How to use online games to help learners “fail-fast”


Recently, I spoke at the 2019 ATD International Conference & Expo and shared the story of an infamous swim coach. Self-taught in the art of teaching children, his first lesson was to throw new learners into the bottom of the pool.

Thank goodness he never lost a student to drowning. A few might still be traumatized by the experience, but few would forget the learned difference between their perceived and actual competence.

Although such practices are frowned upon today (with good reason), trainers must provide a similar experience for many learners today. They walk into our classrooms (face-to-face and online) ready to race, to see how quickly they can google session results. Once they “win” they go through a 10 minute YouTube video and then they’re done. Now they have to endure five hours and 45 minutes checking email and distracting others. Or (I hope) they will leave.

Provided that training is important, this result is poor for everyone. Their shortcut traps them in the Dunning-Kruger effect in which they fool themselves into thinking they are not novices or that expertise is vastly overrated. What do they really need? The modern equivalent of a surprise cast in cold water. How can trainers help their learners fail so quickly that they realize their incompetence? Let’s look at some ideas.

Enter the learner’s world

During the conference, I used the example of a goal shared by the 300 attendees: to try to get the most out of their participation in ATD 2019.

Fortunately, Clay Christiansen’s “Jobs to be Done” framework from Harvard University offered some ideas. I posed these questions to the participants of my session: “Why did you initiate this conference?” and “What job do you expect it to do?”

This unusual wording puts the needs of the learners first, making their usefulness the primary concern. Even meta-answers such as “please my boss” lead to interesting follow-ups regarding the meaning of this sentence.

Most admitted (like me) that they hadn’t thought about it. We were as far from a best practice as we could be.

Discover expert skills

In preparation for the conference, I spent about 30 minutes researching what expert conference attendees recommend. Although I had attended many such gatherings, I quickly realized that I was just a novice.

But that’s not unusual. You may also have found that when interviewing a subject matter expert (SME), you sometimes discover counter-intuitive context. Christiansen offers this clue: instead of asking SMEs what they do, ask them about the work they want to do to guess their hidden intention. This question helps determine any microskills they practice.

Create a Gap Experience

No one attends a training expecting the kind of quick, fast learning they can already find on YouTube. In the absence of a stimulating and immersive environment like a swimming pool, they want a taste or a sense of the expert experience offered by their smartphones. How should this be done?

First, accept that articles like “Top 10 Tips From 50 Experts” no longer work.

Instead, I provided conference attendees with a branching learning game called Help Laura Get the Most Out of ATD 2019, which I developed in about two hours. It’s a simple scenario: Within moments of last-minute permission to attend a conference, a fictitious participant must make key decisions. As his sidekick, you offer advice.

The quiz software I used is common according to MyelearningWorld and Quora. The trickiest challenge was extracting the questions and answers that accurately reflected the expert’s skills. The best go against conventional wisdom and are only revealed by prolonged exposure to the area of ​​expertise. They also happen to be the most difficult to discover.

In other words, I recommend that you give learners a fun game that they will quickly fail at. In fact, it is just a Trojan horse, which helps gamers to experience the gap between their incompetence and their expert performance. Once they get curious, the key is to give them the information they need and hopefully want right now.


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