Month: January 2016

Re-thinking Learners…

We met while I was visiting my dad in the hospital. I was standing in the hall when the guy walked by, paused, told me the corniest joke (straight from Vaudeville), and shuffled on down the hall. After his third pass, we ended up in conversation, and after a while we discovered that we were both guitar players. As is always the case, we ended our visit by saying, “We need to get together and play sometime!”


It’s what guitar players say when they first meet.

Over the next few weeks, the 84-year-old joke-teller went through some difficult times, including an early morning “Code Blue”. I kept in touch over the weeks, but was truly surprised to get a call just a few weeks ago, asking if I was ready to get together and make some music. Along with surprised, I have to honestly admit there was some hesitation. Saying, “We need to get together and play sometime!” is the standard statement, but it’s rare that anyone actually follows-up on it. While both people may play guitars, the odds are high that they play very differently. So after agreeing to get together, I sat back and thought about all of the times I had sat down with other guitar players and we ended up pretty much just trying a few things, complementing each others’ “style”, and thinking about how to get the heck away and do something else.

So, I will honestly admit that as my wife dropped me off at his house last week to “play guitars” while she went shopping, I made her promise to be back to get me in an hour. I figured we could find an hour of “something” to do with two guitars.

We sat down with guitars at the ready, and I suggested that he “play something”, and I would see where I might “jump in”. I was not hopeful.

Let me just say…that over the next hour I discovered that while he was now an 82 year-old joke-teller, he spent most of the rest of his life as a leading jazz guitar player, going all the way back to playing in his dad’s dance band at age 14. Though his fingers complained more now, I sat in humble-awe as he took that 50 plus years of professional jazz guitar playing and laid it out right in front of me. I joined in, and quickly pulled out my phone to start the recorder…something was going on here that I did not want to forget.

My wife did come back in an hour, and we all then sat and played for another hour, before packing up the guitars and promising that we would most certainly do this again.

As I drove home, I began thinking of other times that I had completely miss-judged someone. There was the time I was the “trainer”, sitting at lunch with a guy who was there to be “trained”. As we talked, I learned that he hadn’t always been in the role he was training for. He once flew in the Air Force, and had been shot-down during a bombing run, was lost in enemy territory for two weeks before sneaking out with the help of the underground. I tell you, when the lunch break was over, I looked at my little group of “trainees” very differently. I had forgotten again.

As learning designers, whatever approach we use, we always do our learner or audience analysis to identify the “types” of learners we will be designing for. The goal is to make sure the learning activity “fits” the audience. But it’s these experiences with my guitar player and my pilot that I am reminded that it takes more for me to create learning that truly “fits”. Though I may never know the full story of the individuals I design learning for, I see my real challenge to be creating activities that make it possible for each of those learners to find the activity meaningful…to find a way to relate it to their “real” self.

It comes down to the language we use, the ability to create multiple paths to completion to allow each learner to find their best way, and using authentic experiences and assessment, rather than a canned “presentation” that is designed to be “navigated” through. The goal is to design and create learning that gives the learner the space to place themselves inside it…and have an experience that has meaning in their world. When that happens, learning happens.

Whether I am leading a face-to-face group, or sitting at my computer designing a learning activity for learners I will never see, I find myself wondering just “who” this learner is that I am creating for; who they are “really”? how can I create something meaningful for them? That one learner at a time.