1964 Land Rover wouldn’t start yesterday. I turned the key, pressed the button (yes, it’s so old, it has a starter button) to be met with an electrical sounding click, but no roar of the engine staggering to life. Blast. I sat for a while, looking heavenward, hoping for deliverance, and then tried again, confident that my soul searching would have done the trick, but no. There was nothing for it but to open the bonnet.
For me, mechanics neatly illustrates the vast gulf between my enthusiasm and ability. In 1964, they hadn’t built many computers, certainly none that would fit under my bonnet, and engines were a little more simple than they are now. In essence, when you open the bonnet, there’s more space than engine, and what engine there is most certainly looks like it’s held together with large bolts. I had convinced myself that i could service this myself, so convinced that i’d forked out on a toolbox and Haines manual (for the benefit of any Americans, Haines produce workshop manuals for every make of car, illustrated with the kind of diagrams that look like a post apocalyptic ‘Where’s Wally’ cartoon, sold to thirty something men whose aspirations exceed their ability. It even contains a five step ‘spanner’ rating, so show you how badly you’ve failed when, inevitably, you shear a bolt or give up and go for a metrosexual latte).
Now, even by my normal standards, electrics are a hidden world of dark arts and blue sparks. Even after i’ve changed a lightbulb, i flip the switch whilst wincing and waiting for the bulb to explode.
In this instance, my options seemed limited. Under the bonnet, and arrayed across the top of the dashboard, were a bewildering tangle of bakelite looking wiring, rainbow coloured and all slightly distressed. After a period of time spent poking terminals and pulling on wires, searching for sockets for the half dozen or so wires whose ends seemed to just hang in the air, i did the decent thing and called the AA.
Well, my story does have a point, and this is it. In an hour and a half, John, the impossibly enthusiastic and extremely patient man in a luminous jacket, downed several cups of tea and traced the fault, walking me through the whole process as he did so. And, as he explained it, poking his voltmeter into various crevices and sounding progressively more excited as it’s tweets and chirps became more frequent and urgent, it all made sense.
Electrics are logical. I like to think i’m logical too, but i just don’t get the basics. Not until someone explains it carefully. As we stood there in the sunshine, him explaining the difference between positive earth and negative and me nodding trying not to look overly foolish, it, briefly, made sense. As with all logical problems, once i understood it, it was obvious and the solution simple. I might go so far as to say that, with a voltmeter, i could probably work through it myself next time. Except that, next time the problem will doubtless be different.
With any learning, setting the context is essential, covering core concepts simply. And speaking in a language that suits the learner. You see, i could stare at wiring diagrams until the sun went down, but they just make no sense to me, but someone pointing at things and making them spark and fizz, now that’s clear.
The fact that John was clearly an expert, with a degree of confidence that enabled him to explain things simply, was an almost classic definition of training. What will i take from this? Revisiting the role of language, finding the right tone of voice, listening to what i’m saying when we design training and trying to ensure that it build concepts before it does anything else. Trying to ensure a pragmatic level of simplicity before it elaborates to more complex ideas. There’s something to learn from everything, and it’s more than just how to change a fuse.