Learning Design: The Great, The Good and The Good Enough

This could be a story about buggy whips. You might know the classic management tale of the craftsman who was proud of building the most handsome and useful whips to spur on carriage horses at the turn of the last century. Unfortunately, as you you probably know the tale, carriages once replaced by the automobile rendered his lovely product useless.

I have watched from the trenches and sidelines as classes of learning professionals are now being divided —again by technology into two camps; those who know how learning should be constructed and craft it and those who can manufacture, at time and cost savings, the actual product.

Learning designers strategize how to solve problems to achieve performance improvement applying theory to fact and constructing course elements, flows and production processes. They gain agreement with stakeholders about content, audience, time on learning and assessment and the larger components of an experience. They scaffold the project so each step falls into place in a logical progression. In some cases, the learning designer will offer a narrative reflecting the content back to the stakeholders to ensure the critical content is captured. Additionally they might also write the actual storyboard incorporating the elements including the interactive and experiential (as well as social) elements that will make the course interesting if not compelling. The best and greatest courseware, the most inventive and exciting depends on a designer who can sculpt content into a story, then work with an interactive and/or graphic designer to sharpen the user experience across multiple platforms finally passing the work to a developer to program—as designed—for implementation.

Background3

Developers are those folks who know how to use the tools chosen by the enterprise to express content online in an effective and dynamic format. For the past number of years, while learning theory and ideas about making courses exciting have evolved growing with the speed and bandwidth available for elements like video, developer tools have been refined exponentially. Think of the industrial model—build an assembly line, now improve the assembly line and the tools—then make better products. However, this works well only when everything being made is a replica set to standardized requirements. Learning is not like that. Even when producing multiple courses with similar content, the opportunity to breathe excitement into each one is more present when designers do what they do best and developers express it. No template, no matter how sophisticated can allow for all the shadings required by great learning. Instead developers take the tools and either use them out of the box or, as I saw in a number of organizations, create, and in most cases struggle to build work-arounds expressing the designers intent while trying for hours to keep within the constraints of the software. An entire industry has been built around PowerPoint (by example) as the foundation for programs like Articulate. And the tide is with them since money flows downhill from big corporate enterprises and their subordinate constituencies. Better, faster, cheaper. And good enough.

The precedent for this was the explosive improvement in desktop publishing more than a decade back; once an associate learned the software they could generate print materials. The problem—and the connection to the current argument, is simply that these folks were not trained as graphic designers. The results spoke for themselves; a lot of bad design, quickly produced and reproduced. Moreover, when it was accepted by many managers as ‘good enough’ the die was cast for the attitudes we see now in learning design and development.

Here lies the collision and connection: In the hopes that ‘rapid’ eLearning cannot only reduce the time to create courseware the tools, ever more nuanced, allow developers to become designers as well. It’s seductive; managers cut down head count, more work can be pushed out the door by learning groups under pressure to deliver fast changing content, and costs drop when the designer, a more highly trained, often senior and knowledgeable resource can be set aside or redeployed. I don’t believe there has been a study conducted on performance improvement or even a Kirkpatrick view of which types of courses yield intended results. But I do know anecdotally that learning designed courses, where each professional works to their strength always seem to have an A-ha factor. Most other courses—those of the template kind—are utilitarian and though they might satisfy the requirements or outcomes, learner satisfaction cannot compare. This is dangerous and grows more so every day as multi-generational learners want different kinds of learning experiences.

ATT00091

The facts are there is room at the learning table for both types of development. However, there is no real lobbying group or organized industry to support the learning designer model. My fear is that learning and instructional design preparation will move even further towards the industrial model, templatized learning produced by individuals whose preparation has introduced them to a fair amount about learning…and the skillsets demanded to operate the tools. Unfortunately, there is too much complexity and uniqueness in learning to allow for excellence when this mashup becomes the status quo.

Those of us who have grown up in the era of learning design are more than ever segregated from access to development. Even with HTML5 used by great developers who can customize components to meet learning design objectives with wonderful precision, I see a rending of the system that will soon go the way of the buggy whip. So much of life today, from the professional sphere to just everyday life seems to be populated by people who figure that good enough is just that. Time is precious, financial strains are everywhere, the speed of life is overtaking the human ability to sustain its own sense of equilibrium in a world of instant everything. So let it go and accept the outlier will be the customization of learning only when absolutely defended by insistent clients with the budget and care to desire excellence. Otherwise, wait for tools to exhibit their next iteration, artificial intelligence.

 

The Learner, 70:20:10 and Customer Experience

iStock_000008801928SmallMore so than in other efforts learning demands a careful balance of content and context. Many courses or projects chock a block with great information never quite achieve the results intended because of the way the information is delivered. Still too many learners won’t or cannot stay engaged. And it’s not for lack of effort by designers. Neither dynamic media, nor learner engagement exercises, even all the bells and whistles designers build on can always keep the learner riveted. Moreover, it’s not the pacing nor structure of events nor even the implied threat the learning or training is a job requirement. When learners are asked about courses a range of answers emerge, from I liked it but it meant little to me in my job, it was just not interesting, it was isolating, dull, the same old thing. So, if you believe, as do I, there is a missing element, hang on, I may have some insights.

Firstly, it’s important to clear off the Kirkpatrick levels. Not dismiss, just set them aside. Traditional learning and development is about pushing out information. What I suggest is a different way of thinking about the learner perhaps reflected in Kirkpatrick but not aligned to its grid like way of organizing learner uptake. Rather the lens through which we should start is Charles Jennings’s 70:20:10 approach.

Looking back to the original premise, that courses even with great content are bashed on the shore of rocks of delivery and contextual modes, than Jennings realization about how learning works is even more in line with my premise. And not to hold you in suspense, I am advocating we begin to think of learners as customers and every aspect of the learning experience as a customer experience. In the customer experience (Cx), world companies look at their service by way of touchpoints.

Touchpoints are every interaction taking place between the company, product or information—the content—the user or customer of that information and the context or channel used to communicate. Calling your cable company, speaking with a representative offers many touchpoints. For instance, how many rings did it take to get through, did the customer service representative understand the problem, how did she speak to you, could he resolve the problem, how long did it take, or perhaps you got better service using the website. The media, in this case the phone, is referred to as the channel. Companies measure each touchpoint in each channel against criteria in order to examine their process, develop standards and measures to improve customer service and contain their costs.

As learning people, we might take a lesson from touchpoints in Cx. In business, every time a touchpoint is observed, measured, and found lacking, it is improved—called touchpoint renewal. Now think of learning experiences whether virtual or face-to-face. Every interaction with content is naturally in a context (channel). So working online, the UI/UX channel might have been designed with minimal cognitive overhead in a handsome interface so information can be actuated easily. The more interactions, more touchpoints, and more reflective thought by the designer is required. Or in a classroom, instructors who focus on critical content and presents interactively have touchpoints relevant to that context or channel.

