Looking at the “ins” & “cons”

When designing large collaborative sessions with complex topics it is almost always the case that there is a big variance between the few people who know a lot about the topic and a few who have little to no context and everyone else falls somewhere in between. Sponsors are generally very anxious to do a lot of “education” around the project so that everyone gets up to speed. Usually this results in a desire to do a 3 hour PowerPoint presentation. This makes me cringe. (I don’t understand how the same people who complain about sitting through 3 hour presentations end up with a desire to present one.) I try to explain that people don’t learn well this way and the information will not stick. 

I started reading a book recently that has really helped me hammer my argument home. Turtles, Termites and Traffic Jams by Mitchel Resnick of MIT talks about the difference between instructional learning and constructional learning. He argues that by telling people what you think they need to know, the results are mediocre at best. By having people create something on their own (or with small groups), the concepts are much more likely to stick. It’s a learn-by-doing approach.

With the type of work that I’m in, this concept wasn’t new to me, but the fact that I can now summarize the concept in a framework that clients really seem to get, was a valuable insight for me. I think most people know this as well, but with a lack of a better tool than PowerPoint to use for “education”, it seems to be the default. Suggesting the “instructional/constructional” framework to clients seems to introduce the contrast between socratic methods and constructional methods. They suddenly see “the other side”. By giving the other side a name, it’s easier to convince them of the benefits of giving it a try. Like the old saying goes, “A fish doesn’t understand water until it experiences air.”

I’m curious to know if anyone else has had this type of experience; where you don’t necessarily learn a new concept, but learn a new way to express it that seems to have a lot of resonance. Please comment!

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One response to “Looking at the “ins” & “cons”

  1. To support your point that learning is more effective when “doing” versus “listening”, I have 3 anecdotes.

    1) Blogging: One of the benefits I’ve found with blogging is that I am learning more about what I am blogging about. It wasn’t intentional but by working on a post, I find myself asking more questions, doing more research that relates to a specific goal. It “forces” me to be more complete in my thinking and application.

    2) Home Reno’s: Watching the well edited home reno’s will not make you an expert craftsman. Trust me on this one. Nothing is ever as easy as it appears on TV. All the little things that happen, that you didn’t forsee adds to a more complete and appreciative understanding.

    3) University: I had an ability to “memorize” stream of information, which I could regurgetate on an exam. But what’s really stuck with me, is when I actually personalized the information to achieve an objective. Sometimes it was a tangible product like a computer program that we had to write that optimized sort routines (yeah that does sound pretty geeky), or whether it were psychology models that gave me a way to interpret what I observed. To this day, I still use several of the motivation & leadership models I learned many many years ago…

    Doing provides a more meaningful and personal connection. This personal connection stays with us well after the product disappears. To quote Neil Peart, “The point of journey is not to arrive.” However, in a desire to be more “efficient” we often try to jump to the destination. The lack of context leads to simplistic understanding and ultimately shallow results.

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