Twenty questions for every learning program, give or take a few

As learning facilitators we know that questions matter. They spark reflection, spur divergent and convergent thinking and help learners and stakeholders process and apply learning.

Often, the type of question that we ask is fueled by the type of reflection or measurement we are after. Reaction? Learning? Behavior? Results? What do we really want and need to measure?

We can guide and facilitate the conversation about the impact of a learning program by putting some attention on the types of questions we ask in the room, and the type of questions Leaders ask themselves and their team as a follow-up.

We can scaffold our questions throughout each Kirkpatrick level, in a variation of this sequencing:

  1. What did you notice? What stands out? What’s confusing?
  2. What did you learn?
  3. What will you do differently as a result of what you learned today? (How will you apply what you learned to something concrete, actionable, measurable, and specific)?

Many times, we stop at question-type 3. We stop before we get to “results”. Sometimes it is because our learners lack context or understanding of the business case or the results that matter most. Sometimes this is because it’s quantifiable, and trying to qualify it in an open-ended question seems difficult.

This doesn’t have to be the case – especially if we kick off our learning programs by stating up front the results we are after, and continually linking our learning back to these desired outcomes.

  1. How will applying what you learned today positively affect our team, our performance, and our business?

But, let’s not stop there. Ask empathy and motivation driven questions like, “What will be the impact if we don’t apply what we learned?”, or “what could get in the way?”

We’ve got questions. They do have answers.

Learning with the Head and the Heart

In my previous life as a screenwriter, there was a note a writer would see quite often on their screenplays: “Make your character more like-able”.

Why like-able?

Well, a protagonist (the main character, often the hero) had to be at least a teeny bit likable (yet flawed) so that the audience would stay invested in the character’s journey. A like-able character means we’ll likely root for them and care about what happens.

An audience wants to be emotionally invested.

This is normal and natural, whether your audience is in the theater, a movie, or in the classroom. The audience want a reason to care beyond a rational, logical reason to. In the example of screenwriting, working to make our character a little more likable increases the chances that we as an audience will find something in ourselves that bonds us with this person on-screen. When we’re emotionally invested, we pay attention and don’t fast-forward or tune-out. Hopefully we’re changed by this character’s journey as well.

Turns out, this note extends beyond screenplays and creative projects. But in learning and development we’re focused on the learners journey, not the characters.

In my experience it’s common to see learning or change initiatives that stay at the rational-only level. We may assume participants will pay attention because they are there physically. Too often though, students, employees, and stakeholders often lack that emotional connection to the material. Sometimes it’s because they aren’t invited to, or this isn’t given nearly enough thought in the design process.

This often happens when we teach classes or put forth plans that teach the logical steps, but lack the mental or emotional thinking behind it. 

I’m not necessarily advocating to make our work more like-able. But, we can’t assume our students have a reason to pay attention, even if they signed up (or the equivalent of buying a ticket to a movie).

More than just paying attention we want our learning and change programs to stick, to spread, and for our students to be changed by the experience. That rarely happens on a rational/logical-only level.

They need a reason to care, a personal one that ideally comes from intrinsic motivation and a personal connection to the material.

Encourage them to use their experiences, share them, connect to the material and to each other. Then you’ve got a room full of editors, writers, directors, producers who are taking the material and making it their own because they believe in it.

Shrink the Change

Let’s be specific.

Let’s say you’ve just finished an all-day learning program and leave with the following: two frameworks, packets of great information and five new behaviors to try on and practice.

The question becomes, where do I start?

To borrow a phrase from Chip and Dan Heath, we need to Shrink the Change.

Spend some time in this learning program examining and discussing the 2 or 3 most important places to use this new behavior or new tool that you’ve learned.

Shrink the change between what we’ve just learned and exactly where and why we can apply it.

Where could trying on this new skill get you the biggest bang for your buck and generate enough small wins to keep you moving forward into building a new habit?

Tweaks like this help learners lessen the cognitive load that comes from many of these experiences. Try it in the next two weeks and let me know how it goes!

How Adults Learn

“If you’re looking for someone to give you the answer, you’re in the wrong place”.