Learning designers can think in touchpoints when they build instruction or training. If we begin to think like this courses will improve simply because each action is viewed as an individual, measurable touchpoint. There are two elements, the content and the quality or style with which it is delivered (no matter the context or channel) and the learner (or customer). The smoother, faster, clearer the touchpoint, the easier it would be for learners to navigate and perhaps benefit from the experience. Customer experience thinking does not require a major pivot in the way courses are developed. Instead, it’s a mindset and reminder that learners need to be serviced as customers or even as buyers with a choice. Knowing your learner needs, your customers, and what they must achieve at the conclusion of the experience can help shape designers decisions about what to insert into a learning experience, the style, and the channel.

iStock_000004786684SmallJennings research clearly says most learning, over 80%, takes place in the workplace not the classroom (and I assume not the screen either). He has demoted formal learning to the ’10’. This diminishes the role of the learning designer or at least, as far as I can tell reshapes it. Experiential learning through contact and information with others yields—according to Jennings—better development and business outcomes. A conversation with a colleague in the pursuit of a solution or the sharing of an incident that leads to an A-Ha moment is planned. Keep in mind, these interactions all have touchpoints, too. That ‘20’ doesn’t mean we can easily measure the import of every utterance and seek to improve coaching or mentoring conversations by observing or eavesdropping continuously. However, it’s worth considering just how powerful informal, professional language is and how worthy it might be to bring to daylight the concept that everything one says or does has a value that is measurable in terms of utility and effect. This would include sharing via social media as well. As we know, a useful point made in Twitter, evinces a piling on of like-minded comments. These touchpoints will have extraordinary reach and thus value if the sources are trusted and adds to the validity of the single point under review. Most importantly both Cx and 70:20:10 are performance and productivity focused.

It would seem terribly logical for learning designers, ID’s, courseware, and content builders to become aware of the customer experience. If our product is the transmission of knowledge, skills and behaviors—and we expect change to result from each learning event, than designing with care and scrutinizing each touchpoint is another valuable way to look at and improve learning outcomes. Perhaps the designer’s role will change toward one of director; scripting a full 100% development experience—composed of 70:20:10 where every action or activity plays a role in the education of a learner and the idea of the total customer experience is viewed via touchpoints ensuring all actions are focused on results.

Overcoming Generation Differences When Building Learning: Part 2

When we last visited this topic about a week back I promised to create a visual—a chart of sorts—to encourage learning and instructional designers to consider how generational bias in training delivery. Just looking to start a conversation.

A Quick Review
You might want to pop back to the original article: http://tiny.cc/qpsrax

We know we’re engaging three distinct groups in today’s workplace, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y (Millenials). Each has specific preferences for general communication and they carry over in training as well. Whether creating a training program when all three groups are in the room or accessing courses online demands the learning designer incorporate specific ways of delivering information with the appropriate assets, techniques, and technologies. Initially, we would hope learners, right from the first word or screen, slide or handout, would buy-in and see value; a predisposition that his will be a good experience. During the training, we build formative experiences to keep all groups interested and motivated to continue, committed that the investment in time is worthwhile. Finally we would want participants to exit the training experience appreciating it was translatable into their work life. If this is accomplished, the next training experience will be viewed much more favorably and meet with less resistance.

Acknowledging their generational age, and considering their technological age (how savvy are they to tech) as well as comfort with social media, influences how they will respond to courseware. Though there are three distinct groups, many learners exhibit the preferences for learning outside the generational ‘norm’. These people are to be commended for either learning new technology, appreciating other ways of ‘seeing’ learning or just curious enough to drop a toe in the fast flowing stream of change. We need to depend on these folks to help convert those who tend to be inflexible.

Caveats abound:

  • This is not a fully scientific approach nor based on academic, androgogical research
  • It is the product of crowdsourcing, anecdotal research and discussion with hundreds of learning/instructional designers and clients not to mention intuition
  • My professional experience over thousands of hours of course building across more than twenty verticals and five geos and over 25 years of design have informed these findings, too

I am fully prepared to hear from all quarters. It’s a living document—a work in progress— so send your ideas to rshadrin@wonderfulbrain.com. I’m hoping criticism will help improve this instrument not merely tell me where to get off or how narrow-minded, oblique or stupid this exercise is.

Anyway, someone had to put a stake in the ground. Apparently me. I hope it doesn’t end up in my heart.

Ultimately, the learning designer has to make everyone happy if information transfer is to take place. Elements that ‘favor’ one group more than another will always be necessary. If knowledge, skills and behaviors are to be transmitted, absorbed and used than instructional design should seek balance. Occasionally this compromise is not appreciated nor well tolerated across the generations. Nevertheless, it is absolutely necessary to honor each aspect of the generation’s learning preferences and mitigate those that irritate others. Skillful designers know how to navigate these choppy waters and subtle mixtures of learning preferences can always be developed. Can the design ever be perfect. Well, no. But reasonable learners in all generations can recognize when attempts are made to entice them into a learning experience. And the organization expects each generation, besides tolerance, adapt as necessary to improve performance and solve problems through learning and training experiences.

GenCon

NOW EVERYONE WINS: OVERCOMING GENERATION DIFFERENCES WHEN BUILDING LEARNING

During an interview about a week back I asked the project manager about the audience for which the training courseware would be designed. The strongest criteria, emphatically made, was the consultants ability to work out a curriculum for 24 to 70 year olds. She added, by the way, some of them ‘don’t play well with others’ or didn’t want to take the training…and were clearly hostile. I know the second part is actually more enticing to discuss than the first but we’ll save that for a sequel.

It’s far from the first time any educator has faced this situation but it did get me wondering. A good place to start in preparing for such a project would recognize the characteristics of learners in each of the 4 major generational groups in today’s workplace. From that point discover, categorize and develop with some confidence the types of learning each would be most comfortable with then craft an overall rubric to be used when designing courseware for multi-age audiences. Looking around I did find an article where this conundrum was voiced. That solution was to conduct a needs assessment, offer basic training particularly in the technologies for those unfamiliar with online learning, and then take out an ‘insurance policy’ by creating what really was a back up curriculum in case of mass lethargy or a pedagogical mutiny. This answer seemed too superficial and really doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.

The Generations
Although these descriptions may seem a bit broad there is agreement the characteristics of each generation are accepted as real and true.

Baby Boomers (Post WW II, 47-65 years old)
Creating a pleasant work environment is paramount

  • Like steady work and climbing the corporate ladder, consider their coworkers to be their main social network
  • They put work at the center of their life and focus on building the company
  • Viewed as ‘seasoned’, thought leaders, or subject matter experts, has a stronghold on experience
  • If you want something done, pick up the phone instead of waiting on an email or text response

Generation X (Born between 1963-1980, early 30s to mid 40s)
genxfemale

  • Often labeled ‘slackers’, but are the best educated generation
  • Display a casual disdain for authority and structured work hours, dislike being micro-managed, skeptical and embrace a hands-off management philosophy
  • Will put in the hours while maintaining a reasonable work-life balance
  • Incorporate social media seamlessly into their personal and professional lives

Generation Y (Also called Echo Boomers or Millennials, born between 1981-1994, early 20s to early 30s)
millenial

  • Will make up 46% of the US workforce by 2020
  • Expect near universal positive reinforcement from authority figures while seeking job satisfaction
  • Incredibly technology savvy, immune to most traditional marketing and sales pitches
  • Rely heavily on blogs, instant messages, tweets, text messages
  • Demand work-life balance, flexible hours, work-from-home options, and mobile technology

 Generation Z (Soon to enter the workforce, born between 1995-2009)
First generation never to have experienced the pre-internet world. Already technology-focused

Where the Problem Begins
Let’s just back up a bit. School is the common denominator amongst all generations. But the problems that continue to arise in public education are magnified when boomer type instructional modalities are used to pitch information at millennial students. Teachers, the curriculum, methods and even the spaces for instruction are evidence of a generational disconnect. There are many superior older instructors who have made the technological and sociological leap to align content with context to educate their charges. But, in general this divide is not uncommon and where that happens, little learning goes on. Unfortunately many youngsters get patterned and adapt attitudes that, even as adults carry a distaste for learning not in their preferred mode. However these students are now our employees and need to be convinced by example learning can be made meaningful respecting the ways they want to, and best can learn. The question to consider? Are employees of a generation too rigid or overly reflexive in their rejection of training? Put another way, how malleable and adjustable are employees willing to be?

