The Play Dough Plea
Written by: Lenn Millbower, The Mouse Man™
It was the first meeting with a new client. The meeting had started well enough but then, unexpectedly, things got rough. One of the SMEs (subject matter expert) looked directly at me and, in a condescending manner, and with his best haughty look, challenged, “You aren’t gonna make us play with Play Dough, are ya, huh?”
The comment caught me off guard. Play Dough? Never having used the stuff in ISD, being accused of “Play Dough irrelevancies” was unexpected. It soon, however, became apparent that the SME was really saying, “You aren’t gonna make us do any stupid, irrelevant, pointless activities like the last group, are ya, huh?”
The staff was dissatisfied with the last instructional design firm they had hired. Their topic area was complicated—exploding fireworks safely—and the previous design team hadn’t absorbed the topic. They had, instead, transcribed the organization’s talking points into a script and inserted periodic plug-and-play activities. The result was a weak design product, trainer resentment and participant boredom: this was, after all, a group of people who blew things up for a living. The designers had delivered laziness, not learning.
In the next meeting, I gave each member of the SME team a small container of Play Dough and had them smash it to smithereens. We then dumped all the Play Dough into a trash bucket and removed the bucket from the room. The project could then proceed.
Contemplating the situation afterwards, I thought about the tendency of trainers, educators and presenters to purchase and then use training activity books. These are valuable works, and this author has contributed to several. The activity books are not the problem. It’s the lazy designer or trainer who takes the easy path—pulling an activity out of the binder and inserting it in wherever the energy level will likely fla—that is at fault.
When we learning professionals do this, we cheapen our trade.
· We alienate our participants. If a student sees where the lecture ends and the activity begins, and if the activity is not tightly related to the content and flow of the presentation, and if as a result the activity builds resentment, we provide a disservice.
· We deliver an inferior, artless, paint-by-numbers product.
· And most dangerously for us professionals, we validate an unstated, but sometimes present assumption that anyone can develop effective training. Instead of learning, we foster irrelevancies.
Our goal should be to design seamless programs that are tightly focused on one goal: the learning needs required of this program. The tendency to insert irrelevant activities is an easy way to deliver a product on schedule. It is also a surefire way to undercut the reputation of the instructional design profession, especially when it is easy to mold activities to learning needs. Some situations where activities are helpful and some examples of how to mold an activity follow.
>>Learn more at the webinar: Mousify Your Instructional Design for MAGICal Results
When Melting the Ice
To begin your training, select an activity that sets up the learning to follow. The old standard get-to-know-you bingo activity (trainees must find others with specific hobbies, backgrounds, etc.) can be tweaked so that it teaches or hints at some key principles to follow. To integrate new employees into an existing team, for example, you could use variation where the trainees have to find different attendees who have attributes valuable to the training team. In this way you can impress the more experienced team members that the new employees have useful skills while you help the new employees feel more competent within the group.
To Illustrate Key Points
Customize your activities so that the discussion that follows the activity becomes a summation of the key point. For example, in my Learning With a Beat presentation, I direct attendees to pair up and list the places they hear music in their lives. The activity falls at a logical place in the instruction, demonstrates the point I will soon make and seems more like a fact-finding mission than an activity.
To Surface Discussion
Puzzles, or any other activity that forces people to work together are ideal discussion starters when the puzzle is aligned with the content. Orientation programs are one example where you can divide the participants into two teams, present each team with an envelope containing a cut up the organization’s mission statement and challenge each group to put their puzzles together. As an extra measure, you could, prior to the event, place two puzzle pieces form each teams puzzle in the other team’s envelope.
Once a few minutes have gone by and it becomes apparent that the teams cannot put their puzzles together, call a halt. During the discussion that follows, lead the participants to the point that it is easier to get a task done when you know what the finished task looks like. Once that point has been made, confess the puzzle piece swap and lead the group to the conclusion that only by working together can an organization achieve success.
To Energize the Room
Sometimes trainees simply need to move about. Announcing an activity to get adrenaline flowing makes this necessary activity seem pointless. Instead, insert an activity that seems like a break from the instruction but really furthers it. These are the ideal points for movement-based activities. Rather than simply having trainees stand up and stretch, build field trips in at these points.
To Conclude the Learning
Most of this writer’s keynotes and workshops conclude with a song tied directly to the content. Trainees may exit the event singing the key learning points.
Molding the Dough
The point of this essay is to not be pointless. Plug-and-play activities insult learners. The class attendees know that, because of trainer/designer laziness, they are stuck walking around with a blindfold on, finding three other people who have a dog, or playing with Play Dough. Make your activity fit or give it the slip.
Thinking back to the Play Dough experience, the formerly skittish organization did try out the redesigned integrated activities. They were so satisfied with the results that Play Dough now jokingly appears on the materials list and in the trainer’s guide. The trainers even gift each other containers of Play Dough. For this organization, the delivery of a solid design answered their Play Dough plea.
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