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Turn your learners loose to explore

As instructional designers, we should probably be allowing our learners the equivalent of the freedom and euphoria of being able to veer off a prescribed path in order to scramble up the side of a hill.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, my family spent some time at our neighbor’s cabin near Mt. Rainier. Our days were filled with hiking and whiffle ball, while the evenings featured camp fires and s’mores.

On one outing through the still-thawing meadows of Mt. Rainier, where there is still snow on the ground in July, we had to keep reminding our kids to stay on the hiking path because we didn’t want to trample the budding wild flowers. They didn’t love the restrictions, but they conformed.

On another outing, we came to a section of the hiking trail where we could stay on the path, or we could turn the kids loose in a scramble up the side of a hill. The kids took off like a shot, grabbing roots and trees and fallen logs in order to scramble their way up the steep incline. It was the highlight of our hike for them.

Scramble

It made me think of several workshops I’ve recently designed. As instructional designers, we should probably be allowing our learners the equivalent of the freedom and euphoria of being able to veer off a prescribed path in order to scramble up the side of a hill. 

Following are three strategies I’ve been able to incorporate into the design of learning programs to turn my learners loose.

Software scavenger hunt. Several years ago when our IT department wanted to roll out Salesforce to our organization, I was approached to help with the initial training for our staff. I was directed to several of the self-guided training videos that Salesforce had created. Yuck!

There are a lot of features in Salesforce and a robust training program is essential to making sure our organization got the biggest bang for its buck, but we didn’t need to start by lecturing our staff on basic navigation features.

Instead, even before we brought them into a training room we gave users access to their accounts and assigned them a Salesforce Scavenger Hunt (find certain records, find specific information about a customer, etc) to see how much they could actually do in Salesforce without ever having been trained. We began the actual classroom training with a discussion about how easy (or difficult) it was to navigate Salesforce, and then we could anchor the rest of the training on this scavenger hunt experience.

Values scavenger hunt. Recently our HR department wanted to freshen up their new staff orientation session and bring more engagement to the 60 minutes that they had to make a first impression on new employees.

In the past, we walked through our mission, vision and values and discussed them during the session. Since we’re an organization that prides ourselves on living our values every day, I suggested that we should give session attendees a brief overview of our values, then ask them to walk around our office and find an example of a specific value in action.

Our solution: A group is given 10 minutes to walk about the office, then returns to the classroom to discuss what they saw.

Performance development plan survey. I was working with a client about a year ago and they wanted a better way to orient staff to their individual performance development plans. They had been giving them out to staff and walking them through all the features and information that needed to be included. They explained why the organization valued this performance system. And they said their attendees in this session were often bored. It was painful.

For this project, we decided to give out the performance development plans to session attendees and, before anything else was said about the forms, attendees were asked to explore the documents and answer three questions:

  1. What value do you think this form can offer you as you think about your current (and potentially future) role in this organization?
  2. What part(s) of this form seem unclear?
  3. If you had to complete this form today, what would you write?

After individual reflection, we decided it still wasn’t time to offer “the company line” about these forms. We paired up participants and had them share their individual reflections with one another. Then we had a large group discussion.

There will always be information that must be delivered in a very structured, intentional way – similar to our hike through the meadows of Mt. Rainier in which veering off the path could have negative, maybe even destructive consequences.

In my experience, the need to stay on a specific learning path for professional development is fairly rare. Finding ways to turn our learners loose – allowing them to scramble up a steep hillside and blaze their own trails – can make the learning more relevant, meaningful, engaging and personal.

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