By Gila Hayes,
As I write this column, I sit in the back of a classroom filled
with men and women who have attended a two- day "Introduction
to Handguns" class. As their instructor, I have served students
ranging from lifetime shooters to one, who under my tutelage,
fired her first rounds through a firearm yesterday. Teaching
keeps me in touch with my own first experiences as a new gun
owner, as a novice shooter, as a newbie with so much to learn
I feared I would never feel confident with a gun in my hand.
In this class, as in so many others, I've acknowledged that the male students and female students exhibit identifiable differences in learning styles. Although taught about different learning styles from my first instructor class nearly a decade ago, only in the last few years have I recognized that gender also plays an enormous role in learning styles.
In this age of political correctness it's risky to ascribe differences between men and women. In an effort to guarantee equal opportunity, we have forgotten that most men and women learn in ways that differ between the genders. This politically correct viewpoint damages the instructor's ability to teach effectively, and it costs students valuable learning experiences. Instructors must recognize that communication and cognitive styles figure heavily in successful instruction. The consumer-savvy student, too, can apply an understanding of communication and learning methods to get the most out of their firearms training time, money and effort.
This is this message that Vicki Farnam, a 15-year veteran firearms instructor with Defense Training International, presents to law enforcement firearms instructors. "I'm teaching this uncomfortable and controversial message because instructors come to me and complain that they are ineffective with their female students," she explained.
Resistance to Vicki's "message" comes from both genders, with women worried that being singled out will brand them as inferior, and men frustrated at having been told to treat everyone the same. "At a class I taught for male instructors, one slammed his fist on the table and cried out 'Why don't women understand basic marksmanship? It's common sense!'" she related. The problem, according to Vicki, is that few instructors understand that the mechanical aspect of marksmanship is NOT common sense to most women.
When Vicki asked law enforcement trainees to describe the sight picture, none were able to articulate what part of the target the front sight should cover to achieve a center-of-mass hit. One officer said she was instructed to put the front sight above the left shoulder of the B-27 target. She took her instructor's instructions quite literally, because no one explained that her unresolved trigger control and anticipation (flinch) resulted in low and off-center hits. "Women are so LITERAL in their application of verbal instruction," Vicki exclaimed.
Spatial relationships require an accurate and detailed verbal explanation when presented to women, accompanied by illustration and demonstration, Vicki urges. For example, consider this time-worn instruction: "Align the sights and press the trigger smoothly." The result seems predictable, but Vicki has coached woman after woman who insisted they did EXACTLY as ordered, but continued to miss the target. She found that changing the command to "Align the sights WHILE you press the trigger smoothly," produced amazing results, as the student grasped for the first time that the directions should be performed simultaneously not sequentially.
While many assume that women lack the mechanical aptitude of most men, Vicki instead believes a poor understanding of spatial relationships is the root problem. "Once spatial relationships are understood, only then can you teach other marksmanship skills," Vicki told me. Communication styles and depth of detail in descriptions are even more important. Too often Vicki's remedial students tell her "No one ever SAID it that way before!"
Do We Think Differently?
These differences in brain organization make the task of cross-gender instruction or even teaching a co-ed class a daunting endeavor. Men learn from general statements. Include too many details and the male students in your class will lose interest, Vicki advised. However, fail to offer enough details and you will lose the women. If instructing a mixed group, the information must be presented without boring the men, but without leaving the women starving for information.
A former museum curator-educator, Vicki long ago learned to distill entire periods of history into brief exhibit labels. Knowing how to condense information has eased her task as an instructor. "You can't tell everything they need to know in a short time. It was the same with the museum: you have to cover the highlights," Vicki explained.
There is little doubt that most men and women see the world differently. Women are intrigued with people, not objects, Vicki pointed out. They rarely care HOW a gun works, nor do they become attached to it, although they are concerned about how well it works.
People-oriented, the female student wants to know that the instructor cares about her personally, and is interested in her individual performance, Vicki revealed. Wondering if men felt the same, Vicki quizzed a male student. "I don't care if the instructor likes me or not, in fact, I'm presuming that he won't like me," the man responded. "It doesn't affect what I learn from the class."
Meeting these very different female needs is challenging for male instructors, because a man teaching or supervising women fears the charge of sexual harassment. Likewise, the female student may question the motives of an instructor who hovers or seems to always be looking over her shoulder during a class. Many instructors maintain distance, and approach teaching male and female students in the same manner for fear of political repercussions. Unfortunately, the resultant remoteness rarely connects with the communication styles of his female students.
Vicki's advice to male instructors includes making eye contact, working to maintain a "benign and kind facial expression, for too much sternness will be reflected in a lack of learning." In daily interaction, men make far less eye contact than women, she pointed out. Two fellows can have an entire conversation without looking at one another more than once or twice, Vicki observed wryly. These revelations are fodder for more than instructors. By understanding how men communicate, female students are better able to understand the manner in which training is conducted.
"We must understand why women cry," Vicki urged. Women weep out of anger and frustration. Tears are an emotionally defensive act, and since earliest childhood, experience has proven that when we cry, whatever was happening usually went away. "It is a defensive mechanism. Very few women consciously realize that when they cry, that which is bothering them stops or goes away," she clarified.
Vicki advises instructors to back off before asking more of a crying student. "Personally, I think if a student has began to cry, she can't continue to learn. The first thing you must do is allow her to compose herself," she suggested. Simultaneously, the instructor should consider what they did to elicit the reaction, and resolve to teach differently when she returns. The female student should allow herself to request a few minutes to collect herself, if something on the training field elicits a strong emotional response.
"We cannot ignore the emotional component when teaching women," Vicki stressed. "Everything women do is colored by emotion." She believes that men can emotionally detach from the activities involved in learning a psycho-motor skill like shooting, "although," she grinned "their egos remain attached." When teaching men, the instructor can cajole, shame and bully. "Talk that way to a woman and she becomes defensive," Vicki predicted.
Times Are Changing
We know there is no reason women cannot participate side-by-side in the shooting sports and in the self-defense firearms training arena. As women, both as female students and instructors, we can apply the studies of Vicki Farnam to increase our effectiveness as learners and as instructors and find greater joy in the process.
For more information on classes with Vicki Farnam, go to www.defense-training.com