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What? Or How?

Posted by Ellen on June 19, 2010

Let me say right off the bat that if you’re doing needs assessment (you are, aren’t you?!?), I’m glad to hear it.

If you’re coming up with a narrowed (preferably prioritized) list of topics to cover in upcoming educational programs, kudos and all that.

But you’re only getting started. Take a closer look at your planned topics. Are they formulated around “what” something is or “how” to do something?

Lots of chatter around the blogosphere these days about collaborative learning (Marsha Rea at Acronym is doing a great series on this topic) and getting our events to be more interactive than passive (thanks to Jeff Hurt at MidCourse Corrections for pushing this).

Transitioning your events from passive learning to active learning, transforming your “presenters” into “facilitators” doesn’t have to be complicated.

One way to start the process is — believe it or not — as simple as shifting the focus of their sessions from “what” to “how.”

Here are some examples of general “what” topics:

  • The Benefits of Being a Volunteer
  • What You Need to Know about the Latest XYZ Regulations

And… here is a “how” version of each of those topics:

  • How to Share Your Expertise as a Volunteer
  • How to Comply with the New XYZ Regulations¬†

See the difference? Sometimes “what” treatments come disguised as “how” titles: “How the Latest XYZ Regulations Could Affect You” is just another information dump. Think “How TO Do [fill in the blank]” to avoid that trap.
Adult learners need to see a use for what they’re learning — the usefulness is where the value in the topic lies for them. If they can’t apply what they’re learning, what’s the point?

So decide what actions you want people to be able to take when they leave your session: what should they be able to do, or do better, than they could when they walked into the room?

Notice that the “how to” topics suggest the types of practice you can structure the event around? Notice, too, that you’ll end up covering some of the “what” — but that the focus has shifted to the application of the “what.”

For example….

  • How would you walk your members through a session on how to volunteer?
    • What steps do they need to take?
    • Is there a form they need to fill out?
    • Where do they find that form?
    • Are there deadlines they need to heed?
    • Can you provide them with a handout (not a Powerpoint printout!) showing all the information they’ll need?
    • Would a checklist of steps help?
    • How about giving them a timeline or calendar with important deadlines or program and meeting dates?
  • The compliance topic might require an initial, quick review of the most important
    regulatory changes so everyone is on the same page.

    • Providing a handout that clearly explains those changes means they’ll have the information in a form they can easily refer to — in the session and later — so they can focus on how what they’ll need to DO.
    • Small group tasks using worksheets and calculators or calendars or resource planning tools can make what might seem a dull session into a highly interactive — and immediately relevant — learning event.

In his “Aligning Learning and Performance Contexts” report, Dr. Will Thalheimer writes: “Our goal as designers of instruction is to determine the boundary conditions of the performance context and align the learning context with those parameters as much as possible.” (13).

What are you doing today to align the training you’re delivering to your members’ working environment? No, you can’t recreate that environment — but you can create tools and activities that make their learning more applicable when they return to their environment.

Starting with the “how” rather than the “what” is as good a place to start as any.

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