Simple pens are used to take notes in courses.

Misadventures in Teaching —
US vs Britain vs France

Writing courses for multiple nationalities

It can be difficult to write a course. Things you can easily do, and which you think you fully understand, turn out to be more complex and difficult to explain than you expected. When the students come from different cultures, it becomes more difficult yet. Some cultures want to be challenged. Others want to be spoon-fed and then praised for how well they did.

I was asked to write a serious course about Linux system administration. Show them how to do things on an enterprise scale, with troubleshooting along the way. Here is some of the sequence of exercises in the course I wrote:

The course ran for a few months before the product manager contacted me. The problem was that not everyone was completely happy with the course. The students fill out evaluation forms at the end, and the scores were not perfect. The discussion between the product manager (PM) and me went like this:

Me: So what's wrong?

PM: We don't know, beyond the fact that not everyone is happy. Make them be happy.

Me: How can I do that?

PM: We don't know. But maybe it's too hard or too easy.

Me: You're going to have to give me some help here...

They decided which of the two alternatives it was, and I made some tweaks in the material, to make it either easier or harder as appropriate.

This went on through a number of cycles, with me bumping the difficulty up and down through the series of revisions. Then one day they again informed me that not everyone was happy, and when I asked if the general trend was complaining "too hard" or "too easy", they said that the two sets were almost exactly equal.

Me: Well, I'm hitting the center of mass. Looks like I've got it right.

PM: But we want absolutely everyone to be completely happy.

Me: How am I supposed to accomplish that?

PM; We have no idea, but make it happen!

Wait, I thought I was hired as the technical subject matter expert. You run dozens of classes every week. Don't you have some idea of how to design course material?

Apparently not.


I asked for more data. Specifically who is saying "too hard" versus "too easy"? The courses run in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., and there are also arms of the company in France and Sweden plus, at times, courses have run in Japan and Hong Kong. Were there any national trends?

Yes, there were very clear trends. Here is the sad part, if you're American:

British students were complaining: "I didn't learn very much because this course was not adequately challenging." But meanwhile...

American students were complaining: "I didn't learn very much because this course was much too hard, I didn't even understand what I was supposed to be accomplishing, let alone how to do it."

Famous Canadian William Shatner on Star Trek.
Famous Canadian Pamela Anderson on Baywatch.
Famous Canadian Geddy Lee of Rush.

Meanwhile the Canadians, of course, were not complaining, as that would be rude and therefore not very Canadian. But if beaten with hockey sticks until they made some complaint, they probably would agree with the Brits.

Me: OK... So should I write a British version of the exercises and an easier American version?

PM: Oh no! That would insult the Americans!

So we have concluded that not only are Americans dumber, they're touchy about it. Fine.

Me: How about an easier version and a harder version?

PM: Oh no! That would insult those people who need the easier version.

So it's that same conclusion, we're just not saying out loud which nationality needs the easier version. Fine. Whatever.

Me: So how can I solve this problem?

PM: We have no idea! Just make everyone happy!

That was not helpful, but eventually I came up with a way of writing an exercise manual with an attached solution booklet, telling them step-by-step what they needed to do but not necessarily how. Each exercise starts with an e-mail from the boss, and the truly British may do the exercise from that e-mail alone.

The rest of the Brits can use the numbered steps and figure out the command syntax and other details on their own.

Americans are given detailed instructions and are spoon-fed with listings of precisely what to type in the solution booklet. Many are unable to follow those directions and accurately type the provided command syntax, but most of them realize that this isn't exactly the fault of the course. It isn't their fault, of course, nothing is, but at least everyone ends up reasonably happy.

I thought that was the end of the story, until I was talking to one of the senior instructors for the French arm of the company.

He said that he really liked the design of the course I had put together, it was a serious course that did enterprise-scale things. And, he said, "We won't have to do too much to redesign it."

I asked if he didn't mean "translate" instead of "redesign."

No, he meant redesign. The French arm of the company runs some courses with the same titles (translated) on the same topics, but the courses are completely redesigned.

You see, these American training courses are much too basic. There is no way you could get a French corporation or government agency to pay good money for what, as he put it, the French "expect their children to have learned at school."

That's right, Americans, give us a course that is far too elementary for the French to even consider, and we will complain that it is far too hard.

Meanwhile, in France: A significantly more challenging version of this course is their introductory course. The next course, for which there's no U.S. equivalent, has them writing their own device drivers. And the next French course after that has them writing device drivers to run on embedded systems. So, to update the list:

American students complain that it's too hard.

British students complain that it's too easy.

French students already learned this at the lycée and are ready to do some truly interesting things.

Related to this, see the CBS News story "Why my child will be your child's boss", which explained how Swiss school children are regularly taken into the forest and allowed — no, required — to use saws.

Teaching horror stories