Learning Design for Impact

This article originally appeared in Training & Development magazine October 2017 Vol 44 No 5, published by the Australian Institute of Training and Development.

For professional learning to have impact, it needs to meet multiple criteria. Adult learners need to feel like a learning endeavour is going to be relevant, respect both their current and future needs but also their existing experience, provide flexibility and options, and result in some sort of longer-term efficacy. Everything from Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle to the Cognitive Apprenticeship Model can be useful in pulling together philosophical and structurally-oriented option banks for learning experience design, but there are five basic and critically important elements that it might be worth paying particular attention to for good, practical and professional modern andragogy.

Connected Learning

For a start, participants need to feel they can connect with the learning that is coming their way. This needs to go well beyond a dry introduction to the general topic or theme along with a bullet point list of learning intentions or objectives.

To connect to a prospective learning experience, adults benefit most from activation of existing schemata. A schema (plural schemata) is an existing mental model or conceptualisation of something based on existing knowledge and previous context and experience.

Key questions to get the adult learner thinking here, before they consider any content or activities, include:

• How does the participant’s existing or previous work context relate to what is about to be learned?
• What do they (think they) already know or can do in relation to this?
• Hypothetically, what would or might the participant think to do given this or that situation or challenge (relative to the learning)?

Asking these types of questions has an interesting psychological impact on learners. They begin to visualise, create instinctive frames of reference and relevance, and potentially uncover gaps in what they think they know. It also fulfils a critical need to make adult learners feel a basic level of respect for their pervious knowledge and experience as well as what they might be able to accomplish with their resources. Last but not least, for the trainer or facilitator, it tells us where the learners are already at when it comes to this particular learning domain or challenge, and we can target the learning closer to the juncture between existing awareness/competency and new/needed competencies.

Exploratory Learning

Next, there is a certain power that comes from exploratory learning that allows it to become personalised and absorbed in a way that satisfies curiosity and need, but allows an adult learner to make informed choices.

Ask an adult learner to read/watch nine things in a particular order and pay careful attention to every one of them, and many will instinctively resent you. Ask the learner to read/watch two things, and many will claim they are not getting much bang for their learning buck. Give the learner access to a bank of 12-15 things, and select the three or four they think will be most relevant to their learning in this particular unit, and something different happens.

Given the choice, many will actually read/watch all 12-15 resources, to actually find out which three or four they think will be most relevant and interesting. Adult learners appreciate the faith the course is showing them to be mature and cognitively competent enough to make principled choices of their own, and to contribute actively and equally to the learning process.

Unless the learning involves a highly prescriptive list of incremental and cumulative skills and awareness points, learning content ought to be presented as a sort of curated library of readings, resources, scenarios and audio-visual presentations which the learners should feel free to explore in their own sequence and style.

Where this learning then becomes particularly interesting and salient is when you then ask them to share their three or four selections with the rest of the learning group, rationalising their selections and sharing what they think is of most relevance and interest from a learning perspective. There is now also a very welcome opportunity for a skilled facilitator to see patterns and gaps across both individuals and groups of learners.

Investigative Learning

What is happening at the tail end of that exploration process is the beginning of a deeper dive into more investigative learning. Let’s now connect the theories, concepts and examples to hypothetical problems and scenarios. Let’s debate which things are most relevant or useful (and when, how, where and why). Let’s do that in a low-risk environment more about ideas, experiments and possibilities than perform-or-perish situations in the real world.

  • Facilitated investigative learning requires four critical ingredients:
  • Problems/challenges to engage with;
  • A dialogic, collaborative and low-risk learning environment;
  • Live/in-real-time learning to facilitate a certain amount of ‘psychological arousal’ around the challenges and tasks;
  • A skilled facilitator that can moderate but also connect back to both the theory/examples in the exploration stage and also potentially back to the existing schemata and knowledge from the connect stage.

Applied Learning

While this can all be interesting, effective and motivating for learners up to this point, the next stage is an essential one. The learning needs to become applied, involving real problems in real contexts with real tools and actions. The learning may have been somewhat or hypothetically applied in the facilitated investigation stage, but now it needs to go (back out) into the real world.

Toolkits and applied workplace assignments can be particularly effective. Ask the learners to complete a chart based on their current team environment and task load. Have them employ a technique or strategy, having a colleague video record or observe them to see how it goes. Get them to measure or estimate things in the workplace, in response to actions they are implementing based on the learning from the course. Keep a daily work-learning journal – great for catching the more natural and spontaneous opportunities that pop up during a typical work day to put new learning into action. Create posters or other artefacts that reflect the learning but can be seen and drawn on at will in the actual workplace.

Accommodative Learning

Finally, for learning to truly have impact, there needs to be active accommodation for the new learning. This means that the learning has gone beyond being a new concept or technique to something much more integrated into the learner’s ongoing skill-set and professional awareness. While it may take time to become natural or automatic, the accommodation process can be enhanced (and stickier) via:

  • Reflective accounts and summaries related to the professional work context;
  • Commitment check-lists;
  • (Personal) professional development plans;
  • Action research assignments;
  • Re-connect sessions with a facilitator or cohort;
  • Specialised/itemised 360 discussions.

How these elements (connection, exploration, investigation, application and accommodation) come together in any program, course, module or organised learning sequence can vary, of course, but it is also interesting how the elements can be worked and enhanced through blended and online learning models.

The Dialogic Impactive Learning Cycle chart demonstrates how the five elements can be strategically employed in a fully online, semi-blended and semiflipped model. However you consider them, all five elements pay serious respect to your adult learners and open more possibilities for more intensive and stickier learning experiences.

Jason Renshaw is Chief Learning Innovation Officer for the Australian School of Applied Management, one of Australia’s most respected and prolific providers of management and leadership education. Contact via jrenshaw@asam.edu.au.

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