When I was a new senior I was assigned to audit a large real estate developer, and one of my areas was revenue recognition. I’d been to real estate training, where we must have discussed revenue recognition, but the only memories I carried of the experience had to do with what went on outside the classroom after hours.
When it came time to read my first real estate sales contract I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, mostly over my new promotion, not necessarily because of my real estate chops. When I was done with the assignment, the manager asked me how it went. Was there anything unusual in the agreement? Did the transaction qualify as a sale?
“Looks good,” I said.
Later that afternoon he came back to me. The transaction most definitely did not qualify as a sale because of a number of conditions clearly spelled out in the sales agreement.
I was so embarrassed. If only I’d paid attention in class.
That afternoon the manager spent some time with me to explain the accounting standard and walk me through the client’s sales contract. Did I pay attention then?
You’re damn right I did. And when the manager left that night, I stayed longer and read everything about real estate sales I could get my hands on. For years afterward, sales of real estate was one of my technical strong suits. Even now, 30 years after my last real estate audit, I still remember the basic revenue recognition principles.
What my manager and I discovered was a “teachable moment” that primed me for learning and recast his role from being the arbiter of right and wrong to being the mentor who could steer me down a path to better understanding.
We see a lot of training materials, some of which use case studies that require the participants to perform tasks that mimic real life situations. Unfortunately, the way those case studies are designed does not take full advantage of all the value they can provide.
The case studies we see tend to be more akin to an essay question on a test or the final exam. An expert teacher has lectured on a subject and now the students will demonstrate mastery of the subject by completing an activity that can then be graded.
Our preferred strategy tends to be more effective in the long run. We like to use case studies to provide teachable moments of the kind I experienced on that real estate audit. My poor comprehension of the accounting standards was not a failure but a call to action.
That moment changed my attitude, made me receptive and motivated to learn, and that’s a “teachable moments.” That’s what we think good case studies can do in the classroom—serve not as a capstone achievement but as a starting point for engaging in meaningful discussion.
When we deploy case studies to create teachable moments, we also change the relationship between the instructor and the student. This redefined relationship also brings many benefits to the individuals and to the organization. But that’s a point for another day.
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