Where is Alignment in the Organization?
In corporate training we expect all generations to make adjustments so courses, training and instruction can be cast from a single or a few uniform models. After all this is the workplace. But that no longer cements an employee’s commitment nor guarantees willing participation. If we don’t honor the fundamental attitudes and proclivities of each generation we risk losing learners at the outset. Often staff, having endured training delivered in essentially a mode akin to a foreign language, have attitudes about training harden into instant negativity every time a required learning experience comes around. The problem that begs a solution is how best to design learning for all  generations.

Organizational Intolerance
Corporate leaders are skeptical  about the costs associated with learning and training believing there is not a high enough dividend in performance change to drive up profits. They would be extremely unlikely to embrace multiple course types to engage each generation in their learning ‘sweet spot.’ Instead corporate education needs to innovate, devising learning experiences to lure employees by offering a variety of ways to interact with information, absorb and most importantly use what they learned to be better at what they do—for themselves and the organization. Enough quality experiences and the fear, inertia or rejection displayed by generations will dissipate replaced by a more optimistic attitude about training at work.

A Way to Look at Instruction with Generational Regard
The goal is to reach every generation in their preferred learning style suggested by their social description. How? Develop learning elements, experiences, and technologies integrated into the content of courseware or training that speaks to each generation. This balanced methodology will engage all learners—not all the time nor in every instance—but enough so each group can sense an invitation to learn has been extended to them. Such an experience might offer elements (scenarios, interactivities, video, animation) techniques (direct instruction and gamification) experiences (role playing and decisions making strategies), assessing for competence (tests, role plays, scenarios, games) and media where learning might be best delivered (live, virtual, online, mobile, mixed), so that every generation can find relevance. Content will be carried forward in multiple modalities; formal, informal, social, participatory, for collaborative teams and individuals. Text, visuals, audio and interactivities will drive information respecting the sensibility of generational familiarity.

And while many employees are archetypes of each generation there are enough who just marginally typify the description of that generation. Of course this does not mean they are outliers, they simply fall into some other generational category.  I believe we can make some reasonable assumptions about the elements that once incorporated into instructional programs will reach every generation in their preferred learning style leaving no one outside the scope of education.

So what would a multi-generational learning plan look like? That’s going to need a well crafted visual. Stay tuned for Part II.

Big Data, Good Information and A Way For You To Use It

In this article I want to explore 3 connected ideas. The first is about big data, the phenomenon that now makes available enormous, staggering, volumes of information almost instantaneously. The second is a condition that says information already known to us can limit how big data can be used because there are other types of knowing to expand thinking. And the third idea is the sum of the first two: that the intersection of big data and a different way of seeing information means a model must be designed to utilize large amounts of validated information in a reasonable way.

So the era of big data is here. Imagine Niagara Falls and the millions of gallons of water that shoot over the precipice virtually every minute. That’s the scale of information we envision when thinking of the amount of data we can reach out and grab—or in some cases is pushed to us—everyday.  It would be impossible to know it all. But one benefit of massive volume is, when looked at through a certain lens, we have an opportunity to connect seemingly unrelated bits of data and discover trends, make predictions, even pre-position products and services long before we click, point or touch. It’s the compilation of colossal amounts of data that presents a challenge. How do we pluck just the right information we need from this torrent of bits?  This is the difficulty with information management in the era of big data; it’s like trying to take a sip from a fire hose. Our need is not to get information it’s how to get just the right content to help us work with more accurate and insightful facts and, smarter and faster?

Clearly then we see how working out a process to employ big data and make quality business decisions is difficult. Furthermore consider this context, our second condition:

“There are known knowns” began an answer to a question at a US Department of Defense News Briefing made by Donald Rumsfeld while serving as United States Secretary of Defense in February 2002. Actually, here’s the whole tortured phrase… “there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” Though it may seem convoluted it is a “brilliant distillation of a quite complex matter,” said Mark Steyn, a Canadian columnist and echoed by many others, even legions of his detractors.

While good information on its own is valuable its utility when combined with other data to discover other, perhaps new data and still newer meanings is really profound. Sometimes the information is known and we need to fasten it in context, other times we don’t know there is… and what is…  trustworthy information but have to discover it; and more abstract yet, as unknowns the potential of useful but opaque information demands we peer into the future and ask ‘what if’ and proceed to manufacture information on (hopefully intelligent and intuitively perceptive) speculation.

If you’re in the business of solving problems—and who isn’t really—you’ll need an information life cycle model to regard big data and the ‘knowns issue’ to manage a collection of information for maximum use. And beware; too much data without vetting and affirmation, means you might miss the really important stuff, an effect that keeps security services awake at night. And therein lies the third concern of massive information management.

By summary then, we face three elements in our quest to make big data work for organizations:

    1. Gathering information factoring the effect gained when combinations of content reveal even newer more, newer, meaningful data
    2. Respecting knowns and unknowns as  fact and as potential ‘black swans’ (an unpredictable or unforeseen event, typically one with extreme consequences) that can and will skew results if not discovered prior or during information capture or application
    3. Culling the really useful information or data—those bits directly related to the problem at hand—from the gargantuan amount of information flying about making it accessible, contextual and changeable.

Here’s a model than might help us slow down a bit, turn down the faucet and cull out know information and potentially new content when big data offers additional tonnage of content.

InfoMgmt

The flow chart illustrates how information would be categorically organized; a model for the standardization of an information life cycle in big data world.

Ultimately culling useful information from an almost limitless stream comes down to energy, resourcefulness and commitment. When building a learning course for example, your subject matter experts deliver very specific information as they must do. However, is there other data in text, as visuals, in video that might provide a different way to see the information? Clarifying content by shifting the context just a little bit can often shine a light into corners formerly unseen. Whether one has the time or inclination to make the effort to go shopping for more information is dependent on time and budget, yes, however, when looking to make learning better and richer, drinking from the stream is often a task worth enduring. Creating metaphors mined from a combination of newly discovered information can improve the user experience—and enjoyment—like spinning a kaleidoscope and seeing new patterns. Using a model such as the one proposed might make such an effort more reasonable.

