Monday, 11 August 2008

"Interactive" training only works if properly planned

Increasingly, people seem to push interactive, participatory learning as a panacea: "To teach or train people properly you gotta make it interactive, man!"

Don't get me wrong, I think active learning is a good thing, and I can see the point of constructivist teaching methods based on constructivist learning theory. But even those techniques hold that "learning should build upon knowledge that a student already knows" and should promote "a student's free exploration within a given framework or structure", and they note that "While it makes sense to use these techniques as a "follow up" exercise, it may not make sense to use them to introduce material" (my emphasis). In constructivism, the teacher's role as facilitator is vital. Furthermore, critics of these methods point out that "due to the emphasis on group work, the ideas of the more active students may dominate the group’s conclusions" and that "instructors often design unguided instruction that relies on the learner to "discover or construct essential information for themselves"".

If the statement I recited rather irritatedly above is applied too simplistically as a mindless mantra without proper work or, more disappointingly, thought behind it, it just results in people not being taught or trained anything useful at all.

Participation, schmarticipation

A story. When I started using the Web a few years back, I didn't even know what a link was. I went to a formal evening class because I thought it was the quickest way to find out about this InterWeb / World Wide Web thang. (Yes, I was born before there was a Web, I'm that old.)

The first thing the tutor did was tell us to go find X on the Web, without having explained what links are, what they do, or how to find them (i.e. blue underlining, the mouse cursor changes to a hand if you hover over a link), let alone explaining what search engines are, how you get to them, and how you use them.

Without giving us that foundation, without explaining those essential basic paradigms, he might as well have told us to go walk around in circles muttering. Which is pretty much what I did, in virtuality.

I could try doing what I liked, but "participation" in itself does absolutely no good unless you already have the base level of knowledge that's needed before you can "participate" properly, before you can try things out in order to cement something you've just learned. (To top it all, he tried to hit on me.)

"Interactive" groups, pah!

It's the same with "interaction". Interaction simply for its own sake - which seems to translate to "Yeah man, let's make it 'interactive' by splitting everyone into lots of discussion groups, woohoo!" - is a pointless waste of time, and insulting to the attendees at worst.

Even so-called problem based learning requires that the group be given a specific problem to discuss and solve, and to be effective it requires motivation, feedback and reflection. One reason it works is that it "taps into existing knowledge". My emphasis, again!

Many people worship the "learning pyramid" and cite it to say that in terms of teaching methods, "discussion group" (supposedly 50%) is much better than "lectures" (supposedly 5%) for retention of information. However, investigations into its origins show that in fact there is no hard research behind those frequently cited figures.

Undoubtedly, there's a grain of truth in it. Learning actively by doing, when you're given exactly the information you need, in context and at exactly the time that you need to use it, does help boost retention when compared with memorising things by rote in abstract isolation.

But in relation to discussion groups, it all boils down to one simple but critical thing, which many organisers / speakers ought to but don't always consider: What's the purpose of this session? What are you trying to achieve, exactly?

Do you just want the attendees to admire the speaker's wit and wisdom? To be mindlessly entertained? Do you just want them to be able to say they went to a session on X in trendy surroundings (in which case all you need do is entitle the session "On X" and leave them to it)?

Or do you actually want them to learn something, so that they'll come back when they want to learn more things or other things?

If you want them to learn and retain something, then you really need to think about what that is: what are the 3 key points (certainly no more than 5) that you want them to take away with them?

Another issue is, are you trying to teach them what they want to know, or what you think they need to know - which may be quite different! And in either case, again, what is that exactly?

The latter is particularly important in a business context. My previous day job involved a fair element of training, in the sense of trying to make sure certain people know the things the business needs them to know (whether or not they think they need to know it, and even if they think they already know it. More often than not, in fact, they don't.)

So I have some practical experience of training and teaching. And that's the number 1, to me: What's the purpose of the session? That has to drive everything - who you get to speak, the way you run it, everything.

Now back to "interactive". Interaction in the sense of a discussion group can definitely help people to learn and retain more. But just saying "Now go into groups and discuss this issue", even when coupled with "Then come back and report on what you think", is, without more, an utter waste of time - unless of course the purpose isn't for people to learn anything but just to get them to socialise or to listen to the witterings of other non-experts who nevertheless think they know everything.

If the point is for them to find out what other people's opinions are on a subject, fine.

But if the point is for them to learn something about the subject that they'll remember more than a few nanoseconds later, then the discussion needs to be:
  1. Carefully planned, in detail, in advance, and

  2. Facilitated or led by someone who:
    • understands the subject sufficiently
    • has a list of the "learning points" (pre-planned, and not too many of them: the famous 7 points +/- 2 principle (or myth?) relating to how much the human memory can hold, to ensure the cognitive load isn't too heavy - it may possibly be just 3 to 5 points) that need to be brought up during the discussion to ensure they are indeed raised and understood, and
    • is able to "pick on" people to get them to answer questions and participate (it's not a discussion if they won't volunteer to talk, is it?).
Herding people into random groupings without facilitators who know what they're doing, and expecting them to organise themselves into a group that can conduct a coherent discussion on a subject they know little about (otherwise why would they bother going to the "learn all about X!" session?), is as bad as sitting someone who's never used the Web before in front of a browser and telling them to go find X. Or worse. They're not likely to learn anything, and may even be put off.

Wouldn't you be fed up if you attended a session in order to learn about a subject you're interested in, only to find yourself dumped into a group of equally ignorant attendees and forced to listen to people who know as little about the subject as you do, or even less, dominating the proceedings by virtue of egocentricity, pushiness and loudness rather than actual expertise in the subject matter?

Yes, I'm talking about Dana Centre events, yet again. If they want to annoy people they're going about it the right way. Some friends I'd previously persuaded to go have never been back, and they haven't bothered to tell Dana why, they've just taken themselves off Dana's radar. I've been giving Dana another chance, and another chance, in the faint hope of another talk like Baroness Greenfield's, but so far nada.

For a single evening session where time is limited, by far the best format is talks by experts (or a channeled discussion amongst panel of experts) before an interested audience in a single large room, followed by audience Q&A. The Royal Society for the Arts clearly know this (and the format works well for an all-day session too, when properly facilitated e.g. The Wealth of Networks 2008 conference on digital economies and the next generation internet) - but equally clearly, the Dana Center don't.

There is a place for small participative groups, but only if they're properly planned and led (which takes days or weeks of preparation time, and requires enough properly-briefed experts to facilitate each group separately).

(As for making people trek between groups from room to room including up and down stairs while trying to balance plates of food, that's just a ridiculous waste of time as well as an unnecessary inconvenience, especially when the journey time (which may add up to 15 or 20 minutes total, or more) would be much better spent allowing (static) speakers to expound on their themes more fully to the (static) audience.)

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