Thursday, May 23, 2013

Mind your Peas and Carrots!

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are."
  -   Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

I was cleaning up the kitchen after feeding my cats the other day and I noticed something odd.  My cats had perfectly eaten around what looked like peas and carrots.  I thought to myself, "That's odd.  Cats don't eat veggies."   So I asked my wife about it and she confirmed this is some wonderful new, celebrity-endorsed cat food that the cats just loved.   

"Except the peas and carrots,"  I added.  She looked and wondered about a husband who just didn't get it.

At this point you should be asking, "What does cat food have to do with learning?"

One of my most recent projects is to "fix" a class that has been developed by someone who is not me or my group.  The class was carefully built by the subject matter experts and delivered by skilled instructors.  The overwhelming response was that it contained little perceived value from the learners.

It took the cat food incident to turn on the proverbial light bulb.  There was nothing explicitly wrong with the class per se, but it simply wasn't what those specific learners needed to get out of the class.  It was designed with what the SMEs thought the learners needed to know, without actually designing for them.

It's like the cat food!  Do you see it?  Peas and carrots say "balanced" to a human, and who buys the cat food?  That's right - humans!  Now its not a direct parallel, but it's close enough.  Too often we design courses based on what the SMEs want to do and not what the real learners need and are motivated to learn.

I'll give you a real world example anyone can understand.  I can spend a great deal of time creating a learning snippet about proper tire inflation.  Ask an automotive engineer or master mechanic and they will tell you how proper pressure maximizes performance of the tire, increases the handling characteristics, and extends the life of the tire.  Some will even get excited about it.  But give that to the average driver and you'll fall flat on your face.

Now change it around a bit.  Hold out $50 cash and ask, "Would you throw this out the window?"  Of course they wouldn't, but tires with just a few pounds of pressure low - not discernible to the eye - will waste that much in gas alone over just the next year.  You're conveying the same message - proper tire inflation - but you're doing it in a way that motivates the learner.

Simple motivation can make or break a learning program.  And that's just what was wrong with my class I was asked to examine.  All the information was there, but it was dry and lifeless.  A simple change in perspective, some different real-world activities and discussions, and I think a failing grade can easily become an "A".

Your learners know what they need intuitively.  Don't leave them out of the conversation when designing learning.  Like Cats and veggies....

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”
        ― Banksy
I heard this quote the other day, and I couldn't get it out of my head.  Have you ever heard something and it just seems to bounce around in your head?  Our minds create these threads through our past experiences, and sometimes words or sounds can powerfully resonate through them.

This concept wandered in and out of my mind for the next couple of days.  Every time I remembered someone from my past, living or dead, I felt that they were still with me.  As long as I remember them and the impact they had they will never be gone.

I think learning is a lot like that.  Occasionally, I have discussions with people on what makes a great learning experience.  Is it fantastic content?  Maybe it's a really memorable classroom experience.  Or perhaps a great instructor?

It's really all of that, and none of that. 

What makes a great learning experience are those threads, those new skills that will resonate at some point in time for the learner.  It's more than what they remember, it's what they use.

Great learning simply resonates.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Equations for Success

“A person's value is attached to a variable exponent.”
     - David Bajo

I was thinking about equations the other night - I work with engineers so that isn't as strange as it sounds.  I was trying to develop a way to convey what goes into developing successful Learning.  Most of the time these guys, as well meaning as they are, start by throwing out content before they agree on the tasks!

Talk about herding cats.

And it came to me, what if I could express it in an equation?  And I came up with:

Motivation + Opportunity + Relevance = Learning

Allow me to explain.

In order for a adult to learn they have to be motivated to learn.  This means answering the question, "What's in it for me?"  We have to frame the learning is such a way as to start with a premise that gives the learner some direct benefit.  They may not care about a certain feature of a product, but start by showing them how it will make their work life easier and I guarantee you have their attention.  Its the same information, only differing on how you frame it.

Learners need to be given the opportunity to really learn the materials.  Presentations don't cut it.  I once heard someone say, "If you're talking, they're not learning."  I have shamelessly stolen and used that at every opportunity!   Of course, learners need a context and that usually involves a discussion or presentation of some sort.  But we often make the mistake of confusing speech or awareness as learning.  Real learning involves having a new skill, and that involves doing that skill  in practice.  You must give your learners an opportunity to learn.

And finally the subject has to be relevant.  Similar to motivation, relevance involves some sort of framework or context that your learner has that you leverage in your activities.  The most common example I can give is some sort of a report.  Show someone a random report and they may get it.  But substitute some meaningful data for the sample and all of a sudden your audience "gets it."

Finally, it all comes down to a foundation of tasks. Like any trip, you have to know where you're going before you start out.  You need a list of skills a learner is expected to take away from the program.  You wouldn't get in a car for a vacation, pull out on to the highway, and then argue over where you're going!  So why develop learning that way?  Agree on the tasks before you start anything.  You will save yourself a great deal of grief.

I hope this little math problem was useful.  There will be a quiz on Friday.