I remember the conversation as if it were yesterday.  Fall 2012 was turning towards Winter as I walked down Broadway crunching leaves with my boots on my way to the 1 train.  My evening class of “How Adults Learn” had just finished and I called to debrief (okay, to complain) with my friend and mentor Cheryl.

In between breaths spent exclaiming how much I loved being in New York City, I was having a hard time with the way my Grad School classes were being taught (note, I didn’t frame it as having a hard time with my role as learner — although that self-knowledge came later). This was my first semester, and so not how I expected it to be (unmet expectations, cue disappointment).

I had a lot of questions I wanted answered by experts in the field, I wanted to feel I was getting my moneys worth.  I wanted content, slides, frameworks, solid answers, lots and lots of sage in front of stage moments.  I was curious and thirsty, yet impatient. I wanted to be taught with a capital “T” and to sit back and take it all in.

In a class called “How Adults Learn”, this struggle seemed quite ironic.

The ever-wise Cheryl gave me a virtual hand slap: “if you’re looking for someone to give you the answers, you came to Grad School for the wrong reason”.

I continued to reflect on what Cheryl said on the subway ride home, the next morning, in the next class session and throughout the rest of my two years in Grad School. I think about what she said most days, when I spend my days creating and delivering curriculum to curious, thirsty, impatient adult learners in corporate settings.

By the time I reached my final semester in Grad School the uncomfortable-ness of not knowing the one right answer hadn’t lessened, but my confidence and ability to figure it out had increased. I learned that experience was my best teacher, and that the best teachers were educators instead of lecturers.

As we grow up and continue through school many of us are institutionalized to believe that learning should be a certain way. At many points in our life we want to be told what to do. Anything that strays from that expectation feels uncomfortable and unnatural.

There is power in feeling uncomfortable, yet safe. Know that in some situations or subjects you might not get an answer, or the one you were expecting. Know that when it comes to teaching and learning, your educators are as curious, and sometimes more impatient than you. But … they know you have the answer, and you can count on them to help you unlock it.

The comfort of uncomfortable learning

The elevator was filled with chatter. A gaggle of students had just finished lecture and were fired up – commenting on and complaining about the class….a class that I, for one, was absolutely loving.

I listened, and asked a few what they were unhappy with, eager to understand their frustration.

In many ways, my excitement seemed predictable – the class was full of material I already fully believed in and understood, taught in a way that resonated with me – stories, images, metaphors, etc. It was wonderful, it was inspiring… and it was…comfortable. Perhaps, too comfortable for meaningful change to take place.

When the semester finished I made my way to the Professor’s office, eager to understand the dynamics of the class and the learning journey he created.

He described the predictable learning journey of the majority of the students, from skeptical or even resistant to, by the end, inspired and on-board.

He made it clear he wasn’t trying to change anyone’s mind or convince his learners to adopt his point of view. This was not his tactic.

He worked to deeply understand his students, acknowledge their uncomfortable-ness and worked smarter, not harder, to bring them into the story of the narrative he was telling.

I marveled at his ability and empathy to both understand his learners and guide positive change.

I reflected on other learning experiences that felt uncomfortable and why, several months later, the learning set in more profoundly than ever.

How often do we purposefully sign up for learning experiences that feel outside our comfort zone, and stick with them? And, how often do we utilize and understand the experience of our fellow learners to help make sense of and process our experience?

We can’t and shouldn’t assume that our learning experience is anything other than deeply personal, but that doesn’t mean it should always be comfortable.

Learning, and the importance of personal relevancy

“See them first” is a phrase I learned several years ago from an incredible, kind, mentor of mine.

I admit, when she first shared this phrase with me, (and others, in her book) I didn’t really understand how to put it into practice when facilitating or designing an experience for others.

To her (and now, to me) “See them First” is a critical piece of gaining psychological safety, trust, and clarity with a group or an individual up front, whether it’s in a coaching, training, or leadership capacity.

