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Training Design Lessons from a Spy Museum

Museums can be fantastic sources of instructional design lessons. Here are three take-aways from a recent visit to a spy museum in New York City.

Last week I was in New York City with some of my family for spring break. Perhaps the most surprising highlight was an impromptu visit to Spyscape, a spy museum near Times Square. While it was a very cool museum for a tourist like me, I was also fascinated by how engaged every single visitor to the museum seemed to be. The instructional designer in me couldn’t help but to take notice.

Here are three instructional design thoughts I had after walking through the museum and seeing hyper-engaged visitors everywhere I turned.

Get People Curious and Engaged Even Before It Begins

Once we entered the museum, paid our $40 entrance fee and received a wrist band that showed we were paid customers, we were directed to the elevators to enter the exhibits. While we waited, there were thin, pole-like kiosks that people seemed to be standing near and staring at.

It turned out that our wrist bands had a little computer chip in them and we could scan the chip at any of these kiosks to begin playing spy-like activities… even before we actually entered any of the exhibits.

Spy Museum 1

We could answer some questions to gauge what our tolerance for risk and danger might be. We could solve puzzles and find out how well the logic part of our brain worked. All the while, the computer kept track of how we individually answered these questions. This was not only a fun way to get into the spy spirit even before we entered the exhibits, but our results on these little games and quizzes would come in to play later (see the third observation, below).

Instructional Design Lessons:

I really love the idea of getting participants to engage with content before a session even begins. Here are several posts on activities that might be able to help you capture some of this magic and pique your learner’s interest in your content even before your session kicks off:

The Messy Start

8 Ways To Get Your Audience Primed Before Your Presentation Even Begins

People Want To Engage with Unfamiliar Concepts (in a safe way)

I’ve been to a lot of museums. I enjoy going to see how exhibits are designed to convey information, and I try to see what lessons I can borrow for my own instructional design. Children’s Museums are particularly good at engaging people with interactive exhibits, but I’ve never seen a thirst by EVERYONE in the museum to interact with EVERY exhibit like I did at this museum.

I don’t think anyone was actually forced to come into this museum, and I know for a fact nobody was forcing anyone to check out the different exhibits. Yet the lines to learn more about being a spy in certain areas of this museum was Disney-esque. This was what pure engagement really looks like!

This would have been a very different experience if we’d walked into the museum and at each exhibit, there were some cool spy pictures next to someone talking about those photos. While the stories a person could share may have been interesting, I don’t know that the engagement level would have been nearly as high. I mean, would you rather hear about how difficult it is to sneak around a high security area with all sorts of laser alarms? Or would you rather try it for yourself to see how nimble and sneaky you really are?

Spy Museum 3

Instructional Design Lessons:

Yes, there is a time and place for instruction. In fact, had someone spent a little time telling me how this laser room works and what some best practices would be for sneaking between each laser beam, I would have surely performed better in this particular exhibit. On the other hand, learn-by-doing is a powerful experience. In this particular exhibit, my child and I got back in line multiple times to see if we could perform better. Here are a few links to ways that you might be able to replace some of your didactic instruction with more engaging, yet safe, ways for people to learn:

18 Instructor-led Training Activities

Is It Possible To Create Engaging Software Training?

Give A Reason To Want To Exit Through The Gift Shop

Remember those activities we did by scanning our wrist bands at various kiosks, both before we even entered the exhibits (and then throughout the exhibits as well)? As we finished our visit, we came to one last exhibit that calculated our performance on each of the quizzes and puzzles and games we engaged in throughout the museum and we were given an end-of-visit report that detailed how well we performed, and what kind of spy role we’d best fill.

I was informed I’d be a surveillance specialist. My child would best be an undercover agent. We also were able to scan a QR code to learn more about each of these roles.

As we exited (through the gift shop, of course), all of the books and souvenir spy equipment were arranged by spy role. Naturally people who were told they’d be a good surveillance specialist gravitated toward their section which had books and spy equipment specific to their role.

It gave us a little more purpose as we strolled through the gift shop. It was a genius marketing move.

Instructional Design Lessons:

When you think of our role as instructional designers, shouldn’t we be taking lessons for good marketing materials? After all, we need to “market” the importance of our content!

Here are a few podcasts I’ve recorded with marketing and advertising experts, breaking down what marketers do well, and what lessons we in the training field would be wise to adopt:

Lessons in learning design from a former marketing pro

How to approach training like a marketer

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