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!