When he was in town last year for RST, I sat down with James to talk about his approach in teaching the RST course. Some interesting behind-the-scene insight came out, including particular ways that James uses to give feedback to his students.
Sign up for James’ Rapid Software Testing class coming up in October, in Cluj-Napoca.
Quotes from this interview:
“What I’m actually doing is not conveying knowledge to somebody, but I’m facilitating their growth.” (Tweet this!)
“You’re in the right place. Even if you’re a beginner, even if you feel confused, that confusion is normal.” (Tweet this!)
“Half the class is smart enough to be testers. And the other half is also smart enough, but they think they’re not.” (Tweet this!)
“Feeling bad about having a feeling just adds noise, just adds more stress, and all of that noise, and all of that stress, that’s parts of your brain that are now not working on the problem.” (Tweet this!)
“I want people to have the impression that I’m dealing with each one of them, noticing things that they do, and so that they feel that I’m really there with them.” (Tweet this!)
Alexandra Casapu: You’re here in Cluj for the RST course and the RST for Managers. I’m curious, how is the course different now – the Rapid Software Testing course – as compared to when you started teaching it? I found some material dating from ’95, I think.
James Bach: That’s the first time I taught any public class, so the very beginning of my class was in ’95. That’s interesting that you would refer back to 95, because there’s huge changes from since ’95. When I started teaching in ’95, I was very focused on the belief that I knew techniques that were good techniques, and I knew answers that were good answers, and my job was to get you to know that too.
So I was focused very much on lecture, but when I did exercises, I would have the right answers for my exercises, and I would make sure that you knew what the right answers were.
So I did a lot of critique, when people didn’t, when their answers didn’t match my answers, and I received help from an experienced teacher in 1996. He worked on me about this and helped me see that what I’m actually doing is not conveying knowledge to somebody, but I’m facilitating their growth.
Alexandra: Sounds like Jerry Weinberg.
James: Yeah, well, Jerry Weinberg was one of the people that helped me, that’s true.
Also, you reminded me that in 1995 I took the Problem Solving Leadership class and then the Change-Shop class, which were both Weinberg classes, and a lot of what I did to change the class after that was based on my experiences in Weinberg’s classes.
Weinberg does what he calls “organic teaching”. He creates situations, and whatever happens, happens. And then he turns that into a lesson. Instead of having in advance an idea of what the lesson is going to be, what he creates is rich situations that could go in many different directions and in whichever direction they go, that will be the lesson for today. And he will let the energy of the students take it in one way or take it to another way.
So what he knew how to do is read a situation, to read a student, and then to react to that student in a way that helps them, hopefully, the most. And I saw him do this. I got very excited, and I decided I want to learn how to do it. It’s very hard to learn how to do it. It takes a lot of practice.
Alexandra: So speaking of students, do you see any change in how students are in your class? Is it, over time, that you see different patterns in students, compared to the beginning?
James: I think it’s very hard to tell, because my own perceptual system is so different now than it was, so I’m mostly reading my own bias. For me, I feel that people definitely listen to me more, and argue with me less, but I think that could be because I’m 10 years older, and they’re just more willing to listen to an older man than they were to a younger man. That could be one thing.
It may be because I’ve learned certain phrases or certain intonations, or I’ve learned to read people well enough so that I know how to stroke their ego in the right way at the right time, so that they respond well, so it could be that. Because I do a lot of different kinds of praising in the class, any way that I can, because I find that it makes people more receptive. Also, it’s a good feeling in and of itself, I think it’s a fact of training technique, there’s a number of reasons why I do it. But, I found, unlike when I started, that it’s very much less important for me to tell someone that their answer is wrong, than it is for me to tell someone else that their answer is very interesting, and then the person whose answer is wrong will see that and they will criticize themselves. They don’t necessarily need me to tell them their answer isn’t so great.
If they see someone else who, I say, “Look at that, that’s interesting for this reason, and this reason, and this reason”, then they can go, “Oh, hmm, I see that, I didn’t really do that, did I? Maybe I could do more of that”.
I found that people criticize themselves so much, that if I even whisper a criticism it already feels too loud to them. We all know this from any personal relationships we’re in. You know, if my wife makes a mistake with the travel arrangements, I don’t need to say “Here’s why it’s very important to double check this”, she’ll say “I know, I know”. All I need her to know is that there was a problem. And then she automatically is kicking herself, just because she knows there’s a problem. And I don’t need to criticize that at all.
So I rely on people’s ability and their interest to criticize themselves, and I just gently nudge them. Unless I’m trying to get someone to wake up to a big whole in their thinking, in which case I may have to go right at them.
Alexandra: What about the positive feedback that you were talking about? There are different levels of feedback that you can work on. How do you play with those?
James: In order for me to get people to listen, they have to feel that they’re safe, they’re respected, so I want to establish that first. So I know that for me, that’s how I am able to calm myself down. When I’m in a classroom, I disrupt the classroom. Almost every classroom I’m in I will disrupt it and sometimes by a lot. I don’t take classes, unless the teacher is very, very good.
Alexandra: So is it, the fact that you provide self-level feedback, and you try to create a safe environment, is it partly because you want to create a comfortable zone for you?
