“That’s all fine,” some people say. “But people need to be taught basic concepts before they can apply them. You can’t just throw people into an activity without first teaching them the concepts.”
I say that yes, we can throw them into an activity that requires knowledge that they don’t yet have. The trick is to make that knowledge available for them to draw on as they need it.
Here’s a basic example.
Add fractions without knowing how to add fractions
Let’s consider the plight of people in the US, the land of feet and inches. When calculating building supplies, Americans often need to add fractions.
Our learners are American construction workers or similar people who often need to figure out the total length of two boards. We’re designing elearning.
A lot of designers would say, “First we need to show them a video on how to add fractions. Then we need to provide an example in which Pablo the friendly foreman adds the length of two different boards and explains step by step how he does it. Then we’ll let the learners do it with two other boards. This is tell, show, do, which everyone knows is the best way to teach.”
Let’s try it a different way. Let’s make me one of the learners. Math was not my best subject.
- I’m plunged into an activity that requires me to figure out the total length of a 5-foot, 2 1/2″ board plus a 3-foot, 4 3/8″ board. I’m trying to determine if I can put them end-to-end to get the length required for my porch deck. I realize I have no clue how to calculate the total length.
- I click the optional link called “How to add fractions.” I see a quick tutorial on how to do it in general. If I had remembered anything from math class, this tutorial probably would have been enough for me.
- I apply what I learned in the tutorial to the problem, but I’m not sure I’m doing it right. The answer I got is one of the options, but something seems wrong about it.
- I click the other link, called “See how to solve it.” This shows me the first step to solving the problem and then displays a “Next” link, giving me the option to see the next step. When I click “Next,” I see the next step, and I finally understand what I need to do. I go back to the problem and solve it. If I didn’t get it after seeing the first two steps, I could have kept clicking until I saw all the steps and the actual solution.
- The course also offers a downloadable, printable job aid that includes a quick reminder of how to add fractions, so I can look at it on the job.
This is a very different way of “teaching” stuff. Its advantage over “tell, show, do” is that it puts control in the learner’s hands. People who already know how to add fractions simply complete the activity and move along quickly, while people like me who don’t know the method stop, learn it, and then apply it.
Since this is self-paced elearning, we could adapt it to the learner. If someone views the support materials before solving the first fraction-adding problem, we schedule another fraction-adding problem for them (and maybe another and another, depending on how they seem to perform). In contrast, the people who solve the first problem without help move on immediately to a different type of activity, because they’ve shown that they can already add fractions.
Each person gauges for themselves how much they know, seeing and filling their own knowledge gaps. Everyone goes at their own pace, digging deep into the how-to material or skipping it. No one has to sit through a presentation about stuff they already know.
And, importantly, the designer shows that they respect the learners as functioning adults with life experience. For a lot more about that, see the recording of our recent webinar on motivation.