So what does this phrase mean? Do I just need stronger contact lenses? Perhaps. Ask your doctor. But also:

At the core of it, I need to ask myself these questions:

  1. Do I, as a Leader, a facilitator, or a coach understand my learner? Have I made this understanding clear to them?
  2. Have they given me an opportunity to share something that matters to them? Read: Have they shared a learning objective, or told me something that I’m missing knowing about them at the start of a session? When a professor who was absent for the first day of a 2-day workshop walked into the class she asked, “what do I need to know about you, as a group of learners?”. Perfect example.
  3. Do your learners have “skin in the game”? I see this time and time again. Give them an opportunity to make the learning personal. It needs to matter to them. Framing and context matters, but more so is an opportunity for the learners to identify and latch onto something personally relevant to help them make meaning of the material. Seeing them first means encouraging personal relevancy.
  4. Have I started with where the learners are instead of where I want them to be?
  5. Have I made it clear I’m listening? And do I incessantly tie back to what I heard, and what I’ve promised?

Turn your learners, clients, and mentees into collaborators immediately by making it clear that you have listened and allow space for personal relevancy. Open the door to allow and encourage them to join you in co-creating the experience.

Show them that you “see them first” and then let your learners have a peek inside your process by allowing them to see YOU too. Show them the roadmap for the learning and continue to make your thinking visible as you progress, (“here’s what we’re going to do today, here’s how we will get there, and let’s talk about why”).

After all, everyone deserves an opportunity to be seen and heard.

Leadership Development via subtraction

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Doing more with less.

Doing more by doing less.

No these aren’t faux business article headlines, but they might as well be. In an increasingly fast-paced, hectic work environment, learning professionals are working to create learning opportunities that are relevant, applicable, and personal.

But one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received on creating leadership development experiences in particular adds one more piece to the puzzle:

Many leadership development experiences identify what a leader should be doing more of. What if instead we helped them focus on what they should stop doing? 

Learning experiences can sometimes leave us feeling bogged down by new behaviors we should be incorporating, or knowledge we should be applying. It can become so additive that its hard to focus or feel that we can apply it all. 

To help ease the transition from learning to application we can work to remove some of the barriers that are keeping others from doing great work. We can do this by shrinking the change, helping others identify what they should be doing less of (or stop), and getting really clear on what is getting in the way of the change we seek.

Chances are your learners will breathe a huge sigh of relief when behavior change efforts become crystal clear, tinier, more specific, and hopefully more manageable.

In these busy times our focus for programs that stick can be on removing whatever it is that is getting in the way, and what we could stop doing, instead of piling on more.

What facilitators can learn from Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show debut

Last night as I watched Jimmy Fallon make his debut as new host of The Tonight show, I was struck by the ease, comfort, and safety that Fallon exhibited as he welcomed a presumably new audience to his show.

It was akin to the skill a great facilitator utilizes when beginning a new learning experience with his or her participants.

Though these two roles are inherently different, and stylistic differences are what help make both jobs a real art form, there are fundamental choices Fallon made that educators, speakers, presenters, and facilitators can absolutely learn from:

Fallon helped create psychologically safety and established a dialogue with his audience in these 2 ways:

  • He made his thinking visible – Strong facilitators know how to engage adult learners by showing them the learning path and extravert-ing their thinking. Fallon told us the basic structure of his show, how long his monologue would be, and even where he’d stand when he delivered the opening set of jokes. Though it seemed like a small gesture, it worked to set a new routine and let the audience know what they could expect each night, and how they would get there.
  • Auto-biographical disclosure – This is perhaps the most impressive technique Fallon utilized, and the most direct application to what we do as facilitators. Fallon spent several minutes at the top of his show, introducing himself, his background, his band and his announcer to bring people into the experience, add authenticity and personalization, and put new viewers at ease. As Dr. Stephen Brookfield theorizes, the more an educator or facilitator can use appropriate autobiographical disclosure, the quicker you can bring adults into ‘the learning’. For example, in a class on adult learning a facilitator can use autobiographical disclosure to briefly talk about his or her experience as a learner and how its framed his or her approach. By telling the story of his own history of watching and admiring The Tonight Show, Fallon also exhibited experiential credibility, by letting the audience know that the experiences (and perhaps new-ness) he dealt with are similar if not the same.

Journalists, bloggers and critics are praising Fallon for these specific, ‘smart’ choices — but they don’t need to be reserved for talk show hosts. Think about the last time you felt “safe” in a new learning environment. Chances are your facilitator exhibited some, if not all of these same techniques.