James: Oh, also that, that is also true. I’m trying to do a couple of things. I’m trying to get the students to be in a state where they feel like “I’m ready to listen, even though there’s a risk that I’m going to mess up”. But I’m also trying to protect the student from me, in cases where I might lose my temper, which sometimes happens. And, so I want to create a situation where I feel they’re protected from me, which allows me to calm myself down, I won’t be as nervous. Because if I’m nervous, I won’t teach as well.
So I want to be comfortable, I want to feel like I can say what comes into my head, and I also want them to feel comfortable. And to me, that’s the prerequisite. We can’t even talk about the technical stuff, unless you stop being so terrified of being stupid.
And that is the problem. I meet people of all ages, at all levels, and everyone is terrified that they’re too stupid. And I know this because I use a complicated vocabulary, and I wear glasses that look like this, and I speak very confidently about models and Bayesian probability, things like that, I throw stuff like that in. And the reaction I often get is “Oh, well, I’m just a beginner, so I guess I’m useless, and I should just leave. I must be in the wrong classroom.”
I’m not going to pretend that I don’t know what I know, I’m not going to pretend that I’m not excited about all of the fascinating aspects of testing. That’s not right. But at the same time I don’t want to scare them away.
So here’s what I do: my strategy is to bring it out into the open.
To bring out into the open, like “Since you are probably not ready to confess to me, I will confess for you, to everyone in the class all at once, that this dynamic is going on”. The typical thing that I say is “Half the class is smart enough to be testers. And the other half is also smart enough, but they think they’re not. And I don’t know which half is which. I don’t know who is who.”
And people usually smile, and laugh a little bit.
“I don’t know whether you’re smart enough and you think you’re not, or you’re smart enough and you think you are”. I know how to deal with each kind of person, but I just want you to know, that this is something that we’ve got to be aware of. And I know that some of the words that I use might make you feel like “Oh, I didn’t read that book, so I guess I’m supposed to go somewhere else and learn for 10 years before I come back here.” No, you’re in the right place. Even if you’re a beginner, even if you feel confused, that confusion is normal.
Now that second technique I use is called normalization. Something I picked up from a therapy book. Normalization is when someone has a feeling and you say “that feeling is normal”. So now, if you have authority, and you’re seen as someone who is in a position to know, then the person who hears that feeling is normal, they go: “Oh, well I don’t have to feel bad about having the feeling, then”. Feeling bad about having a feeling just adds noise, just adds more stress, and all of that noise and all of that stress, that’s parts of your brain that are now not working on the problem.
Alexandra: Mhm, that’s true.
James: Now of course I also do task level feedback, and that’s something that I think distinguishes flattery, or very generic kind of praise, from really useful praise. So one of the things you’ll see me do when you see me teach is I’ll say to somebody: “I can tell that you are very good at this. Do you want to know how I know that?”
And they almost always say “Yes”. Actually they always say “Yes”. I never had anybody not say “Yes”. Like, “Sure, how did you know?”
And then what I have to do, is I have to list at least 3 specific observations that I have made. And they’re usually really detailed observations, like as if Sherlock Holmes is talking. I really am inspired by Sherlock Holmes because he says, “Well, clearly, the killer was an Armenian.” Like, well “How do you know that, Sherlock?” “Well, observe this cigarette butt, which, as you could tell from the brown paper”, you know, “that’s Armenian wood pulp. From the jub-jub tree”, or whatever, right? And I always thought “That is so cool”. So I try to do the same kind of thing.
I did this with one of the young ladies who were in the class just recently, I wanted her to know that I was impressed by her, and that it wasn’t just because I was randomly impressed by her, it was some specific things that she was doing, that she might not be aware of, but that were increasing her credibility. So I’m providing a service in a couple of different ways. One, maybe she’s not aware of these things, and maybe by becoming aware of them, she can start to do them on purpose. Then she can think “What other things am I doing right?”
So one of the things that I mentioned is that when I looked at her, she didn’t look away. She would hold my gaze in a steady way. Now, that’s something I associate with people who are very comfortable in their own skin. Also, stillness, she didn’t fidget, or slump, or turn away at all with her body. That shows lack of fear. So, she apparently feels safe, and is able to look steady. So that’s good, and then I added a couple more things to that. I said something about her voice, I said something about a phrase she used, or what kind of phrasing she used, and then I said, for that reason, I think you’re not afraid of me, so I’m not going to let you use the “pass” protocol.
I do something in my class where you can stop me from attacking you if you feel attacked, by saying the word “pass”. But I told her she’s not allowed to use it. I usually pick a couple of people in the class that I say to “You’re not allowed to use it”.
Alexandra: That’s useful in the sense that it helps her maybe understand what she does right and how to do things better?
James: Also that she knows that I’m paying attention. The main reason why I’m trying to do it is I want people to realize “He’s actually looking at us very carefully”. And so, “He’s paying attention, we’re not just sheep, that you can’t tell one from the other, we’re not just random anonymous individuals”.
I want people to have the impression that I’m dealing with each one of them, noticing things that they do, and so that they could feel that I’m really there with them.