Liberating learners by breaking with tradition
Learners do not want disconnected information; they do not want mindless tasks; and they do not want to feel stupid.
They want excitement, challenge and satisfaction.
They are happy to work hard for the reward of achieving new goals, provided that the process motivates them.
For far too long, training courses have taken learners on boring journeys which require self-motivation, considerable stamina, and some suspension of disbelief.
Why? What have they done to deserve this drudgery? Where does the cause lie?
In many cases, the root cause lies in the design of the training course
Let’s be clear that we are not using the term “design” here in its frequently limited sense of visual or graphic design; we mean the design of the training process. The design of the course includes: the combination of information, tasks and feedback; the granularity of the content; and the environment, materials and tools provided for the learner.
In our view, the most important aspect of the design of a training course is the “disclosure sequence”: the sequence in which the topics of the subject are disclosed to the learner. This is the central issue on which all other aspects of the course design depend.
We believe that by exploring innovative disclosure sequences, the effectiveness of training can be dramatically improved.
Sequence: no choice?
So what is wrong with conventional sequences and what can we do about them?
Far too often, during the design of a training course, although some thought is given to the disclosure sequence, it is far too little. It is frequently assumed that the sequence is dictated by some prescribed characteristics of the subject area and is the only one available.
For example, if a course is teaching a process; frequently it is designed to teach the process from the beginning to the end. This might seem to be obviously a good idea; personally I disagree, as I will explain!
Another example is where a subject, technology or discipline has developed over time in a particular sequence, then that historical sequence is chosen for the course. Again, this might seem obvious and has the distinct advantage that it is almost guaranteed to “work” in the sense that it meets one of the common criteria: that learners cannot be expected to rely on something which they do not yet know. In this case, in principle at least, no sub-topic can depend on something which was invented after it; so this makes the course design easier.
Another common characteristic is that the sequence tries to avoid repetition, because that is assumed (incorrectly in my view) to result in boredom. This can manifest itself in attempts to gather together all occurences of a particular feature and to expect them all to be learnt at once. This usually makes unnecessary demands on learners, especially when they see no association between the cases in which the feature is used. The course can feel like trying to learn from a reference manual.
In general, a more effective guide to designing a disclosure sequence is to choose a path through the goals which the learner already has, beginning with those which can be achieved simply and progressing to those which are more complex to achieve. It is evidently not always easy to find these; but if such a path can be found, then the requirement to motivate learners along the way tends to be easier because they are achieving parts of the objective along the way, while building on what they already know.
Let’s deal with some of the common assumptions.
Firstly, let’s consider the repetition aspect. Have you ever watched a child learning to play a video game? Do they need to be self-motivated or is the game motivating them? Are they watching the clock to see when they can walk away or are they losing track of time as they are drawn into the game? And are they required to hope or believe that there will be some pay-off for playing it or are they are being challenged and satisfied all the time? In each case, it is the latter. Is it repetitive? Extremely. So is the repetition boring and demotivating? It seems not. If you still think so, then you might like to take up playing golf; it is challenging, frustrating, sometimes very satisfying, almost never boring … and (you guessed it) very repetitive!
Repetition is necessary for simple tasks to become automatic so that they can be relied on when used for more complex tasks.
Secondly, there is the choice of a historical sequence. Just because the subject matter has been laid down in some layered way, like some kind of geological formation, does not mean that this sequence is the best way to learn the subject.
Knowing what we now know, it is highly likely that a better choice can be found.
Just because old aircraft had a tail wheel and most modern ones have a nose wheel, does not mean that it is easier to learn to fly a tail wheel aircraft first. In fact, it is more difficult. There are several reasons why a tail wheel aircraft is a poorer design, and it might be better to ignore it altogether!
When learning to program in the C++ language, there are features which were added later in the development of the language, such as “exception handling”. Their late addition does not automatically mean that they are more advanced features. These can be learnt much earlier than many course designers seem to believe.
