Ready to Learn

In my public workshops I find that some students come ready to learn and no matter what I do, they’re going to use the time to figure stuff out. Other people are paying for a completely different experience: they are looking to pay their way out of confusion and fear. In the second case my job is to create the conditions that will empower a person to take chances and try things out.

It’s easiest to learn when you have hooks into the new information which relate to something you already know. Learning a new skill is about taking the baby steps from where you are, to where you need to be. But what if you don’t even know where you are? Towards the beginning of every workshop I like to give participants a chance to hook into something they already know. If it’s a private workshop, I have the luxury of having the group talk about their own site and their experience with it. If it’s a public workshop, it’s a lot more difficult to find that common ground people can hook into.

In public workshops, I can give the group an exercise that everyone can complete at the same time. This gives the group a shared experience, but it isn’t as good as hooking into something they already know. I find the best workshops are when people bring their work problems with them to the workshop. We can use real examples, and the participants can ask real questions and get real answers about the situation. But often people are shy about “exposing” their work…sometimes it’s too political (they don’t like the design; some other department “made them” do something; etc), and some times people are just plain nervous about sharing their work.

The people who are ready to learn know where they are, and they tend to also have a clear goal of what “done” looks like. They know the skills gap they have to fill. “I am here; I need to be there.” If you don’t know where you are, it’s impossible to start because nothing looks like a beginning. I’ve tried a number of different ways to engage new learners who are nervous / afraid / angry to engage in defining their “beginning”…but when I think about the techniques I’ve used, none stick out as having been super effective at transitioning a person from skeptical participant to eager, and engaged, learner.

Some of the ones that gave only mediocre results:

  • pre-class evaluation or test (very difficult to get people to complete these).
  • begin the class with a discussion of goals / problems that people are having (people don’t want to open up to strangers at the beginning of class)
  • write down your goals on an index card and pass them forward (people aren’t used to writing goals, so they don’t know what to write)

What about you? Have you had success (and/or unexpected failures) at getting people in the right frame of mind to learn?