Challenge students?! Are you crazy?!

By | October 16, 2008

There are a lot of challenges that instructional designers and trainers face in developing and delivering courses in a corporate environment. For instance, usually there is barely time to get the material together, let alone organize it well and produce well-designed practices and assessments that are both challenging and valid. Then there’s frequently the problem of having to develop for people at different comprehension levels, without losing the novices or boring the advanced students. On top of that, you’ve got the political angles of business owners who want their employees to spend the absolute minimum time possible in a course (they’re usually shooting for an hour or less, especially for online courses) and who frequently see training as a waste of time anyway – just a formality that needs to be checked off the “personal development” section of employee reviews.

As a result of these and many other pressures, what you end up with is an instructional designer doing their best to meet the business demands of a short development time and short delivery time, and in the process having to forgo an engaging, effective delivery for a lowest common denominator approach that presents the material in a linear, lecture (or straight text, online) format with very little for the student to do to practice the materials. Frequently the “assessments” are also dumbed-down to the point of being just a few simple True/False questions. And thus we have training that meets the business owners’ expectation – a waste of time that provides a check mark.

So to me, it’s both thrilling and frustrating to read things like this part of an interview with J. Mark Bertrand, author of Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World.

CPYU: What are some of the toughest challenges that you have faced when teaching teenagers today? Have you noticed any changes since you started teaching teens?

JMB: I don’t talk to teens any differently than I would an adult audience. I made a decision when I started that I’d never talk down to my students. I’d let the hard questions stay hard—in fact, I’d make them harder if need be. It seems to have worked. Teens are much more sophisticated than they are experienced. Before they’ll listen to your experience, they have to believe in your sophistication. You have to prove it isn’t ignorance that motivates you, but knowledge.

The most challenging aspect of teens is what they have in common with the rest of us. As comfortable middle-class North Americans, we enter a classroom expecting to be pandered to. We look at knowledge the way a consumer views a product. We expect to be entertained, emotionally engaged, and ultimately affirmed in their starting assumptions.

Everything he’s saying here is valid for most adults. They do generally enter a classroom (or an online course) expecting to spend some time being somewhat entertained, but ultimately not come out with any new information. I don’t think that’s what they hope for, deep down, but that’s what they’ve generally gotten (and not just from training sources, but from everywhere – media, church, school, books…), and they’ve learned to expect it. They’ve learned that they will be spoon-fed, and not challenged.

Since we all grew up watching television instead of reading and talking about books, many [of] the discursive skills that go hand in hand with literacy are on the wane. Teens might actually have it a little better than their parents, since the Internet has at least fostered an abridged form of literacy, but being able to read a passage and immediately get the gist of it seems to be a specialized skill these days, which is troubling in a text-oriented community like the church.

I’d add that that applies equally well to online training developers. An example has to be incredibly simplified in many cases just to ensure that the point gets across, but the trouble is that it gets so watered down that it is divorced from reality and loses its relevance.

As someone involved the corporate training business, I would love to follow this author’s lead and present challenging, thought-provoking learning opportunities for our employees. The deck is severely stacked against a corporate training department in doing that, but it is a battle worth fighting. Judging from all the point-and-click, read-and-respond training I’ve seen (and, unfortunately, developed) out there we seem, as an industry, to be losing that battle. Many of us have given up the fight, and are now little more than order-takers – not because we want to be, but because we’ve been so beaten down.

And that’s possibly the most frustrating thing about working in corporate training – knowing we can do it better, but not being allowed.

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