Leading Like a Teacher

May 31, 2018

If you believe leading is a lot like educating, then there is much we can learn from educational models to help us become better leaders.

One teaching model is the Didactic Model of Van Gelder, a Dutch professor in educational psychology  from the early 1950s to 1970s. This Learning or Teaching model is a goal based approach to learning that involves a base-line assessment, goal setting, the learning situation and the learning evaluation, as a continuous learning cycle.

It starts with the assessment of the student's capability to determine what goals are obtainable. Based on that assessment, learning objectives are then defined. Once we know what we want to teach and from where we need to start, we design the teaching method to get us from A to B. After the teaching session is completed, we evaluate the learning results.


Translating this to leadership in the workplace, we would start with assessing the capabilities of each team member. Then its time to determine what we believe would be the next achievable goal. Finally, you design the method to achieve that goal and evaluate afterwards if the goal has been achieved. That is an example of a solid leadership approach.

The more interesting application of this teaching model comes in when we look at a leader's approach to how to lead a team member to learn and develop with the goal being to develop an autonomous high performer. Here the Model of Van Gelder discusses three core teaching methods: Instruct, Ask and Discover.

The Instruction method involves the leader explaining how to do or understand something the team member needs to learn. It's almost like a lecture. The teacher does all the talking, and the student is attentive and listens (hopefully).

With the Ask method, the leader guides the student to the learning by asking the right questions, making the student think creatively and problem solve for what he needs to learn.

The Discover method throws the student into the deep end, with the goal being that they will learn by doing and independently come to the conclusion of the lessons learned. The teacher her is just there to help the student when they get stuck by giving some hints and suggestions.

Each of the methods is most effective for obtaining certain learning objectives, and we can also combine theese three methods into one learning experience.

Let's use a teaching example in sailing to illustrate how these three methods can be used. We want to teach the student that a sailing boat cannot sail directly into the wind. That's because the drag force will push it downwind. In order to get from point A to point B that is directly upwind, the boat must zigzag.

According to the three Van Gelder teaching methods we have three options to teach this concept: Instruct, Ask, Discover.

Using the instruction method, we explain to the student that you can't sail against the wind in a somewhat abstract theoretical way with perhaps some visual aids. We might have to explain how the wind pushes a sailing boat forward and what forces are in play.

Using the Ask method, we would ask questions to help the student figure it out by themselves. If we want to go from point A to point B, and the wind is coming from this direction, how would we go about it? Can we sail against the wind? If not, why not? How would you get from point A to point B if B is directly upwind?

Using the Discover method, we'd give out an assignment, such as lets sail to point B, knowing point B is upwind. The student will learn through trial and error that the only way to get there is to zigzag.

In leadership the Instruction method is probably the most used method by far. Leaders tend to do all the talking, and assume that this is the fastest way to teaching something. It makes sense considering people generally like talking more than listening. Asking questions in some cases can give the impression that you don't really know the answer, and that can come across as unknowledgeable. In certain situations, the Instruction method is definitely the most effective or even necessary method. For example, if it's a very simple concept or skill to learn or a dangerous task or situation to master.

Beyond that, Instruction is often not the most effective. Instruction doesn't generate the same level of insight, or teaches the student to think critically and solve problems. It also doesn't achieve the same level of knowledge retention. What people hear is easily forgotten, versus what they tend to think often sticks a lot better. In comparison to those, the knowledge from the things they do stays around the longest.

In the sailing example, the discovery method is the fastest and most impactful way to teach the zigzag concept. It's hard to understand  why it needs to be done without experiencing it. You may combine it with the Ask method to help the student solve the problem of not being able to get to point B and constantly drifting away. Once the student has experienced and solved it, he won't easily forget it again.

Often team members approach the team leader with a question or problem, and end up asking the leader to solve it for them. Leaders are often quick to jump in for these cases. However,  this not always the most most effective way to develop autonomy and high performance. A leader should resist just giving out the answer and bounce the question or problem back to the team member to solve for themselves.


There are lots of benefits to that approach:

  1. it teaches critical thinking

  2. it leverages the knowledge of the team member

  3. it motivates the team member to be empowered

  4. it helps the team member retain the knowledge and skills better

  5. it develops autonomy - meaning the team member will solve problems on their own more often.

Taking the Discover method can have similar benefits. Giving a team member a significant challenge or assignment is a great opportunity for them to grow and learn and can be a big motivation booster. The Discover method is not just throwing someone into the deep without the right level of guidance. That is absence of leadership and we see that happen often with teams. The Discover method is an intentionally designed learning experience to accelerate the development of a team member that involves self-learning with proper support when needed.  Without support, throwing someone into the deep can turn into stagnation or worse, them learning to solve problems the wrong ways.

The Ask and especially the Discover method also open the door to the innovation that happens with unexpected outcomes. Instead of making the paths for them, they can go one to create new paths to get to point B.

Summarized, this is how you apply the Van Gelder model to leadership in the workplace:

  • Determine the development goals of your team members

  • Assess where to start - what's the baseline of each team member?

  • Decide how to teach: Instruct, Ask, Discover

    • Which questions should you be asking?

    • What challenge or assignment can you give next?

    • Do you have to instruct, or can you resist it and ask questions instead?

  • How will you evaluate if the learning objectives have been reached?  

 Hopefully the Van Gelder model will help you become a better leader too!

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