Designing for Learning to Emerge

I love May in Indianapolis. While much of my home city wraps itself in the black and white of the Indianapolis 500, the well-designed landscaping bed surrounding my bungalow bursts with color. Every day I awaken to some new growth emerging, some new form taking shape, some glorious color crying out to me. Because of the talent of the landscape architect who planned this cycle (definitely not me), the seemingly never-ending sequence of growth and color unfolds for several weeks.

If only training and professional development experiences could mirror the imaginative thoughtfulness of my landscape design. Imagine participating in a program where you were part of a steady, but constant unfolding of awareness, insight, and new learning. Your curiosity would be awakened, your senses and interest would be engaged, and your contributions to the experience would be heightened.

How rare these experiences are, however. Much of what is billed as “high impact learning” at many conferences amounts to little more than talking head panel presentations with some discussion groups thrown in as an afterthought. I know when it comes to learning styles that there are different strokes for different folks. In fact, I can recall many a time when I sat with rapt attention listening and learning from a masterful storyteller, lecturing for hours on end with nary a visual aid or handout. But those successful spellbinders are few and far between.

Our efforts need more attention during the design process. To begin we need to more clearly identify the learning questions to be explored and the learning outcomes worth achieving. We then need to prioritize the key points to be made in the content. Time is not endless, and if I hear one more presenter begin a session with “If only I had more time, we could talk about ____” I may need someone to post bail for me. It is incumbent upon the program designer (and sponsor) to design for the time available. Having clearly prioritized pieces of content makes that more manageable.

After all this has been done, we need to spend far more time exploring the truly endless number of discussions, exercises, and other teaching techniques that can be used during the session. Once techniques are identified for all of the individual segments, the overall program design needs to be examined through several lenses: (1) the lens of content flow: does the flow of discussions and points being made have an appropriate logic or order to it? (2) the lens of attention: do the various techniques employed ensure a sufficient variety and level of interaction to capture attention; (3) the lens of learning: have enough learning checkpoints been built in so participants can reflect and capture their new insights?

While this may seem an ominous task, I would suggest program participants deserve nothing less. I guess I could have skipped the landscape architect’s effort and simply thrown a bag of wildflower seeds into the ground. I’m sure some seeds would have grown into something nice, but a whole lot of ithen would probably have become weeds.

So the next time you get ready to sponsor or present a program, put on your kneepads and bury your hands in the real dirt of program design. It will produce a much prettier result.

You can download a simple planning template I use to design my own sessions that captures the steps outlined above.