Hiking trails and barriers to learning

In a cartoon I saw years ago, two Romans are sitting high in the Coliseum, watching people being thrown to the lions.  One man says to the other, “You know, I’m a Christian, too — I’m just not a fanatic about it.”

I’m kind of that way about hiking, and about learning design.  In terms of hiking, my idea of enjoyably strenuous is Lowe’s Bald Spot, a “small subordinate peak below Mount Washington” in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.  Which may explain why I enjoy hiking (okay, walking) along converted railbeds like Québec’s Parc Lineaire Le P’tit Train du Nord.  Just last week, my wife and I ambled along a similar, smaller route in the town of Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia.

What’s that got to do with learning design?

Well, learning is what someone does–either through active pursuit or through the relentless looping of stimulus, response, and feedback.  Thus what you learn, where, and how all depend on your context, which includes the experiences and inclinations that you bring to the new setting.

If you’re not much of a hiker, then the hiking equivalent of learning design is an effort to help you achieve a satisfactory experience.  It took us a little while to figure that the gravely path winding past a marsh had been a railbed, though I had my suspicions.  Then I saw a clear, orderly fork, a place where one track had split from another, and I knew.

That kind of trail doesn’t need to provide a lot of guidance–though for newcomers, it’s helpful to make clear it is a trail, and to set forth some basics:

We’d entered from a side route and only found this gate as we approached the beginning of the trail.  Seems obvious that you’re not supposed to drive here.  At least that was my take.  But then we noticed the adjoining sign:

Additional user guidance, I guess.  What the trail planner (or the town attorney) had in mind, I suppose, was someone tooling along in his car on the approach to the trail, at night, and perhaps not noticing the metal gate.  A standard road sign format might help.

Then we moved a bit further away:

A lot of corporate and organizational learning is intended to increase effectiveness.  We want people to be more productive, able to do things more quickly, or to a higher level of quality.  It’s the mantra of better, faster, cheaper, more.

That’s fine.  That’s what you should aim for in an organization, because when you’re better at what you do, you can achieve the goals you had in mind.

A lot of corporate and organizational learning, though, hews doggedly to the throughput model.  Give people stuff.  Explain.  Direct.  Tell.  Don’t waste time having folks fumble around trying things.

What’s more, I believe many people in those organizations–the folks attending the formal learning–expect that approach.  Boil it down.  Don’t waste my time.  Gimme facts.  For heaven’s sake, don’t be a fanatic about making me do stuff in the hope that I’m going to learn.

Combine that with the urge that “learning professionals” have to be helpful, and you can end up with a day’s formal training that includes half an hour of icebreakers, another half hour on groundrules and objectives, 15 minutes’ recap before lunch and 15 minutes afterward, to say nothing of end-of-the-day reviews, reactions, and ritual bows toward the flipchart-sheet parking lot.  That’s a whole lotta time going to paralearning.

I’m going to post that third picture in my office as a not-too-subtle reminder that I shouldn’t make things too obvious


6 thoughts on “Hiking trails and barriers to learning

  1. There’s another joke about Romans that I like, which kind of applies to Learning fanatics.

    In a Roman florist, a customer asks for a Narcissus silvestris. She’s served and goes on her way. “What a nice lady,” thinks the florist.

    A second customer asks for Lanicera caprifolium. He’s served and satisifed. “What a nice fellow,” thinks the florist.

    A third customer comes along and asks for a bunch of pansies. The florist gives him his very stiffly flowers thinking, “What an arrogant pretentious twit!”

    It’s good to know your ologies and all that Latinate theorification, but sometimes a chat round a campfire and some stories can make all the difference.

    (PS I did say ‘kind of’ applies. #shoehorn)

  2. Dave — I’m with you on the hiking and the metaphor (or is it an analogy?) — and used hiking as the theme of my elearning book (aLearning: A Trail Guide to Association eLearning).

    And I’m with you on battling the standard formal learning structure that wastes time without delivering the desired performance outcomes.

    Here’s to innovative “classroom” techniques :)

  3. Ellen, thanks for chiming in. I think associations often find themselves in a difficult position. Several that I know of are struggling to get out of the half-day, in-person seminar model for professional development. In some cases, they meet resistance from their members, because a half day or full day at the Marriott, complete with pastry in the morning and those glass jars of hard candy, is the way the members think PD is supposed to look.

  4. Dave — So maybe we transform those half-day sessions — make them more (to use an over-used word) engaging and effective. We incorporate more hands-on activities and still serve the pastry at the Marriott :) When I was with a foodservice trade association, we were always looking for tours and local experts who could come into these sessions, exploiting the location for the benefit of the learners. Our best reactions from people came from sessions that did this most effectively (a workshop on coffee and tea in Seattle, is one example; it included tastings and cuppings, tours, and barista demos).

    These sessions took the most time to plan and were most nerve-wracking to implement.

    This, I fear, is the real reason these structures aren’t as popular. Associations rely on volunteers to design and organize these sessions — people who have less and less time to devote to such tasks, and who often don’t have much training or experience in creating these sorts of events in the first place.

    And professional training companies that offer the stale half- (or full-, or multiple-) day sessions you describe? Fees cover travel and trainer costs, plus they need to make a tidy profit. More interesting programs would shrink that profit margin, prevent them from standardizing their programs that enable them to swap out instructors when they need to, and cut other corners…

    It’s always about time and money, don’t you think?

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