Learning a process
Finally, there is the teaching of a process from beginning to end; this is often among the worst choices of sequence. In most cases, it is the most difficult choice for the learner. Often it is also harder for the trainer; although it may be among the easiest for the course designer.
The learner is told that there is a straightforward route by which they can achieve their goal, and it will require the whole course (possibly lasting hours or days) to reach it.
They are probably given a starting point that they are familiar with, and are taught the first step. This involves doing something new and unfamiliar, and it generates a result which is also unfamiliar. But they are expected to understand and feel satisfied that they are on the road towards their ultimate goal.
With that first step mastered, they are then taught the second step; this picks up where the first step left off, using the output of the first step as its input.
Now they have taken something unfamiliar, done something else which is new and unfamiliar with it, and generated yet another unfamiliar result. But, everything is fine: look how far we have come; and surely you can see that we are getting closer to our goal!!
Well, it is clearly feasible that learners can be convinced of this, because many people have been taught this way for years; but it is hard work.
They are more likely to be left thinking: “if I had known that that was what we were going to do in the second step, then I would have understood why I was doing the first step and might have done it differently. And, of course, I now feel the same about the, as yet unknown, third step.”
The whole sequence requires continued maintenance of belief that this unknown path will eventually lead to the goal!
Have you ever tried to teach a child to tie their shoe laces this way? It is difficult, which is probably the reason that parents buy shoes with Velcro fasteners!
The opposite sequence
But there is a way in which it can be done more easily. It is to teach the process in reverse. That is, you can teach the last step first, then the step before the last, and so on backwards through the process.
There is a clue to the advantage of this backwards approach in what the learner was thinking above and in what consequently and frequently happens during training courses of this type. After the second step has been described and partially learnt, the purpose of the first step becomes somewhat clearer. It is still not obvious that it is a useful step to have taken, because it is not clear that the second step is useful; but at least the quality of the output of the first step can be assessed based on its usefulness as an input to the second step. So the learner can now go back and improve their performance of the first step using this assessment as feedback.
Applying this to teaching a child to tie laces results in a sequence which many a parent has probably arrived at in the end.
At first, while the child is unable to tie the laces, the parent ties them; of course, the child sees them being tied which serves as a useful demonstration.
The next stage is for the parent to tie the laces except for the last step (probably pulling the loops tight), and allowing the child to perform that final step.
For a while, this can be repeated every time the laces are tied; the child becomes proficient at performing the last step including, crucially, getting the satisfaction of completing the tying of the laces.
If you have not seen this before then you are, by now, probably getting the idea! The next stage is for the parent to tie the laces but to stop before the previous step (probably passing the second loop around the first loop) and allowing the child to perform this second to last step as well, of course, as the last step which is already known.
In this way, the child is learning one step at a time, is always running into known territory and is getting the satisfaction of completing the process everytime.
When the training is complete, the child is able to start at the beginning and to complete the entire process. Hey presto!
I believe that many professional musicians use the same technique in learning a piece of music: they learn to play the last few bars first, then the previous few bars, and so on! There is the story of someone remarking to a musician: “You must have practised a lot to be able to play that right!” ; to which the musician responded: “It takes much more practise that than, so that I am not able to play it wrong!”
I have heard of a flying instructor who allowed a student pilot to land an aircraft solo, before he allowed him to take off solo; but that is left as a story for another day … and as a riddle for the reader!
We have seen that the designer of the training course need not be resigned to a disclosure sequence which appears to be dictated by the subject domain. We have seen examples of avoiding repetition, pandering to history, and following a process. These are all approaches which seem to make sense to someone who is passively reading, listening to or watching descriptions of a subject.
But people learn to do something by doing it, and it helps to practise repeatedly with some measure of success and some feedback. As soon as repetition is allowed, other opportunities are opened up.
We have the opportunity to reduce the need for external motivation provided by the learner or the trainer, by designing disclosure sequences which challenge and reward learners in ways which generate the motivation internally through the interaction between the learner and the course itself.
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