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Instructional Design Lessons from the State Fair

One of my kids likes the rides. The other prefers the games. It reminded me of training participants.
state fair

Over the past several years, my kids and I have started a tradition of going to the Washington State Fair on “opening day”, which has turned out to be the Friday before Labor Day. As we rode rides and won stuffed animals and ate fried food, some parallels between the state fair and instructional design began to emerge in my brain.

Rides and Instructional Design

One of my kids loves the rides, and the other one won’t go on the most gentle of rides.

As I reflected on this more, I realized that a ride happens to you. You have no control over what happens. A roller coaster is going to go down that big hill whether you want it to or not. The Tower of Terror is going to plummet straight down for 200 feet whether you want it to or not.

That said, you don’t have to do much during the ride. You buckle in and then experience it. No pressure to perform. There is no winning or losing.

In the same way, some training participants really prefer to simply sit back and not have to do much during training. They prefer for training to happen to them.

What can we, as instructional designers and trainers, do to hold ourselves accountable to making sure this kind of training participant still walks away with increased knowledge, skills or abilities?

Simply because some participants prefer to be more passive, allowing training to happen to them, it doesn’t mean that we can simply lecture at them and call it a day. That would be like sticking people on the carousel at the state fair for the entire day, telling them that’s the only ride they are allowed to go on.

Some different methods to presenting content while still managing to vary up the flow of the presentation and allowing for different experiences to unfold include:

  • Storytelling
  • Pecha Kucha
  • Live demonstrations
  • Turning your talking points into a “Top 5” or “Top 10” list
  • Bringing in a variety of guest speakers

Games and Instructional Design

While one child rode all the rides, the other just wanted to play games and win stuff.

It dawned on me that when you play a game, as opposed to when you ride a ride, you control your own destiny. While you’re not guaranteed a prize – you still need to knock all the milk bottles down or sink an impossible basketball shot or pop a balloon with a dart – your skill (and plenty of luck, too) will determine the outcome.

Similarly, there are plenty of training participants who have no desire to allow a training session to simply happen to them. They want to feel some sort of control over their fate. If they have to attend the session, they’d at least like some say over what happens in the training room.

Just like the people at the fair who run the games may rig the basketball hoop to be higher and stretch the room to a more oval shape than conventional basketball rims so as to maintain some control over the outcome, instructional designers and trainers can also rig their training sessions to offer involvement while also guiding the session to where it needs to go.

Some ideas for a more game-like training environment that allows participants a degree of control include:

When it comes to training, who do you think are the participants most challenging to engage? The ride-loving participants or the game-loving participants?

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