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Do one thing this year that scares the hell out of you

 

When I think about learning and all it implies, my mind automatically goes to unicorns and rainbows. Phrases like “transformative learning”, “learning community”, “lifelong learning”, “learner-centred”, etc. conjure up an idyll of intrinsically motivated and enriching experiences and endeavors. Don’t get me wrong – this is legitimate and genuine and real. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Yesterday I attended a talk focused on institutional commitments in a learning-centred organization. The speaker ended with a powerful call to action: her own. She committed to identifying and doing “one thing this year that scares the hell out of me”. And then she invited everyone in the audience to do the same. This got me thinking: deep learning happens when the going gets tough. Doing something that scares you is a 100% guarantee that you will learn something new.

In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle talks about the phenomenon of deep learning. In this mode, peoples’ acquisition of a new skill resembles a herd of deer on an icy, slippery slope: tenuous, tentative, struggling, messy. In other words, deep learning is hard and it’s scary, but it may be the most effective route towards mastery.

A few years ago I gave my undergraduate university class a critical analysis assignment, consisting of three parts: (a) Read a challenging scientific research article (selected by me); (b) Submit a critique of the article, no more than three pages in length; (c) Locate two related research articles from an academic database. I loved this assignment because it so effectively assessed essential professional skills of understanding and critiquing research literature in the field, as well as navigating academic databases and locating relevant research. Practicing professionals need to be able to do this.

My students, on the other hand, hated the assignment. They were up in arms! Some said they had to read the article six or more times before they even understood it. Others struggled with how to even begin to critically analyze a scientific article published in a peer-reviewed journal. And still others had successfully avoided exposing themselves to Scholars Portal, and wanted to keep it that way.

Faced with an onslaught of indignation and outrage from approximately 60 people, I went into reflective listening mode: “So, what you’re saying is, this assignment was incredibly challenging. You hated reading a boring article ten times before it even began to make sense. Scientists aren’t too good at making the products of research accessible. Life would have been so much better if the assignment I gave you involved no more than a couple of hours work the night before.” Nods of agreement and reluctant smiles.

But here was my pivotal question to the group:

“If I had given you that easy assignment (welcome as that may have been), tell me this, would you have learned anything?”

Umm…no.

“And what about this terrible assignment…did you learn anything useful?”

An unequivocal Yes! … even though it was pretty aversive.

And then the conversation shifted – big time.

We talked as a group about why they had come to university in the first place. We talked about the experience of learning. About how, when things are hard, that is exactly when learning happens. Instead of a mutiny on my hands, the experience was an epiphany for all of us.

 

I have to keep reminding myself of that lesson. The challenge to commit to one really tough thing this year and follow through is the challenge to commit to the slippery slope of deep learning.

And maybe among the herd of deer on that icy slope, there will be a couple of unicorns.

 

 

ocean fish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every audience comes with varying levels of motivation to learn: What can you do to engage them?

 

A recurring challenge in facilitating continuing professional education workshops is how to respond to participants who do not see a value in attending. This isn’t uncommon, given that training is often mandated by management and the topic or content of your session doesn’t necessarily align with their individual learning goals or perceived needs. It’s easy to get focused on (or distracted by) these less-than-enthusiastic folks, but people participate along a diverse spectrum. A strong facilitator reaches out to everyone in the room.

So, you might wonder, how is an individualized, motivational approach possible with more than just a handful of participants? In my experience over 15 years of leading professional courses and workshops, I have found that groups of all sizes generally coalesce into five sub-groups:

  1. “Keeners”: It doesn’t matter whether they came voluntarily or because their manager made them attend. They are hungry for any and every opportunity for learning: 100% intrinsically motivated.
  2. “On the Fence”: These folks aren’t unhappy to take time off work for your session and are open to learning, but they are looking for a practical demonstration of how and why the topic/content is relevant before they will engage.
  3. “Open-minded Skeptics”: They are generally seasoned and respected experts in the group who are provisionally willing to give you a chance. However, because of their super-strong skill-set they have lots of experience sitting in courses with not much to show for it, and this can impact their motivation for learning in your course.
  4. “Convince Me”: These individuals can be hard core for even the most experienced trainer. They are not happy campers from the get-go, and they are not afraid to show it openly and repeatedly.
  5. “Multi-taskers”: This sub-group has other things on the go besides your training. Often arriving late, leaving early, on their mobile, or otherwise occupied, they are polite and willing to participate when present, but your workshop is not necessarily a high priority.

 

How can we best respond to and motivate these diverse groups, all at the same time, over a course that might range from an hour, or a day, through to multiple days? Let’s look at some quick tips for each:

The “Keeners” are on your side. You really need to mess up in order to alienate them. You will know who these individuals are right away because they are quick to raise their hands, offer insights and opinions, and generally smooth your path. Make sure to explicitly thank and encourage them.

