Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Two Essential Ingredients to Success

"I like to cook with the philosophy of using great ingredients and not altering them too much." 
            -     Aaron Sanchez

I like to watch Chopped on Food Network for a lot of the same reasons I appreciate a world-class learning experience.   (If you have not seen the program Chopped a panel of contestants is given set of random ingredients that they have to transform into delicious dishes, as judged by professional chefs).  They would seem to have nothing in common but in fact they share the two absolutely essential ingredients.

The ingredient you have to start with is a good challenge.  One of the worst learning experiences you can think of is one where you sit through hours or perhaps days of lecture, your brain desperately trying to stay engaged.  Often this is driven by the need of the instructional designer to stuff as much content into the program as they can, without regard to what learners actually take away.

Recently, we did two things that were controversial to raise the challenge, but I see as real differentiators.  First, we removed all of the solution pages from our workbooks.  Too often we see learners hit a roadblock and immediately flip to the solution.   That may make the experience more smooth for the learner, but it only demonstrates that someone can follow written instructions.  Removing the solutions requires the learner to figure it out.  It's more difficult but it results in real learning.  Look at your own experience - you probably remember the things you had to struggle to get right.

Second, we limited lecture to 15 minutes.  We started a rule in the design process that "if you're talking for more than 15 minutes you need to stop."  Humans learn when they do.  Period.  In one set of advanced classes we lecture for a short time on Monday morning, give the learners a challenge, and ask them to present their solutions on Friday.  This is really hanging someone out in the wind, but everyone who has gone through that program has said the same two things: it was really hard but they learned a great deal.

But challenge is only one half of the equation.  You have to make the experience fun.   Humans enjoy variety and have a need to be entertained.  Mix up your exercises and activities, break people into various teams, try new things.   I learned form a colleague to play music during exercises - it seriously raises the mood.  Your learners will have a memorable experience.

Compare this to Chopped.  The contestants are seriously challenged but they all seem to have fun.  It's a winning recipe.  So remember, start with Challenge and Fun, and add spices to taste.