Designing the theatre of memorable learning sessions

Scarcely a day goes by when I am not designing or delivering learning; from Masters Level modules as part of Hyper Island’s MA in Digital Management to individual sessions in short courses for bankers and retailers.  

In each session I try and embrace the making/constructing and learning by doing mindset for which Hyper Island is known, and it is hugely rewarding when learners recognise that this kind of learning is different and perhaps more impactful than self paced tutorials or watching Coursera modules.

What then separates a good session from a great session.  Can I design sessions that are more impactful than others? 

We know that memorable learning is more effective than routine “teacher in front of classroom” learning and that memorable learning sessions tend to provoke emotions in learners .

To achieve impact we need to design such sessions specifically,  and that needs us to borrow from other disciplines such as games design, film making, storytelling and theatre. 

Here are a few ideas that I am currently trying to incorporate into my designs:

Set the scene, create the world. I start with a set of ideas with which I want to engage learners.  I need to take them into these ideas and that means constructing a world in which they will explore, experiment or solve problems.  This can be the real world of a client case or a made up story which brings the ideas to the front.

Be clear about the emotional journey and the goal. I have 90 mins (or a day or a module) to tell my tale.  I need to change pace and choreograph the highs and lows of the session. This means setting up a challenge, allowing some confusion or frustration, providing resources to help them make sense, nudging them towards a partial solution, stretching them towards more complex goals, allowing them to succeed, reflecting on success and closing the session. I’m not afraid to be the cause of a whole set of emotions.

Build the team. Almost all my sessions involve group work and I need to build the team before they can be effective in their exploration.  I make sure that they have time to introduce themselves to their team mates and have frequent breaks to allow them to connect as people.  A little friendly rivalry between teams helps strengthen the feeling that they are in this together.

Don’t design the experience, create possibilities. Overscripting a session does not produce better results.  I try to create the environment for an experience; seeding it with content, challenges, tools and questions and then allow it to unfold.  This is hard especially online but we can learn from the best multiplayer games and participative storytelling.  Listening and sensing become much more important than telling and instructing and responding to this particular group or individual can make all the difference.

Repetitive activities. Some things need practice and some ideas need internalising repeatedly before they make sense. I’m happy to use the same tools, the same data or the same video stimulus more than once just as in a game we might need to repeat an action to break through to the next level. I also like to create or use takeaways such as models, canvases, checklists and cards (such as my Jobs to be Done cards) to allow people to repeat a session on their own.

Facilitate like a Dungeon Master. My favourite (and personally most memorable) sessions are those that develop a life of their own.  I set up a challenge and then nudge from time to time to keep momentum towards an outcome.  This reminds me very much of the role of a Dungeon Master in the table top version of Dungeons and Dragons but is just as suited to a business challenge or developing future banking scenarios.  Both require tools. resources and ideas up our sleeves to provoke and  inspire thinking in the learners.

Chance and surprise. There is no better way to guarantee that a session will develop organically than to allow learners to choose directions and introduce elements of chance over which no one has control.  I have learned to work with many of the tools of Improv Theatre and find passing control to the learners transformative.  Even use dice to make decisions as to what to do next.

Quests and missions. I am strongly influenced by modern multiple player games in their use of Quests.  Games become replayable if the Quest for a particular game changes or the roles change.  This model enables me to develop sessions with strong reusability.  Roles are fascinating when working with teams of learners and I am fond of briefing individuals differently to heighten the importance of communicating within the group. 

Prepare to take part. Warm up exercises, onboarding with specific software tools and practice before the main mission are part of many of my current sessions.  They let learners be productive once the main Challenge is underway.

Design photo opportunities. I try to be clear when we have reached a peak even if it not the end of the journey.  Give yourself a pat on the back, refuel with a tea break and get ready for the next peak.  I find creating a clear crescendo and providing the tools for celebrating this mini-success a great way to divide up a session into meaningful components.

Hidden agendas and false trails. I love moving the goal posts although it can be risky sometimes.  I have designed many learning experiences that have clear outlines, goals and stimulus materials only to rip them up mid session to reveal a different motive.  This is particularly useful as a way of exploring complex issues around privacy, inclusion, fake news or group think. 

Reflection. Hyper Island believes that reflection is critical in any learning journey and so do I.  This means spending time to explore what has been experienced, what it felt like, what questions it raised and how the learner might apply this in their own work or life contexts. 

Make the journey valuable. I need to think about the impact of the experience I am creating.  What do I want the learners to be able to do after each session (that they could not do before)? Identify this outcome and share it with the learners at the start and design ways that they can demonstrate that they have achieved this at the end.

Great facilitation. Facilitation is more important than teaching.  I don’t profess to know everything or be able to answer every hypothetical question in my courses but I know how to look and how to get the students to look for themselves.  Facilitation is about finding time for each learner in the room (or Zoom call) and giving them attention.  It is about detecting and managing the energy in the room.  I need to make judgements on whether to move onto the next example, speed up, slow down or inject another case. 

Clues and nudges. At the heart of facilitation is the carefully placed nudge – the clue or question that will a group’s attention forward.  I do try and work out the kind of nudges I will need.  I’ve even been experimenting with automating nudges (to individuals).

Unlock X with Y (skills and tools). Another useful idea from games design is giving learners a tool or knowledge early in the session and revealing its usefulness later.  

Social obligations. I am very aware of the social aspects of the learning I create.  Again, there is much to learn from Improv theatre and as we co-create an experience with our learners and with other facilitators I need to think hard about the feelings of everyone in the session. This does not mean I need to be kind and gentle but it means when I push people or pick on an individual to make more contribution I am conscious of the effect that this has on them and on the others.  

Introducing experts. Many people expect that a course will be full of wisdom from experts and sometimes it should be but today’s learning designer can bring in expert opinions easily using primary resources, video and articles. I recently created session exploring forgery, value and AI in art and was able to find a wealth of short opinion videos and reports that provided learners with a diverse set of professional perspectives from insurance and provenance to security and generative algorithms.  This transdisciplinarity is central to my quest to create learning experiences that span discipline boundaries.

Repeatable missions. A final idea that I am exploring from games is being able to use the same ideas more than once with new rules, new perspectives or new tools.  For example I am using a single dataset for one session but exploring very different ways of visualising it: as time, as location, as relationships, as systems.  This reusability is helping me package some of my sessions so that they can be used by others.

These then are a few of the design principles that I want to weave into creating memorable learning experiences now and in the future.

These are certainly not how many academics create learning and that is ok too.  Learners need diversity and different learners will find different approaches work well for them.   I’d love to hear feedback and ideas from others.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.