LEADERS ARE TOO FAR UPSTREAM TO EFFECT CHANGE—TALENT MANAGEMENT MUST BE FOCUSED DOWNSTREAM ON MANAGERS

Who hasn’t been the recipient of the exhortations of motivation? It seems everywhere; used to suggest, cajole and inspire workers. Indeed exhort all of us to get out in front of a task and get going. I remember, I think, a professor or mentor of mine in the education business who consistently said that motivation, a mental state, is not what we want to create. No, he said, what we really want is movement.

Movement is measurable, while motivation lies within us affected by a variety of mental attitudes and internal prejudices. Whereas movement can be evaluated against expectations or scales of achievement, motivation is opaque to the organization seeking its presence.

This may not be news, but in the context of leadership and management, the misapplication of either motivation or movement in an opposing context can often lead to problems. Furthermore, with the push towards the nurturing of talent; talent management as its referred, it’s worth a look at how these states might be aligned to justify the effort, time and resources placed in readying current employees for more responsibility.

The End of Motivation?
No discussion of motivation can take place without clearing up the idea of incentives. Leaders continually seek ways of extracting more or better from their minions, only to find most systems never seem to yield consistent results. Incentivizing workers of any level with rewards, extrinsic or intrinsic seems to work only when there are simple goals to achieve and solid rules to guide performance. The problem of if-then reward schemes is a narrow focus on the task at hand. In many studies, incentives have been shown to effectively kill creativity. In sales and mechanical tasks, incentives may work but only sometimes, and not for long. However, as Daniel Pink has noted, as soon as performance requires any additional cognitive skill (e.g. reasoning) even a larger reward leads to decreased performance. He notes that the London School of Economics has found financial incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance. And not to be overlooked, robotics are increasingly eliminating the types of work for which incentives would prove even marginally valuable.

So what to do? Firstly, let’s accept motivation for movement lies in the realm of management and distinct from leadership. The traditional definition of management says if you want compliance then create a linear system of compartmentalized tasks and add people adequately skilled to so function. Then stand back and measure, doling out cash to the top performers. The disconnect between this conceit and the new working environment fails to account for the types of problems so prevalent now—devoid of a clear set of rules, or a single solution or only one right answer. More often than ever before, business problems demand more right brain, conceptual activity. When challenges are mystifying and abstract, if-then reward systems/incentives don’t work. Since most jobs that demand compartmentalization and linearity are so easy to outsource (or robotize), tradition bound incentives, or motivation through rewards are useless. Nevertheless, what about managers who must raise the performance of workers, achieve cost/time/efficiency savings, another top, or bottom line positive changes?

Science and Business
There is a mismatch between what science knows and business does. For instance, we know, and studies show when people want to succeed because the problem matters, because it’s important or interesting or because it is bigger than themselves, they require no external rewards to perform at high levels. An operational paradigm that recognizes mastery, autonomy, and purpose will encourage workers to respond with energy to the types of business challenges in today’s workplace. If managers want workers to perform up, then the challenges and types of work that must be solved have to be designed to respond to these human factors. Is it the job of managers who require relatively simple tasks to be executed to re-form the jobs not into compartments of interchangeable elements but to something more interesting? The answer is yes. If we need new managers capable of thinking this way than that’s where talent management learning might start. Remember it’s not the manager who does the work…but managers need to set conditions where others can and do to their utmost abilities. Some might say this is starting to sound like leadership. But leaders themselves are too far distant from actual work.

Why Managers Need to be Leaders
The 20th century business model erects a formidable wall between management and leadership. Yet in this century it should be clear anyone in authority—having the responsibility to move (not just motivate) people to perform must embody both managerial skills and leadership qualities. When companies speak of talent management they still, in most cases, make distinctions among the types of employees who earn or receive the types of learning that prepares them for one role or the other. That distinction might best be obliterated. If managers are incapable of leadership perhaps they should not be managers. Not to be harsh but given the types of conceptual as well as practical business challenges that will engage enterprises big and small if there is no leadership in management (and the converse it true) success will be most difficult. Workers as people are different; those who guide their tasks had better be aligned to their ways.

Leadership Is Too Far Upstream
We know leadership has two distinct functions particularly in large enterprises; imbuing the business mission with vision and tone and setting priorities and policies. However to change performance I suggest unless a leader is in total control—think Jack Welch or Steve Jobs—they are too distant—to far upstream from the action to make a difference in how people move and their commitment to performance. Even Jobs, perhaps the most hands-on of any modern executive even with supreme governance required intermediaries, subordinates…managers to transfer his visions into reality.

Without direct control of how problems are phrased and scoped, organized and aligned, leaders may exude all the power their words can muster but won’t help a local team produce better or faster solutions.

Here’s a descriptive chart breaking down leadership and management from different perspectives:

    Leadership   Management
Core Art Science
Visionaries Technicians
Process Upstream–Strategic Downstream–Tactical
Personality Driver Charismatic Pragmatic
Foundation Situational Empirical/Formulaic
Modality Front, top, prior to action Within or during action
Structure Ideas, theory Hands-on, get it done
Action Thinking Scheduling
Metric KPIs FTEs
Skill Motivation Movement

The Talent Management Function
There’s no question leadership is vital to any enterprise. In addition, leaders can come in all shapes and sizes, talents, strengths, weaknesses and deficits. Many companies thrive with lousy leadership—but none can survive without skilled managers, especially those who can meld some of the qualities of leadership into the organizing behaviors of managing.

I suppose the final tally of all the characteristics in the chart can be boiled down to the simple idea that talent management learning programs should be less focused on building leadership and more attuned to managerial competence. Bringing management into a 21st century paradigm will directly encourage people to do great work. Employees will move towards excellence when problems support autonomy, permitting their own way of working out a problem, provide opportunities and tools to allow mastery to flourish and offer a clear purpose that serves the greater service. Incentives, no matter what type are contradictory to this type of cooperative milieu. Managers who are skilled in creating this type of work situation, who have received the education and training they need to create such an environment will be the backbone of every successful enterprise. Shifting resources from building leadership qualities for leaders only to ensuring hands on managers have the skills and knowledge, techniques and tactics they need, will lay a foundation to ensure the survival of the enterprise even as leaders wash in and out with the tides.

WHEN YOUR LEARNERS ARE ENGINEERS… BETTER KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

It can’t be a secret that stereotypes are often well proven by personal experience. And in my many years building learning, whether facilitated instruction or elearning it’s a cardinal rule that instructional designers need to know many aspects of their target learner’s personality traits. One, and maybe the most important metric, is their profession. The notion this alone determines both the techniques and design elements you should employ suggests the challenges you’ll face when the precepts of good learning are antagonistic to the personality characteristics of your audience. I don’t believe there is a more difficult group (I don’t mean they’re not nice people mind you) of learners—but whose typology seriously conflicts with story-based instruction than engineers.

If we’re going to create quality knowledge transfer, skills building and behavioral changes in our engineer audience then it pays to peel back their character traits that research and experience seem to bear out: Engineers are:

  • problem solvers
  • perfectionists
  • appreciate intelligence in others
  • creative within their field
  • argumentative when supporting their point of view
  • dogmatic
  • risk averse
  • emotionally detached
  • impersonal and reserved
  • not particularly diplomatic
  • uncomfortable with ambiguity and vagueness

Naturally, we can characterize any group of homogeneous learners who were drawn to their profession because these traits were naturally occurring. Also within any profession, practitioners lean into the traits most prevalent in the group and therefore further prove the stereotype. To be fair not every engineer exhibits all these traits, and the degree to which they are demonstrated or expressed vary considerably.

