Adventures in Accelerated Learning
I have been doing a lot of training lately, mostly in the form of Scrum Team, ScrumMaster and Product Owner classes. A teacher’s job is to impart information, hopefully developed further into knowledge that can lead to informed action. Many “learning” environments stop at the first step – delivering facts. This does not work well for Scrum training. There are not many facts to deliver. There are principles and common practices to talk about but in the end it is the intrinsic understanding and feel of Scrum that is needed for success.
I have an interest in how people learn and what it takes to be a successful teacher. This interest has taken me on a trip into the world of neuroscience where, it seems, a lot of useful information has appeared in recent decades while most of us were going about our business using stale techniques. My interest in neuroscience has opened up the door to “Accelerated Learning” techniques. In particular, I am using the book “Training from the Back of the Room” by Sharon Bowman to redesign my courses into a more experiential style than before.
I have always incorporated hands-on exercises in my training – which goes way back into topics of interest prior to the rise of Agile development. But I never had a good understanding of why exercises were important. Now I am emphasizing the experiential part of the training and leveraging Bowman’s theses that participants already know most of what you were expecting to teach them and that they learn from each other better than from you, the trainer. This viewpoint provides the opportunity to spend time in the back of the room observing rather than force-feeding information.
I want to be clear that training from the back of the room is not as easy as it sounds. A lot of effort goes in to designing and facilitating the class. An unexpected benefit for the trainer is that this style gives you energy rather than depleting it.
I also picked up a book called The Accelerated Learning Handbook by Dave Meier to get some more grounding in the reasons why these techniques work so well. I was not surprised to see a couple of familiar names in the book. Many years ago I had the pleasure to experience accelerated learning in an intensive French class taught using Super Learning techniques ala Georgi Lozanov and Ivan Barzakov, two pioneers in the field. It was a fabulous experience and extremely successful for me personally. In more recent times, I have experienced similar immersion learning in coaching skills from the talented people who run the Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference and the Problem Solving Leadership workshop.
As a coach, my job is to help people find their own solutions. A consultant’s job is to solve someone’s problem for them. If an organization purchases a solution by hiring a consultant, there is a lower emotional investment in the success of that solution. On the other hand, helping people find their own solution results in a higher investment and ownership of the solution increasing the probability of success. A coach may not know what solution is best but is skilled in leading an organization to the discovery of a solution that is good for them.
I am starting to see training as analogous to coaching. If the teacher simply tells the student the facts or perhaps points to facts in a book, the student does not own those facts. The application of those facts in real life may be mechanical, brittle and half-hearted. If, on the other hand, the teacher can successfully impart the motivations, spirit and principals of the topic, the student will come to a stronger understanding and start to own that knowledge. Follow-on action will be better informed, more strongly motivated and energetic.
How do we do this? I suggest that you buy the books or others like them for a full answer. Here is the condensed version of what I have learned so far about creating an accelerated learning experience.
- Provide a safe environment
- This means more than just free parking. Take care of basic needs like food and hydration. And make it safe for people to speak their minds. I provide stress balls to help with difficult learning moments.
- Create a space that is rich in sensory stimuli
- Brains build stronger neural nets when the experience is colorful, bright and musical. I supply arts and crafts supplies, drawing pads, posters on the wall, a collection of reference books, upbeat background music when appropriate.
- Involve the entire body
- We learn faster that way. These days we communicate too much through electronics. Our hand gestures are usually aimed at SmartPhone interfaces. The brain evolved to power a human being with many moving parts and sensory channels. Knowledge is wired in faster when the whole body is involved. This means exercises in both senses of the word – things to do and people in motion.
- Promote spontaneity within a visible structure
- Give people an idea of where they are going and where they have been. Then allow things to emerge. Build on what happens. Help people find the lessons in what they experience.
- Link the topic to the participant’s prior understanding of the world
- If you try to substitute current knowledge with something entirely new, it will backfire. The brain gets defensive. Fear circuits in the older parts of the brain kick in. Sensory inputs shut down. The more modern parts of the brain in charge of reasoning, synthesis and wonder are blocked while energy is used for defense. It is better to build on what people know and edit existing neural networks rather than trying to form whole new ones to replace the old ones.
- Work in small collaborative groups
- Creativity is higher. Learning is enhanced by people sharing their experiences. And, yes, people really do know a lot about the subject already. Draw this out by providing chances for them to share it. Sharing reinforces concepts in both the provider and their collaborators.
- Have fun
- Learning is quicker that way. In my French class way back when, the experience was purposely designed to be like the conditions we experienced when we learned our first language – safe, simple and playful.
- Plan to cover the essentials and no more
- Keep to the basics and let the details and variations come when they may. This means being clear about the learning objectives and being courageous enough to throw out half of what you previously tried to cover – especially your pet topics. I admit to having some challenges with this one still.
- Park your ego at the door
- It is no longer about you being the smart person in the front of the room, fielding questions to show off how much you know. If you are going to lecture, never talk for more than 10 minutes before giving the class something to do on their own. It is a tough habit to break.
In Bowman’s book, she presents a handy model for designing a training class. It starts with clear learning objectives. Then you assemble the concepts to be covered in a module of 20-30 minutes. Then identify some activity that will connect the concepts to something they already know. Next you do one of two things: give the class an exercise to discover the concepts from each other or from the environment (books, handouts, posters) or present the concepts briefly followed by an exercise to practice them. Finally close the topic with another short activity that reinforces the learning.
There is much more to it as described in the book, along with many ideas for exercises. I have had great fun and good success with these techniques. And I still have a lot to learn.
I would like to acknowledge two partners in this adventure. Bob Hartman introduced me to Bowman’s book as I was trying to get there on my own without knowing the true destination or path to it. Mark Levison has inspired me to study the neuroscience of learning and is my partner in broader studies of how a knowledge of neuroscience can improve our skills as trainers and coaches.
- Bob Hartman, CST, CSC @ Agile For All
- Mark Levison, Agile Coach @ Agile Pain Relief