Those who are “On the Fence” can (by definition) go either way. It’s important to prepare a strong start to the session by engaging the group in a conversation – or for a large audience, a demonstration –  of the practical value of the topic/course. A quick “Turn to the person next to you and identify the most important take-away”, or a video demonstration, case example or personal story can accomplish this. The key is to spark peoples’ interest and invite them in.

The “Open-minded Skeptics” can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Adult education affirms that learners come with pre-existing knowledge and skills, and that is never truer than for this group. Because they are, themselves, experts, it’s essential to explicitly acknowledge and invite their and others’ contributions to the content you have prepared. These folks often ask specific, technical questions, and they will know if you try to fake it. Probably everyone else will know too. My own approach is to be up front with the group, respectfully affirm where others’ knowledge and skills exceeds mine, and encourage a collaborative learning environment where everyone – regardless of months, years or decades of experience – has something of value to contribute (check out this link for a nice way to establish this climate from the start: First, empty your cup). In addition, I make a point of naming and reinforcing participants who demonstrate their skills and effectiveness – they are a resource to the whole group.

Now let’s consider those who come across as somewhat difficult, or even openly antagonistic: “Convince Me”. I don’t see these individuals in every workshop, but it’s happened often enough to be worth coming prepared. This is where skills in group facilitation and knowledge of group dynamics are essential. I need a large chunk of the group to be “with” me, in order to help manage what can become a facilitation disaster (I am not exaggerating). If the majority of participants are engaged, enjoying themselves, and find value in the material, it is hard for one or two naysayers to sabotage. On the other hand, if the group as a whole are “On the Fence”, the “Convince Me” contingent can bring it all down. If you do run into problems, here is a tried-and true strategy for How to TAME difficult, skeptical, hostile or challenging participants.

Last but not least, “Multi-taskers” should not be ignored. Artful facilitation can help them shift to “Open-minded Skeptics” or even “Keeners”. The thing is, you may never know because they aren’t totally present (literally). But that doesn’t mean your workshop didn’t make an impression – these individuals are often opinion leaders and influencers with large professional networks (that’s why they’re so busy). Articulating everyone’s right to participate however they choose is a win-win. They will do it anyway, and affirming personal choice and control communicates respect and positive regard.

One caveat: The real world is messy and disorganized, and slotting people into categories is perilous at best. Individuals and groups are dynamic, organic and open to complex reciprocal influences from you, one another and the environment. Thus, my most important tip? Don’t stand in the middle of the stream; go with the flow.

 

Check out more learner engagement strategies:

Classroom Management 101

Five Things About Teaching

That’s just how we roll

ideas lightbulbs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What I don’t know I don’t know” – That’s the most essential learning

 

In nearly every course or workshop I teach on Motivational Interviewing (MI), there are nearly always practitioners who express some variation of “I already do MI naturally”. In other words, why spend time “learning” about something that I already know how to do? A reasonable response, if accurate.

I say ‘if accurate’ because research on MI practice suggests a disconnect between what practitioners say they do versus the MI skills they can actually demonstrate. We’re talking video recordings of actual client sessions, coded by skilled clinicians trained in the use of a standardized instrument. So while there may be a small proportion of therapists who really are “MI naturals”, it’s likely that most practitioners, whether they know it or not, can not or do not demonstrate the skills of MI without training, coaching, practice, coaching, and practice.

 

Motivational interviewing is essentially a way of being with a client (Dr. William Miller, the originator of MI, calls this “MI Spirit”), comprised of partnership, acceptance, compassion and evocation. It seems intuitive, but the “Righting Reflex” is hard to resist. Additionally the processes of MI – engaging, focusing, evoking and planning – are accompanied by a range of skills and strategies. Integrating both spirit and skills demands artful practice, and integrating MI with other approaches (for example Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, CBT) involves even greater therapeutic sophistication.

No practitioner ever reaches the apex of clinical perfection – it doesn’t exist! Just like the clients we serve, practitioners are engaged in an ongoing process of development. And it’s the basics (reflective listening is a good example) that can be the most challenging.

 

People come to a learning environment with four general categories capturing both pre-exisiting knowledge and knowledge deficits:

  1. What I know that I know: Everyone comes in with something of value
  2. What I know that I don’t know: Everyone has areas they can identify as avenues for further learning
  3. What I don’t know that I know: Everyone has knowledge and skills of which they aren’t aware
  4. What I don’t know that I don’t know: We all have a blind spot when it comes to what we still need to learn. When we can shine a light on it, that’s the “aha” moment! 

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