The Carnegie Course

Everybody’s either read or heard of the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. But what many people might not know or remember is that Carnegie was teaching those lessons as a course for about 20 years before writing the book. The course is still being taught over a hundred years later.

A few weeks ago I took part in the three day intensive version of the course. I had read the book casually in the past and I knew basically what to expect. Nevertheless, my expectations were far exceeded. It’s one of the best things I’ve done and I highly recommend it to anybody.

It occurred to me afterwards that I had probably learnt more in three days than I had learned in entire semesters, maybe even years of school and university education. So, I sat down and wrote a list of the things that set the course apart and then reflected on how traditional high school and university education differed. Here’s the list I came up with. I’ll expand more on each point below.  (Disclaimer: It’s been over a decade since I was in formal education so my perspective on that could be out of date. From what I have heard, however, probably not).

Carnegie Course Traditional Education
Keep energy up Energy almost always suppressed
Engage the student. Make it personal Keep it objective
Work the body as well as the mind Restrain the body
Encourage people to go out of their comfort zone Standardisation of learning
Focus on building skills Focus on regurgitating content
Teachers model behaviour, class follows Teachers explain, class does
Only give positive reinforcement and guidance Grading relative to fixed standard
Empirical approach Rationalist/Authoritarian approach
Listen and share with fellow students Compete with fellow students

Keep energy up: There are literally no down times in the Carnegie course. No time for the mind to wander or drift off.  While you are in the room, you are doing something. Any pauses that are required for logistical reasons (eg. tallying results) are filled by engaging in a group activity that gets everybody laughing. Then you get straight into the next activity in high spirits. Far from being vacuous or a waste of time, this is a great pedagogical technique.  Management of energy levels is, in my opinion, key to person success but also key in group dynamics.  Carnegie demonstrated for me how to do that flawlessly.

Engage the student: Our education system is based on the idea of objectivity. Reality stays true whether or not you believe in it. That’s probably true of reality but not true of how people’s attention and motivation works. As the saying goes “if you want people to build a boat, tell them a story about the sea”. Engage people first and they will do most of the learning by themselves. A central tenet of the Carnegie style is that you should attempt to frame your communication in terms that other people can intuitively grasp. If you do that, you will win people’s attention. The same goes for students. Get them engaged first and they will learn what you have to teach.

Work the body as well as the mind: One of the memorisation techniques introduce in the Carnegie course involves the use of body movements. This works incredibly well. It’s amazing what unrelated material you can commit to memory using this method. Weeks after the course, I can still bring those mnemonics to mind. That’s a pretty good return on investment. As for traditional education, just ask yourself what information you actually retained from all those textbooks you read in school/university?

Encourage people to go out of their comfort zone: In the Carnegie course you really get to choose your own level of intensity. Different personality types naturally respond to different exercises. People who are slightly uncomfortable with some activities are gently encouraged to push through but never criticised or made to feel they didn’t measure up to some standard. Individual differences are respected. By contrast, the traditional educational model is graded, planned out in advance, evened out so as not to leave behind the stragglers but also not flexible enough to continue to encourage those who have the aptitude to push ahead.  Everybody must conform to the standard measure rather than allow each to find their own breakthroughs and milestones.

Focus on building skills: Of course the Carnegie course has the famous book to use as a textbook. How many times is it referred to in the course? Zero! Powerpoint slides are used to introduce the basic concepts. They are shown for seconds at a time and then switched off. You get to your feet, get the body working, learn the concept and then immediately put it into action.  You spend the majority of the course exercising the skills and watching your fellow students do the same.  At the end you walk out knowing exactly what those skills are, how you can use them and what the results will be.  You have actual techniques you can begin to apply immediately in your life.

Teachers model behaviour, class follows: The teachers in the Carnegie course demonstrate the skills they are teaching and they do so to a very high standard. The students then enact those same skills. This gives you a reference point for excellence. A gauge you can use to compare your performance to.  And that gauge is another human being, not some abstract theory or part of a syllabus.

Only give positive reinforcement and guidance:  In addition to modelling the skill for you, the teachers in the Carnegie course guide you while you are performing a skill. Where the student is not pushing hard enough or not carrying out the skill correctly, they are gently guided in the right direction.  This is the kind of instant feedback that most of us only ever got with sports training but it works just as well with any skill. At the end, everybody applauds your effort. This has the effect of encouraging the student to make mistakes. You realise that holding back is counterproductive.  You want to push on and try your best.  By contrast, the traditional education system encourages a conservative approach by the student.  What you’re after is high grades and you get those by not making mistakes.

Empirical approach: The Carnegie course tells you the theory and then gets you to put it into action in real life. You see, hear and feel the results. Traditional education takes a rationalist and frankly authoritarian approach. Learn the right answers and then regurgitate them at the right time. In that system, it is possible to get good grades without ever learning the first principles. With Carnegie, you learn the first principles and then trial the ways in which you can implement them. Learning becomes a kind of exploration.  You’re exploring the space in which you can effectively implement the principle.  In doing so, you get to develop and express your own style.  Of course, no standardised test ever gives credit for the style in which you carried out a principle.

Listen and share with fellow students: The Carnegie course requires you to put into use the skills you are learning and then report back to the class on how it went. This serves to reinforce the principle because you get to hear the different ways that others put it into action. In addition, many of the exercises allow people to incorporate their personal experiences. In fact, this is encouraged as a way to make an idea more understandable.  The result is to allow individual personalities to shine through which builds group solidarity and creates a sense of trust.  By contrast, students in traditional education don’t get to see each others work for fear of copying.  The system is actually a competitive one in which students are fighting each other over grades. This approach does not encourage the understanding of first principles and obviously doesn’t allow for much individual expression.

Having seen the Carnegie style of pedagogy, I can’t help but reflect on how many of us have been shaped by the alternative style that was dominant in our school education.  For example, I see a lot of people in my line of work who don’t seem to understand the first principles of what they are doing.  Many people don’t spend time developing skills but just learning what is the latest trend (the latest, “correct” answer to a question you might get asked in a job interview).  And there is a distinct lack of true teachers and true leaders.  People who model behaviour and who let the results speak for themselves.

I think the best part about the Carnegie course though is that everybody else in the class will have a different list of things they learned.  That variety of perspective, understanding and trying to appreciate what makes others tick was just another bonus of the course.  You learn to appreciate the things that make us different and unique while also understanding the core things that unite us.  Almost like a yin-yang combination of objectivity and subjectivity in one.