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....

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