We all learn from our experiences, everywhere we go, whatever we may do. But I think we learning professionals take little instructional design lessons from our experiences, too. Don’t you often ask yourself, what was it about that experience that made me learn something so quickly, so surely?
A Learner’s Tale
I just had an experience like that, and I’d like to share it with you. It began with a perfectly ordinary business lunch at a restaurant I’ve visited dozens of times. The weather was windy and rainy, so I valet parked my car – something I don’t usually do, thanks to the usually fine weather here in Tampa, Florida. The lunch went well, I was relaxed and happy. And then I went to the valet station to retrieve my car.
That’s when things changed. After taking my receipt, and looking on the key board for my keys, the valets at the desk huddled together talking (as far from me as they could get) and waiting for the other valets to return from the lot with the cars they were retrieving. I began feeling less relaxed and happy, so I asked them if there was some problem. There was. No keys. Not on the key board, not on the desktop, not in anybody’s pocket. Maybe still in the car or dropped on the ground near the car.
Alarms went off in my head. If the answer was either of those last two options, my car was probably long-gone, driven by some opportunistic thief who now had access to all my personal identification information on papers in my car. (I’m sure that’s where the learning experience began, although in the moment I wasn’t thinking, “Wow! This is a great learning opportunity!”)
I was thinking, as were the valets, about where my keys could be that wasn’t the worst case scenario. I noticed the disorganization of the pegboard where keys were hung, with multiple key chains to one hook. I noticed the way keys were left lying on the desk where anyone walking by could grab them if the one valet on desk duty happened to be helping new arrivals out of their car. I wasn’t aware of learning anything – except maybe a list of rules for how not to run a valet parking station.
Then one valet looked more closely at the peg board and found my keys under another set for a similar vehicle. Whew!
Back at the office, among my organized and responsible colleagues, I took a moment to reflect on the valet parking experience and what I had learned. Immediately, I could verbalize my lessons. Don’t valet park ever again! Don’t trust people in fast-paced jobs with your valuables because they’re rushed and prone to make mistakes! Don’t leave any personal information in your car because a thief can steal your identity along with your vehicle!
Then I took a breath. Those lessons were so absolutist. I felt them emotionally so strongly. And they were so impractical. They were adrenalin lessons. And I knew how they formed. Trauma teaches us that kind of lesson. Fear is the most motivating emotion. Not the best or most effective long-term, just the most motivating for fight or flight. Nor was that experience a purposefully designed learning experience. It was just life-as-it-comes.
So, how could I design my thoughts about that experience in order to learn useful lessons? What were the details of the experience that I’d missed because of the fear? I saw teamwork among the valets. I could learn that teamwork under pressure can come up with a solution, as it did here. I saw a system not working well, with the sloppy peg board and desktop. I could learn that after a serious problem (like lost keys) arises, it’s good to revisit the system and find ways to improve it.
And I saw fear have its immediate physiological and psychological effects. I could learn to counter those the next time flight is not an option, take a few deep breaths to calm my heart and my mind, do some detailed observation of the situation (that messy peg board), and help guide everyone to a solution perhaps more quickly than what occurred with everybody’s adrenalin pumping.
A Learning Professional’s Conclusions
Now … what does that story mean for instructional design? Let’s see. For one thing, in simulations and serious games, a dangerous situation with a sense of urgency makes for quick and deep learning. We just have to make sure we focus the learners on the right lessons, the right behaviors. Also, in first-responder training simulations, we may want to make sure that the “breathe and assess the situation” step is included in the behaviors reinforced.
And those are my professional lessons from that particular life-lesson.
What do you think? Please share your comments.