Is your workshop (or a workshop you love) suffering from SRD?
Has this ever happened to you? You and your best friend, Eleanor Ray created a great learning design for your new workshop. The opening Warm-Up went brilliantly, the participants were deeply engaged in the first few learning tasks and they were just getting down to some serious application work when WHAM-O!Confusion, pained expressions, discouraged participants and lots of time spent clarifying what the participants should be doing....a real train wreck that throws the rest of the workshop off.
Don't worry, you're not alone. Every year, thousands of learning facilitators and their unsuspecting participants suffer from Sequence & Reinforcement Dysfunction (SRD). I should know; I've been one of them.
Sequence, as Dr. Jane Vella noted, refers to "the programming, of knowledge, skills and attitudes in an order that goes from simple to complex and from group-supported to solo efforts, from smaller to larger tasks". While Reinforcement is "the repetition of facts, skills and attitudes in diverse, engaging and interesting ways until they are obviously learned". Both are key to sound learning experiences.
Conversely, she wrote, "when you, as a teacher, see fear, confusion, or reluctance to try in the learner, it is time to test the sequence of the learning tasks. You may find you have not honored learners need for small steps between tasks or their need for reinforcement." (All quotes from page 101 of Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults (Jossey-Bass 2002).
How You Can Avoid SRD When Designing
Jane then describes how to design an entire learning design that honours these principles, but in my practice as a learning designer, I have found that SRD can also strike within a single learning task if I don't pay adequate attention to the transition from Theory (Add) to Praxis (Apply) steps in the 4A Learning Cycle (Anchor, Add, Apply, Away).
1. ADD (Theory)
A. Provide some theory & new KSAs in a short, simple, and participatory fashion (not just a lecture).
B. Walk through a fairly straight-forward example, story or case study that illustrates the theory in simple terms. Be sure to link this example back to the theory, you presented in A.
C. Provide a chance for the participants to ask any key questions of clarification before you set them to work. There's no point going forward trying to apply the content if there are some fundamental questions that they are confused about. You may also want to invite questions or reflections that help them process the new content.
2. APPLY (Praxis)
D. Invite the participants to apply the theory on a slightly more difficult, but still straight-forward, example that illustrates the theory. This example might seem a bit simplistic, but the important thing here is to provide a chance for them to build their confidence before going deeper.
Crawl before you walk...
E. Ratchet up the complexity of the work inviting them to apply the theory in a different way to a harder, more complex example that you provide. This may be one without a set "right" answer and that involves more interpretation and nuance.
Walk before you run...
F. Invite the learners to come up with their own example or case study that they will work on. Provide some guidelines on what types of examples they should choose (e.g. topic, complexity, scope). Otherwise, participants may choose an example that is too easy or far too hard and they can get stuck.
NB: You don't necessarily need to include all of these steps in every case, but too often, I see workshops where the sequence jumps from providing a lecture (Add-A) to "go and work on your own example" (Apply-F). The complexity suddenly redlines and the train crashes. While asking the participants to work on their own examples increases the Relevance and Immediacy of the learning, skipping all of the interim steps can cause SRD and thus compromises the Safety of the participants.
How to Facilitate When SRD Strikes During a Workshop
The best learning design can never anticipate every problem -- we're not psychic and the learning process is too dynamic to predict entirely -- so there will always be times when SRD will strike when you least expect it. If so:
1. Don't Panic! Take a deep breath, don't run for the exit. Pause a second to reflect on the situation. Call a break if you need more time to respond to the problem or if the participants need to take a break to regroup.
2. Clarify whether this issue is one that everyone is struggling with or just a particular individual or small group. If the latter, go and work with those people and let the others keep working. But if it is everyone, take a few minutes to speak to the large group to clarify the issue.
3. Ask some Open Questions to discern where the confusion lies. Is it....
- The Learning Task instructions? --> Clarify them briefly.
- The Theory? --> Walk through it again using a new example and asking them for their questions of clarification.
- The details of the Case Study or example you provided? --> Answer any questions of clarification. Fill in any details that might be missing. Learners often want more information than you provide.
- The relevance of their own example to the theory and the learning task? --> Invite them to choose another or suggest another simpler example.
But whatever you do, don't "steal the learning" by doing the task for them.
4. If they are still stuck after Steps 1-3, suggest that the group with the problem take a break until the other groups are done and then address the issue carefully in the large-group debrief. Sometimes seeing how another group completed the task can create a breakthrough for them.
5. Adapt or redesign the subsequent learning tasks to address the issue. This will allow the participants to "get it" later in the workshop.