Regardless, given these traits engineers (it’s no stretch to hypothesize) prefer training or education delivered in a very practical way. It is an exhibition of their personalities. In other words:

  • Goals that are clearly presented
  • Results that are measurable/quantifiable
  • Material that is focused directly on achieving stated results
  • Visual elements included only if they directly illustrate a critical concept
  • Information presented in logical sequence and in order
  • Direct, to the point, facts with proofs
  • Concrete examples presented with no ambiguity; delete anything not directly aligned to training objectives

So what would a learning solution look like if it were built to an engineer’s specifications?

  • Clear unambiguous, quantifiable outcomes
  • Screens with material presented in logical order, point by point—like bullets for example
  • Literal, temporal and sequential presentation of information
  • Few if any checks for understanding (the assumption that if the material is correctly presented they’ll get it right; a certainty among engineers)
  • All facts, no emotive content need apply such as scenarios/stories
  • Tell, show, do; period

Many engineers would be just fine with a PowerPoint presentation or its equivalent with the addition of examples if necessary. The sample below is a screen from a course designed by engineers with no input from a learning designer.


Huh? As you can tell this even violates their preferred modalities.
Even an engineer would have problems understanding what this is trying to communication let alone teach.

Finally, let’s look at the considerations an instructional designer might regard as quality learning strategies, techniques and methods when building learning.

Content would have:

  • Objectives achieved through both cognitive learning and intuitive understandings
  • Preview and review experiences
  • Provisions for options, decision making risk taking
  • Employ checks for understanding, feedback and remediation
  • Images that both illustrate learning points, used to generate time, place, emotional content or as another modality for retention; and infographics that explain concepts visually w/o narrative content
  • Offer examples as scenarios/simulations and especially stories
  • Use emotions to help cement retention

By now you can tell I am arguing that the disconnect between the way engineers prefer their information delivered and the best practices in learning are estranged if not divorced from each other. That said; as the learning master how can you reconcile these differences. If your goal is to present information that yields a higher degree of knowledge transfer, what roads are open that will improve learning uptake and therefore performance while enticing engineers to see the learning design as interesting but compelling.

Two Methods for Designing Learning Engineers will Appreciate

  1. Leverage their primary mental framework and traits while chunking and organizing information with enrichment materials to enhance learning retention.

Let’s take the information in the sample screen and deconstruct it.

The objective seems to be an explanation of how automatic data synchronization takes place.

In the current screen learners are told after CM has been added as a Managed Element it is cued up for synchronization. This is followed by two qualifying conditions; one positive the other negative. To monitor the process, the learner is offered a navigation string to access software that illustrates a screen where the process is made evident. While this seems to have logic and order, it is a mashup of too many ideas in one space. Engineers, though we didn’t mention this earlier, really don’t like to waste space so they jam in as much content in one place as possible. This has a double negative effect; there is too much information to digest and it is often confusing and overwhelming, particularly in the screen above since there are two disparate operations.

Now look at this example. Without changing he content—there’s only one element chunked differently—the actual application moved to another screen—there’s much more clarity. There is a logical flow of information and the two options are more distinctive and differentiated. A screen like this meets more of the engineers’ preferences; even though the former seems to be more chocked full of information—it really is jammed up and more difficult to absorb. No doubt when the screen is composed with adequate white space, learners have a better visual experience.

More importantly on the next screen, using a tool like Captivate, the learner could manipulate the data and work through a ‘Show Me, Tell Me, Let Me Try’ option to enhance participation, add interest, and show proofs of fact.

So screen design, which is a function of the instructional design process leads to more clarity and more information presented in a direct and functional manner meeting the engineer’s preferences for ordered delivery of content.

2.       Organize courses to take advantage of engineers drive away from ambiguity

It’s too easy being deceived into building courseware that relies on one set of online screens to sustain the entire learning program. Often, engineers need to learn applications, new hardware, and software and apply their learning to initiate a new method of processing information or bringing new equipment online. When this type of knowledge AND skills must be transferred a blended approach works best.

Recently I designed a learning protocol that required engineers to work with an application in a lab setting with opportunities to use software to program hardware to work to specification. However, they needed to have fundamental information before the lab experience. Initially the client believed that once on site in the lab the facilitator could deliver the content and then lead the lab experiences. This would have proven to be overwhelming for both instructor and learner. The time on learning would stretch to five or more days. Lecturing from the platform while walking engineers through the content and then transitioning to the software application training was a model this company had used before. No wonder their ability to fill seats in the training facility was regularly less than 30%.

The solution was to develop an initial introduction to the course material online followed by a synopsis of each unit of learning into a guide distributed well ahead of the onsite lab experience. After each ‘chapter’ in the Learner’s Guide, a short check for understanding would be completed and forwarded to the facilitator. He would then review the responses, see the areas where there was most confusion, and later start the lab session with remediation of those areas. Only then would he begin to deliver the lab (software application) experiences.

The Instructor’s Manual would provide all the labs, screens, teaching scripts and software application directions. Each individual operation would be shared with the engineers in sequence after an explanation of where this experience aligned with content in the Learner’s Guide. Application operations would be selected to include those that posed the most challenges; others would be worked up by engineers on their own time, during or post training with an open invitation to query other participants or the facilitator. In total the amount of lab time would be reduced, learners would have all their deficits resolved during the remediation period and the need to explore over 700 potential individual application operations in the lab unnecessary.

Using pre-instruction, passing responsibility to learners to be ready for the lab, allowing the facilitator to quickly resolve areas of confusion and finally engage learners in the lab with the most critical and challenging aspects of the application made better use of time and left engineers with a sense of community and competence.

Going back and reviewing the way engineers prefer to learn you can see that in online or facilitated instructional design, awareness of their particular personality traits can be mitigated. Better yet—if you are able to design learning with their considerations in mind, engineers, though always a tough crowd, can be reached and taught in an effective way and one where their opinion of the education experience will more than likely be positive.

ARTICULATE NON EST REX – 3 REASONS HIGHER ORDER LEARNING IS BEYOND THE MOAT

For the past two months or so, I’ve been writing high profile video scripts and storyboarding in a group whose company is synonymous with the 2008 economic collapse. That they made a recovery and paid back most of their bailout money is a testament to leadership and perseverance. But I wish those same qualities extended to training, for here, little was produced that could be considered responsible online education. Like most subjective or creative ventures, it comes down to choices. Beginning with objectives for what learners should take away and then demonstrates in their performance, to the design process and finally the software used to build courseware always determine the instructional yield at the end. When you desire higher order learning; that is information that actually teaches beyond mere recall, then how you design and what software you select for development define your expectations most clearly. If you’re happy to live and feed at the bottom—and by this I mean the lowest end of the taxonomy, providing simple information transfer or at best skills and recall that ask little of the learner you can default to what is easiest. You know, and accept training not education as your outcome. Reminds me of Lewis Grizzard’s humorous tome “Shoot Low Boys, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies.” And for training, the contemporary tool of choice is Articulate.

