aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

Off on a Tangent? Good!

Posted by Ellen on June 11, 2011

There are two types of travellers: those who plan a specific route and stick to it, and those who have a general idea of where they want to end up but leave themselves open to side trips. We’ve done both in our “on the road” lifestyle — they each have their benefits and pitfalls.

A specific route can get you someplace faster, with fewer possibilities for things to go wrong — and you don’t want things to get ugly when you’re driving what’s considered a “big rig” — an RV and vehicle that can be 60′ or longer). Keeping to the major highways means you’re likely to fit under the overpasses without peelng your air conditioning unit off your roof, and there are usually places to stop that are made for truckers, where you can park and stretch your legs.

But you’re also missing out on a lot. No stopping for that homemade jam the farmer’s wife is selling by the side of the road. No picnicking beside that picturesque river.

What does this have to do with alearning?

A lot.

There are two types of trainers: those who have a specific agenda and stick to it, and those who have a general idea of where they want to end up but leave themselves open to how they’ll get there.

If you think meandering through a training session sounds like a disaster in the making, you’re probably half-right. But just as travelling with an open agenda can lead to much richer experiences, so does training without a minute-by-minute agenda.

How many times have you been in a session — as observer in your role of education leader, or as a participant — and someone asked the very question you were pondering (or better yet, hadn’t thought of but as soon as you heard it you thought, “Great question!”), a discussion started around that question, and — before any resolution was discovered — the session leader said something like, “This is a great conversation and we should continue it at some point, but we really need to move on to [the next item on our agenda… or lunch… or something]” ??

If it’s a great conversation and it’s engaging several learners, why move on? Isn’t the beginning of understanding happening right then? Obviously those participating have found relevance to their own situations and they’re motivated to explore the topic.

What makes the next item on the agenda more important than that?!? Nothing, that’s what.

The best session leaders are those who follow the lead of the learners — adapting along the way. Of course you don’t want to throw out the map, you don’t want to get everyone lost in the woods, but who says you can’t head down this road instead of that one if you know it will eventually get you to the same destination?

An agenda is a guide — it’s a way of building your session so you cover enabling content when it’s appropriate, for example — but that’s all it is.

Here’s a real-life example: In a intensive face-to-face course that lasted about five days and covered about a dozen related topics in as many sessions, learners later reported that they got the most out of a discussion that arose from one participant’s issue related to one of the topics. The group of 18 learners explored the situation by hearing the challenge, sharing their own experiences, suggested ideas, and turned the agenda inside out in the process. This spontaneous learning ended up being what they remembered best, and later applied most frequently.

All because someone asked a question and the session leader let the group tackle the challenge behind it. Here’s the bonus: because the session included professionals at varying levels in the same field, the veterans in the group provided varying examples from their own experiences while those earlier on in their careers made suggestions and asked questions that often opened up new possibilities. Everyone took away something from that conversation.

What happened to the agenda? It was still there, waiting. Did the discussion put a hole in it? Yes. But that hole was filled because the conversation covered content that didn’t have to be handled in the same way later, saving time in the long run.
What About Volunteer Content Leaders?

Thrilled to be asked to lead a session, your expert volunteers tend to err on the side of traditional session leadership, aka “Sage on the Stage.” They spend time crafting their session, and they want to be sure they cover everything.

The best thing you can do for those volunteers? Urge them to

  • Trust their peers
  • Be willing to learn from the session themselves
  • Be alert for openings in the conversation that can lead to a broad range of perspectives, and to exploit them
  • Ask the group if they’d like to pursue a tangent rather than stay on the agenda — let the learners decide what they most want to learn
  • See tangents as opportunities rather than interruptions

“But what about the learning outcomes?” you ask. “Won’t following tangents jeopardize meeting the objectives?”

Not necessarily. Usually a tangent opens up because it’s related to the topic and will lead you in the direction of the same objectives and outcomes — it’s just taking the session down a different road to get there. If the session leader keeps those objectives in mind, he or she can guide the conversation through questions and comments.

“Okay. What about those participants who want to show off what they know rather than learn something — those people who like to try to take a session off-track just to prove they’re experts, too? How do you handle that?” you ask.

Good question. This situation is always a challenge, but it doesn’t need any special handling if you’re willing to follow tangents. As a matter of fact, being willing to follow tangents means comments and questions from these folks can be used to even greater effectiveness. Shift the question to address an objective by re-stating it, or hand the comment back to the larger group for further comment are both ways to repurpose them to shape the conversation.

To use our metaphor: someone bulldozing the road shouldn’t be allowed to get tear up much of the asphalt until another road is paved.

Think of it this way: all roads should lead to the learning outcomes. Which roads you end up following are up to everyone in the room — not just the session leader.

You’ll probably discover what others have found — that the scenery was much more interesting and much more memorable.

That’s what it’s all about after all, isn’t it?!?

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