I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit practitioner. Since 1996, I have worked at the intersection of learning and nonprofit leadership. A former middle school ESL teacher, I have created and delivered learning programs for K-12 teachers and students, Afro-Brazilian women in Salvador, Brazil, and nonprofit people from across Washington.
Two years ago, my family bought land north of the city. Laboring with hand tools quickly proved futile, so we acquired a tractor. The tractor’s job is to push dirt around to flatten the land for a future orchard. The challenge is that the dirt is filled with large rocks, glacial erratic boulders to be precise, so it is hard to push that dirt around. You come at a mound from the side, and it takes repeated back and forth shoving and dragging to make any headway.
It would be a lot easier if we could grab the boulders from the above and pull them up and out of the dirt.
The image of putting the throttle to “rabbit mode” and ramming at mother earth with an iron claw came to mind as I was explaining instructional design. Rather than pushing through information from start to finish, it would be a lot more effective to come down from above and lift the meaningful parts up and into daylight. Give people the chance to see the whole picture from the start. That way they know what they might find as they dig deeper into what you have to offer.
What does this look like?
When starting to plan a presentation or instructional design project, use a large scroll of paper to avoid the arbitrary hierarchy that can develop when writing a list on regular paper. Use the full lateral space to keep track of ideas and categorize them into buckets only after you have completed your research. See an example below.
When presenting, consider language that explains the buckets up front. Here’s an example.
Create graphics that show the buckets very clearly. See examples below.
Pushing dirt is really hard work. Covering vast information is taxing to the presenter and the person trying to make sense of it all. Here’s to working less and being more fruitful in the process.
FUN was the first toolkit created in what became a series: Boards in Gear, Let’s Go Legal, Strategic Planning in Nonprofits, etc. (They are all here.) It set the structure that we continue to follow. The architecture of FUN proved to be successful. In short, we put the content expert onto a short video that can be used in the three places people learn, alone, in peer groups, and in classrooms. We supplemented with downloadable resources. FUN became the curriculum used in a state contract all over Washington.
FUN has become one of my favorite traveling companions as I deliver the training in communities large and small. What have I learned from my loyal friend, FUN?
“Going to scale” forces new solutions. We based FUN on an in-person training delivered in Seattle several times a year. At the time, a leader in our community implored me to address financial concerns plaguing nonprofits: many were losing their IRS status for failing to file, and fraud was nipping away the resources our nonprofits needed to thrive. “Run a training,” I was told. There are more than 50,000 nonprofits in Washington, thus roughly 500,000 board members who need to be trained. Where should I put that training? How will training the 50 or so people who come have any impact? The result was a blended learning solution that puts the CPA on video, thus not necessarily in every training room or living room where someone is learning from FUN.
Play in the sandbox of emotion in design and delivery. At the time we created FUN, another organization offered a finance workshop with marketing language that referenced dental surgery, something like: “Do you think finance is as fun as getting a root canal? Its painful but important.” I was the only person to sign up. We took the predominant emotion many people feel with finance— fear— and both honored it and flipped it into comfort and joy. An improv actor joined the CPA on film, introducing both laughter and simplified explanations into the story. The BINGO introduced a framework everyone knows. Since storytelling is inate to us humans, we practice income statement reading with my favorite activity ever, a “Once upon a time” storytelling exercise.
Communications is a key part of curriculum design. Early on in the development of FUN, our communications partner drew a clothesline with rectangles hanging off of it. Our job was to take all of the content we generated and sort it into boxes that would hang from a central thread, essentially our thesis. This approach moved us from pushing throughcontent to observing it from above. That bird’s eye view led us to five buckets. It was so successful that “chunking” became a standard part of our instructional design process.
We created FUN to train board members across Washington about finance. Along the way, we learned ourselves what works when teaching courageous volunteers with little free time who want to do right by their organizations. Happy birthday, FUN!
A few years ago I attended a three-day conference in a city on the other side of the country. I took a lot of notes. I remember the speakers being interesting. I know that I left with a few ideas to dig into. Yet on the flight home, I misplaced my notebook. I tried to re-create my to-do list, but I drew a complete blank on the specifics of conference. I couldn’t remember what I heard or decided to do. I moved on.
The conference cost at least $1,000 to attend once I accounted for the flight, conference fee, and the pizza dinner I bought to thank my local host. A hotel would have rounded the cost up another $500.
The conference cost the organizer a lot too! At least one staff member worked on the conference for six months, with the entire staff joining for the full three days. Money was spent on the venue, keynote speakers, and program. I’m sure sponsorships helped to offset some of these costs. The opportunity cost of doing a conference, however, includes all of the projects you would do if you had that time back.