Low-Level Learning Cheats the Learner
What I call ‘low-level’ elearning is the product of 3 conditions; the desire to move content to delivery as fast as possible, using the most basic software tools from which this can be accomplished, and lastly if something important is being tee’d up online but the development tool isn’t up to the task, the organization puts up fierce resistance to deliver learning in a different medium.

I harbor a patent dislike for packaged authoring tools like Articulate. Popular to the point of ubiquity, one can quickly see why since with very little instruction a learning designer can become a learning developer. Them that invents can own the means of production. It’s highly seductive, relatively cheap in price and learning overhead. Nothing wrong with that except for three insurmountable issues: The first being Articulate and other analogues, encourages anyone to believe they know how to create learning. This attitude diminishes expectations of what learning could be to what the tool will allow it to be. Not to get too deep in the weeds here but learning and instructional design is a discipline that requires significant education to get it right and be of some use. From my vantage point, training managers effective at face-to-face instruction believed they knew how to translate that form into online instruction. Furthermore, having no grasp of how to build let alone interpret a storyboard never held back their opinion about how a screen (which they continued to call slides after that infamous program that serves as an anchor for Articulate) should be populated. The comparison might be a dentist who decides to attempt heart surgery. I mean they are both doctors, right? So the tool invites simplistic, often poorly constructed, and wrongly paced learning as a composite of (I’ll call them by their right name) template screens that the ill prepared but titled deign as adequate. That’s how you get training, not education.

Armor Plated Articulate
Let’s keep I mind there is a learning-industrial complex surrounding Articulate. Thus sycophants, add-ons, templates, coaches, workshops, companies offer training that ensure it has become and maintains its self-righteous place as the default program for delivering low-end elearning. This is one moat you cannot easily cross. It’s well insulated from attack, whether from learning or economic exigencies.

Articulate provides very limited options in terms of interfaces, screen designs, and interactivities (there are 10 out of the box – like drag and drops and the like) that cause developers to suspend inventive screen design to push material out on tight schedules. I observed talented developers, who knew all the nuances and ‘tricks’ to fool Articulate into executing pretty neat operations for which it was not designed curse the heaven’s when a day’s worth of work crashed. At one point I ordered up a truly engaging interactive and the developer with whom I worked finally resorted to a mash up of Flash squeezed into an Articulate shell to create the most creative piece to come out of the that shop. Perhaps this is why Storyline is starting to gain traction. It is not linked to that (as yet unnamed) Microsoft Office program but it does offer the option to forsake templates and move towards more free form development. Plus it migrates to either Flash or HTML5. Of course, companies have beaucoup dollars invested in Articulate and the people to run it so this will be a bottom up migration. A revolution of the learning proletariat perhaps.

Managers Who Say ‘Good Enough’
Finally, management claiming to be realistic about scheduling and resources insisted what came out of that workgroup was good enough—better than anything the company had ever seen to that point. I refer you to the Grizzard quote. Understanding the limits of the tool, and recognizing that trying to re-educate internal executive clients was a losing proposition both politically and temporally, as the group manager let the learning product slither out the cubicle. Yet every single piece of courseware was—long after the storyboard had been approved and the course firmly digital, was picked over and redesigned. Now I ask anyone who knows anything about elearning if that is not a severe contraindication to all that good production means. And I blame this partially on Articulate; if clients think a course can be knocked together with such ease then what’s the big deal about modifying whole chunks of screens. It’s the inmates running the asylum.

Overall, results were measured by the number of courses that made it from a facilitators guide to the LMS at the lowest possible costs measured against production hours, stock photography purchases and additional matter—music or more robust narration for example. No accounting for redevelopment that, by most metrics costs ten times the amount to modify if quality assurance in the storyboard stage were respected. But the concept was foreign—it was let the client see it in its finished form and then we can negotiate changes. Duh?

The Ubiquity of Easy
Perhaps I thought this whole situation was an anomaly and that most other large firms including learning vendors reserved their higher concepts and critical thinking demands for courseware using Flash and HTML5. Not so. I asked former clients and employers how they were building projects and more than 60% said when necessary, they had assigned junior level designers and developers, or instructional designers who had expertise with Articulate—or, to be fair other templatized programs to produce complete courses. When I dove a bit deeper and asked what types of content and at what level of cognitive learning were they building with PowerPoint based tools (there, I said it) they admitted these were – to use one phrase – quick and dirty but they could at least turn a small profit and churn dollars through the company.

In the final result we have a process that insists good enough is, well… good enough, a tool that allows that attitude to flourish even when it the process demonstrates it is inefficient and a disregard for any other options that could improve results even if Articulate remained the developer tool of choice. This is a systematic failure. But for all that, plus missed deadlines and costs incurred by backwards facing repair work, the organization was impressed enough with the visual look and the rolling out of low-level content to be satisfied. There was never any attempt to examine how much or what was ever learned—no one knows (though I suspect) these courses simply replaced stand up training and there singular benefit was only one of scale. You know, less trainers, more viewers in multiple geos, But I’ll bet my reputation the conversion of ILT to this form of online instruction will be revealed as the equivalent of the emperor with no clothes. There’s no learning there, only screens of information; a low-level target for sure.

The Third Way
Let me close this distressing topic by referencing Edward Tufte. I can recall reading his famous treatise, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” where he advocated this idea: Instead of spewing out bulleted slides, especially for complex information, it would be better to produce a high end print piece which would delve into the nuances of a topic and—my insert here—distribute it the same way courseware takes wing—online and accessed from an LMS or Portal. True there might not be any interactivities but—and this is a biggie—with the groundswell acceptance of infographics and the ability of people to ‘get it’ visually without a ton of text, perhaps we have a third way of delivering information. Add to that the capacity of infographics when designed with interactive components (using the newer Adobe program suite) there’s a better model now available. Moreover, combining a good written treatise with high-end infographics seems to me a much better way to offer meaningful information than the kerplunk I hear every time someone tells me they are fluent in Articulate. That, to me, telegraphs all I need to know about the depth and quality of the learning. Better to design a Word doc with good graphics then obey the regal law imposed by rules bound tools like Articulate.

Regem ut mortuum esse.

Scenarios Are Mini Dramas…Not a Glorified Q and A.

Contrary to many articles published lately, scenarios are not written questions with a supposition or proposition followed by questions. They are micro dramas that bring learners onto the screen and compel interaction. Once in, learner needs to work his way out.

One my mantras I have consistency followed is that elearning is an analogue to a television drama. Using this core belief, the components that make up a show can be modified to enhance, if not totally structure an online course experience. Too often, I visit learning that is frankly weak even if it has all the requisite objectives, structure, and guiding scaffold, e.g. ADDIE by example. Whether in Captivate, Articulate, or a full-blown Flash/HTML course too many learning experiences are dry to the mind, dull to the eye and dead to the ear. If this indicative of a general lack of imagination on the part of learning designers, ID’s or constraints place by clients it matters not. The results are courses that are outwardly pushed at learners rather than trying to entice learners and pull them in to the story.

