Here we are coming fast upon Father’s Day and it’s been barely more than a month since we celebrated Mother’s Day. Both of my parents passed away in the last few years after long happy lives, so now I find myself celebrating less while remembering so fondly the impact they had on me.
Dad was a teacher through and through. I mean that both literally (he taught college chemistry for his entire career) but also more broadly, as his fathering always had at heart a gentle, loving insistence on helping his children understand the world around them and learn to succeed and co-exist with the rest of creation.
He had a sweet ritual that he liked to put into action over his years of child-rearing. There came a summer day when he approached me with a twinkle in his eye, as he had done with my four older siblings, with the joking threatening words, “Come with me. I’m going to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.” We went to the backyard where our little Huffy bicycle was waiting. He would tirelessly push me, running behind as I awkwardly struggled to pedal, until I got the hang of maintaining balance. He was there to pick me up from the soft grass whenever I fell and quick with a helpful suggestion that would improve my performance. He was true to his word; He certainly gave me a lesson I never forgot.
While Dad said it jokingly, he was quite serious about how he viewed his responsibility in teaching bike riding as much as teaching organic chemistry. He saw every opportunity to create a memorable and meaningful lesson never to be forgotten. It’s a goal that we who design learning should take seriously. Training efforts are pointless if they don’t result in lasting skills.
My Dad employed strategies that we would do well to emulate in our own instructional designs. Some of the ideas he put into action were:
Get the learner performing as soon as possible.
No mention was made of learning the names of the parts of the bicycle first, or going through key milestones in the history of the bicycle, or reviewing all the various types of bicycles one might encounter. The intent of the training was to get comfortable with the basic operation of a bicycle. The other areas might have been desirable to know but can follow later. Getting me on the bicycle right away immediately made me the central, active participant, and gave my Dad the information he needed to know about my specific challenges in order to know what I needed to improve.
Respond to failure with patient support and care.
From the very beginning, the sense of experimenting and learning by doing was core to learning. With that as the expectation, the fear of being “wrong” disappears. There was no sense of failing because I fell over, and so there was no shame or criticism that so easily gets in the way of someone taking the risks necessary to accomplish something brand new. Dad’s corrective actions were supportive and nurturing rather than judgmental and discouraging.
Take advantage of intrinsic feedback whenever possible.
We learn so effectively when we pay attention to the direct results of our actions. My goal was to learn to ride a bike. The evidence and sensation of success was so much more immediate and impactful than any praise of validation my Dad offered. Sure it was nice to hear a “Yeah, you’re doing it!” at times during the session, but that really wasn’t helping me to learn. It was the intrinsic elements that communicated the critical things, such as “this is easier if you pedal at a continuous pace,” or “moving a little faster actually aids in balancing,” etc.
“Actions speak louder than words” certainly applies to learning. The core of learning needs to be rooted in performing the task. Even when information or knowledge is involved, put that information to use through active and immediate application.
Training is not about the teacher.
Dad was very experienced in physical skills (as he was knowledgeable about organic chemistry). But the training session was not the moment to make sure that every bit of experience or knowledge needed to be shared. Dad was confident enough to know that his validity and worth was not at question (the way it seems some e-learning modules are desperate to document the vast accomplishment(s) of the author). He was content to share just enough that was needed for the moment, knowing that knowledge and performance grow naturally through use and practice (or through follow-up training).
As I think about these points, it seems that the overall message is to remember your own humanity and the nature of your learners as you craft learning experiences. Even though communication in e-learning is mediated through an impersonal device, person-to-person caring communication is a vital tool that creates engagement, meaning, and memory. Applying this thinking will indeed create lessons your learners will never forget.