A lot is on the table when it comes to conferences, so let’s talk about how to design a learning-full conference. That’s a conference where people get the support they need before, during, and after the conference to reflect and act (even if they lose their notebook!). It is a conference that has adult learning principles baked into its design, helping people to process information, remember it, and connect it with action steps. It is a conference that stays with the attendee past the last session, placing the conference into a larger constellation of learning experiences. These are the kind of conferences that are worthy of the time and financial investments we make to move our people forward.
This winter, Mark Nilles and I launched our new e-book on conference design, “Conferences That Make a Difference.” While there are several excellent resources for conference participants on how to make the most of attending a conference, this e-book looks at the other side of the equation: designing and delivering a conference. It gives ideas across four chapters:
Strategy and overall approach to conference design
Get Ready: Pre-Conference Activities
The Big Day: Deliver a Day that Makes a Difference
Make It Stick: Post-Conference Activities
We give you samples and tools to be able to implement what we are talking about right away.
If you design conferences, we hope this e-book gives you ideas. If you attend conferences, please feel free to send this to conference organizers. We might create a movement for better conferences everywhere!
I drove home from an intense learning event emotionally exhausted. It had been an exhilarating day of deep thought and connection. A few groups had made significant breakthroughs on important issues. When nonprofits make breakthroughs, lives change.
It was a long day, and when signing off from a debrief with my colleague, the words rolled off our tongues: I love you. I love you, too.
Love is a radical word that is both weak and bold, vague and crisp, all at the same time. It’s a word I lean on when no other seems to fit. What is the right word to describe the feeling in a room when people become so motivated by something they just heard or learned that they form connections that transcend that time and space? The word, I believe, is love.
I was first struck by the word “love” used in a non-typical way when reading Steve Patty’s book on evaluation, Getting to What Matters. Evaluation is hardly the bastion of romance and roses, yet his Heart Triangle describes the transformation I see in the classroom. He starts with the three human capacities– know, feel, and do– and shows how they can deepen into three defining characteristics– what we believe, love, and become.
Knowledge becomes action becomes a transformed person. Feeling something shifts the tectonic plates that make us who we are and brings to our surface a commitment to being different. That is powerful learning.
Perhaps due to the Brené Brown effect, love in leading and living is becoming part of the vernacular. “Love of learning” has long been used to describe the delight a parent has when a child reads late into the night. I’m excited to take delight in the “love in learning” that brings magic to a classroom, a conference, a community.
The 2019 “Train the Trainer Series” runs on February 26 and March 26. Join us!
We walked out of Mary Poppins Returns singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Five minutes after hearing “Nowhere to go but up,” the flying-through-the-sky song from Returns, we were remembering the elevation song from this movie’s precursor, the original Mary Poppins from 1964.
Why is that? How is it possible that we couldn’t remember a single song from Mary Poppins Returns,even five minutes after the credits rolled?
With this research question in front of us, my daughter and I set about listening to Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Returns songs back-to-back. As the younger of us pointed out, the music in Returns mirrors the original. There is a song for when the kids don’t want to do something, one that involves people floating to the top of a room, and of course the requisite computer-animated scene of children dropping into an inanimate object.
Our conclusion: Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins is as much a teacher as she is a nanny. She invites us and the children into the sung lesson. Here’s an example:
Spoonful of sugar(1964) Sung by Julie Andrews
Can you imagine that (2018) Sung by Emily Blunt
Mary speaks the words. ·
She explains why a spoonful of sugar works.
With the children watching, she demonstrates the magic that cleans the room.
Jane tries and succeeds.
Michael tries and struggles. She lets him struggle and figure it out until he succeeds.
Mary starts singing. Her first words questions John’s intellect and ability to “give in to imagination.”
It would be a discussion for another day to examine who is to blame: the writer, performer, director, or anyone else. However this came to be, the difference between these movies gives us lessons in learning:
Mary, in “Spoonful of Sugar” reminds us to:
Tell people what you are going to share in clear, spoken language. Bonus points if you sound as smooth as Julie Andrews.
Explain why it matters. We are asking adults to do things that may seem as fun as taking medicine. It has to be worth it!
Demonstrate what you want them to do. Whether it is a click of the fingers or something much more complex, show them what good looks like.
Let them do it, even if they don’t succeed at first. Stand to the side, and step in only if things get out of control. Like a toy cabinet that won’t stop opening and shutting.
Of course a lot of credit goes to the songwriters. The Sherman Brothers wrote lyrics that masterfully fit into our contextual experience. I can understand “let’s go fly a kite” and “love to laugh” without trying hard. “Turning turtle?” Not so much. Effective teaching is a magical combination of content and delivery. And that’s no tommy rot.