In many examples of courseware, scenarios are one component of a learning experience. While there are many interpretations of the word, there are very few differences in how, as a learning technique, it has been applied. So let me tell you what I think a scenario isn’t:

  • Not a series of questions with multiple answers that try to engender thinking
  • Not a brief explanation of a situation and then questions that demonstrate the learner will know what to do
  • Not a grouping of pictures that ask the learner to choose which is the right answer, whether process, action or straight knowledge

A scenario is part of a longer story enriching the experience for learners by placing them inside the course as a full participant. It would be similar to jumping into a movie while it’s being shown and working your way out again by uttering a magic word. Only in the case of learning, it would mean meeting a challenge as a role player and by actions, words, and deeds, demonstrating competence in order to move ahead in the course. When used at its full strength, which I’ll explain next, it is almost in the realm of gamification; the hot thing in learning now.

The Elements of a Real Scenario
Let’s begin where we always should and that’s with the outcomes we are seeking; not just for the course, but for each scenario. It’s imperative to establish very specific outcomes and their key performance indicators (KPIs) in the design brief. The latter are necessary for evaluating variables like degree of success, number of attempts, quality of corrections and other metrics that will determine whether the actor can go on to the next scene or stay on for take 21.

Based on these outcomes we can now get creative by spinning a situation or state of being into which the learner will be placed. We will need a setting and/or space and the other actors in this little drama.

By example, we might start like this:

  1. Establishing a locale, setting or space
    Providing a visualization of a realistic environment is essential. This is the stage where the action takes place. In fact, consider more than one virtual space; activities amongst actors, like in a film rely on multiple sets to help tell and sell the story. Place your emphasis on detail. If you watch ‘Mad Men’ you’ll know the efforts Matthew Weiner goes to establish a real feel for the era by inhabiting a set that goes to the smallest detail; a stapler, pencils, clothes hooks…nothing is too small so the place rings true. You may not need to be that fanatic, but it’s a point to remember. Whether you use static images or illustrations, Flash or movies strive for reality.
  2. The actors in this drama must be typical so they can be instantly recognized as a ‘type’. No need to take this to extremes—not every CFO wears neither a three-piece suit nor every creative thick nerd glasses. But try to stick to type. And this goes for their speaking (VO or audio) which should use appropriate technical or professional speak…with some exceptions. When selling learning for example, resist putting abbreviations in a person’s mouth before it’s made clear. For instance, say ‘instructor led training’ before saying ILT.
  3. The action is moved by dialogue but it starts a problem that needs to be addressed. The best prologues have a sense of urgency and can be spoken by one or more persons. And be specific about stage directions as well. If you don’t know how to direct a camera or the proper terms than learn them. You are, remember writing a drama, and even if the budget won’t allow complete customization the many details can be established in less costly ways.
    • (CFO, Stephen, in his office speaking to his marketing manager) (CU – close up on his face)
      “Bob, we need to get our numbers up to meet projections and our sale people are not closing. I’ve spoke to Rona and she is meeting with her account execs today. What do you think about bringing in some training, live, virtual, or online? We have less than 60 days to turn this around.”
      (MS – medium shot where we see Bob gesturing towards Stephen)
      I agree we can’t let this slide. I’m actually sitting in on the meeting and I’ll drive the conversation in that direction. Frankly, I don’t know if our people are saying the right things about our products or their not selling right. But I’ll get back to you ASAP.

4. Making it real often depends on the media and budget. Another consideration is real estate; how many screens can be appropriated without intruding on time constraints.Here is the hierarchy of scenario media by cost:

  • Low Cost:
    Stock images with voice over. To make this work look for stock images that feature the same people in multiple poses. Moreover, make sure you use a variety of voices as well. All too often, a scenario becomes a simple narration of a scene. If the content would benefit from a narrator, ensure that voice is different from all the others. Also, you can drop actors into different backgrounds (settings, like above) using Photoshop to create a transparent background. Having a good ID with top-notch skills makes this a quick operation. Now you can place actors in the best possible office, or warehouse or field site and approximate reality. Lastly use special effects by moving people across the screen; even if it looks phony, it works
  • Medium Cost. Using an illustrator allows you to design any setting and any look for your actors. While pricier your work can begin to establish a branded look and feel and with voice over’s adding the final touch you can create a unique scenario
  • High Cost. There are stock video places where you might find enough content to tell a real story. However, this technique works best when combined with either of the other forms. Multiple media heightens interest and it compels learners to stay focused on the action.
  • Custom video. Clearly the most expensive but usually the most effective form of scenario building. Actually, you’d be making a small movie only interrupted by questions or other actions. You would design stops in the action and perhaps bring in a narrator, on screen, to describe the action to come or review what has just taken place. The learner relates to the narrator and welcomes him as a guide.
  • Multimedia. Mixing forms of media is very effective. Illustration that fades into actual images of the actors is very powerful, just as static images can turn into live action video. Any numbers of combinations are possible; just remember the objectives set forth in the design brief are the target—with apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the medium in not the message.

5. The basic rules of instructional design should include how to use images in scenarios. There are infinite options about how to place objects and people on the screen. Too often scenarios look like home movies with all the action taking place at the same distance from the screen. Everything is in the middle distance. How boring. Add vitality and interest by pushing faces right into the screen dominating the entire frame while other people or the background appears tiny behind the giant face. On the other hand, start a voice speaking before the person enters the picture; and bring an actor from way back into the foreground while talking to someone who is already in the picture. I can’t possibly go in to all the options but I’m sure you get the idea. Variety with a purpose should by your focus.

Bringing In the Learner
While scenarios are interesting and often entertaining, they are not passive. The best results are obtained through interactive elements. Most often, this works by stopping the action until the learner causes it to start again that results from their completion of specific actions.

Here’s a sample of actions:

  1. Selecting a physical action for the virtual you; go to this office; enter the shipping center, load the truck, inspect the device and ensure it is functioning
  2. Choosing the appropriate phrase, selling point, technical language or procedure
  3. Answering direct questions; correcting an erroneous response
  4. Participating in a discussion and offering a suggestion that brings consensus
  5. Completing a form or using an application correctly
  6. Following the next step in process

Scenarios are essentially rehearsals for real events and offer the practice needed to begin forming good habits. It follows that if the responses are correct, the scenario can move ahead. If wrong, the scenario can branch into a remedial loop where the concept(s) are explained using other examples or rationale. NOTE: If there are multiple correct responses, a scenario can have branches that extend the scenario along different paths too, like a game model.

Finally, the scenario continues until the objectives have been met. Managers depend on the structure of the scenario to know competence has been achieved when either multiple correct responses during the scenario have been achieved, or there is a final, summative problem the learner correctly completes. It is imperative learners take away the knowledge, skills and behaviors they need to be more effective in the workplace.

Too many volumes and guides teaching instructional design relegate scenarios to just another technique to be trotted out in a few circumstances. In actuality, the more dynamic and exciting the scenarios, and the more kinds offered, the more television-like the courseware becomes. And because this is two-way, participatory television it has all the components of good story telling with the participation of the learner as a primary actor. We know when learners interact in multiple ways their immediate understanding is high and the application of what was learned is used successfully on the job. That leads to performance improvement…and that is the ultimate goal of any learning system.

TITHING FOR TEACHERS: FOR A LEGACY OF EXCELLENCE, A LIFETIME OF TANGIBLE THANKS

This is National Teacher Appreciation Week, an opportunity to celebrate great teachers. While attention is focused let me float an outrageous idea. Though I don’t have the workings of this proposal completely flushed out I hope to instigate a dialogue and let you continue the conversation.

I believe teachers are underpaid. And underappreciated. Let me back up a sec: What brought this top of mind are commercials currently airing (and somewhat self-aggrandizing) for the energy industry. You might have seen them, featuring successful—and not unattractive—young professional engineers whose physics and math teachers opened their minds to a world in which they could exploit their passion inspired by their teachers that led to a career and a life.

What if there was a way to address the inequities, in the process refurbishing education as a noble art and science and do it in such a way that avoids new taxes or municipal funding?

Here’s what I believe to be a logical method of rewarding those kinds of instructors: Why not set up a system of tithing; a tangible way former students who by admission found a life because of a memorable teacher. Let’s adopt a method to turn over a very modest amount of money per ex-student, now contributor to a teacher or teachers. Not to the school or district—but directly. These endowments would be a royalty, a supplemental contribution to the teacher(s) who has gone beyond. Just think, the average major subject high school teacher sees over 4500 youngsters in a 30-year career; an elementary teacher, 900. If only a few students, who believe one or more teachers added to their lives would pony up a stipend, then teachers would not only reap a personal gain that would improve their economic station, but set the country on notice that we honor and will reward great teaching. The well-known educational ripple effect (“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Henry Adams) would be a paradigm for the nation. What a culture change. No matter the political party, there’s no downside to supporting this. Well, maybe not all politicians would agree, especially the ones who had all bad teachers, right?

In the short term, such a plan resolves very specific wants:

  • Adjusting salaries to make teaching a more fiscally viable profession
  • Addressing teacher evaluations currently based either on formal and mostly contractual agreements or high stakes test results; both of which are flawed metrics
  • Diminishing the overplayed hand of the unions to level the playing field where mediocre and superlative instructors are paid equally based on years of service and graduate credit hours for courses having no bearing on instructional quality

In the long term, we establish a system that will drive teacher’s efforts to create instruction that is more dynamic and draw out a more humanistic approach to the treatment of students. That’s not an accusation that teachers as a group do not try to develop quality lessons nor are they deficient in humanity. However, we’ve all been students and can recall quite clearly those teachers who had the kindness and compassion any parent would hope was doled out to their child during the school day. But we can also recall the harridans, shrews, and malcontents among a faculty to whom teaching was a job to be endured and gave over as little of themselves as they could get away with. So posit this:

  • A 20-year biology teacher whose total salary based on service and coursework is $60,000 per year.
  • Next door, also teaching biology, the teacher is receiving $60,000 but based on voluntary ex-student contributions, her royalties are yielding an annualized, additional $12,000.

What does that say to teachers, the school and district and community?

Moreover, it becomes part of a teacher’s portfolio of merit they can take with them if they decide to shop around for another position in marketplace for excellence outside their current district.

The mechanics, as I said are in the formative stage banging around in my head. Case in point; I would like a value metric to balance these anomalies:

  • Rewarding an elementary school teacher who inspired you to think more of yourself but had no direct connection (though some psychologists would disagree) with your choice of career.
  • K-6 teachers see a disproportionately smaller cadre of students but arguably can be more formative shaping a child and effective at saving one in crisis.
  • What about a teacher who mentors students but is not their actual teacher? He supported and counseled youngsters helping them overcome their self-doubts, lack of confidence, sense of otherness and enabled them to grow in to good spouses, parents and wage earners; how do we apportion those contributions?
  • What about special education, teachers of the arts and other specialties who in some settings have very few students.

Maybe this system would be unfairly slanted and biased against these professionals unless we look for a way to design in equity. Something to chew on.

So here’s how this might work:
Every year in the Valley School District 700 students graduate. Assuming they go straight to work or on to higher education, whether technical training or a collegiate experience they will be wage earners.
Let’s just say the IRS, attaches form 1200A, Education Contribution Benefit Designation to every return. This document is a rubric with these elements:

  • A space to name teacher(s)
  • A series of metrics, say a Likert scale (1-5 or NA) where they could identify and rate teachers based on objective criteria. For instance, did the teacher on line 21 provide you with the information you needed to be hired in the field/job you sought. Or did the teacher prepare you for acceptance into a higher education program. Did the teacher help you create a portfolio or college essay that allowed you entry into your field of study?
  • Another series of metrics would be subjective, though not less important. Any psychometrican can compose, scale, and provide weight with regard to the value of these traits. For instance, did the teacher in line 24 provide the emotional support you needed when you were in crisis? Did s/he mentor you influencing you in a positive way that has made you a better person? Can you appreciate the differences among cultures, countries, and people unlike yourself?
  • A space for supporting statements whether written by the constituent donor or other material provided as evidence the teacher is eligible for a contribution benefit.
  • A space to work out the amount designated to be apportioned to the named teacher(s).
  • Perhaps none of the above except the name of the teacher and the amount to be contributed.

If you teach for 30 years, regardless of level or subject you will have influenced, not just taught content to thousands of youngsters who are now adults and hopefully earning a living. Every year the numbers of ex-students enters the workforce and are added to the roles of possible ‘donors.’ Kind of like compound interest!

I would propose each contributor/donor be obligated for life, with contingencies of course. This serves two purposes; contributing is understood as a very serious commitment with long range consequence and contributions end only if the individual is out of work or retires; furthermore, it ensures the amount cannot fluctuate downward (unless circumstances such as the above occur) so the teacher can budget and rely on that income well in to retirement. Most importantly, I believe the contributor can add a teacher’s name at any time for as we mature it is only from a distance do we begin to fathom the impact a teacher has had on our lives.

OK, some of you might define this plan as merit pay or reimbursement of extraordinary value. Others will see it as a ‘tip’ –a surcharge for what should have been the norm in the first place. I see it more like a legacy reward for a lifetime of great service recognized by customers… AND an immediate way to shake up the profession by the scholars hood and wake up potential. We can declare non too subtlety that, with some inspiration, even if in the form of—gasp—money, teachers can be moved to higher levels of overall performance. Finally it shakes up the worst offenders in the education realm—schools of education whose teacher prep programs are at the least out of touch… and at the worst criminally deficient allowing virtually anyone who pays tuition, is drawing breath and can prep for the tests into the classroom. You know the adage…what do they call the one who finishes last in medical school…doctor.

That’s the plan. Talk about it, argue over it, but don’t pass it by. We rank far below even the poorest countries on many education scales of measurement. I believe a major reason is teaching and our myopic view of schools. The public coffers are empty and education at all levels is being starved. Here’s a place to jump into the dialogue. Or not, but I hope for better. Lastly, I believe I have the chops to write this; I taught K-12, was a university professor and a school administrator in urban settings. I’ve seen education from inside and as a corporate educator working with schools throughout the world.

I’ll end on a positive note. I want to thank Miss Libman my first grade teacher at PS 194 in Brooklyn for her compassion and humanity. Miss Nurnberg who found my talent for art in grade 6 and allowed me extra time at the easel, also at PS 194. Frank Pelligrini who insisted I not turn in less than perfect work and rejected much of my efforts until I got it right, and last but not least, Dr. Peter Bohan, now gone, whose inspiration and love of subject made me a life-long learner and seeker. I would gladly tithe to any and all.