Powerful questions to ask when designing performance-focused learning

Posted by Robin Petterd on 1 March 2017

An interview with Clint Smith from LearnWorks about questions that an instructional designer needs to ask to design performance-focused learning.

Subscribe using your favourite podcast player

Listen to Stitcher

Transcript

Robin:
Welcome to the Learning While Working Podcast. Today I'm talking with Clint Smith from Learnworks.

Clint often works with Sprout Labs as a consultant and instructional designer. The topic we're talking about I'm quite passionate about, which is performance focused learning. Clint's going to really be talking about the powerful sort of questions that an instructional designer needs to ask a subject matter expert when performance focused learning is being designed.

Clint, thank you for joining us today to talk about what performance focused learning looks like. I suppose my first question is what is your definition of performance focused learning?

Clint Smith:
Okay. It's not as much a definition as a description. I think it's just a different angle on learning. That it's coming in from the point of view of trying to work out what, as a result of the learning, what the learner will be able to do differently. Which is different from starting at the content end and saying, "What do they need to have in their head?"—the old sort of knowledge and skills approach. It focuses more on the outcome, which in workplace learning is about performance in the work context.

Robin:
Why do you think people come from that skills and especially knowledge background into learning?

Clint Smith:
I think simply because that's the main model in tertiary education, certainly higher education and universities, so the whole assumption about what learning is, is to process a whole lot of information and retain a lot of it and develop your own personal opinions about it and then tell somebody else about it in an essay. Which is very, very different exercise from looking at a role in a workplace and saying, "Now, what do you need to be able to perform that role well?" Extremely different.

Robin:
It also strikes me, something that you talked about and used those words, skills and knowledge. Recently I heard a definition of capability as being about skills, knowledge and mindset and still not a particularly an active way of defining learning and performance.

Clint Smith:
No, I relate the skills, knowledge, attitudes kind of mantra to the older paradigm. I don't think it's a useful way of getting at it at all, because it tends to be something you try to measure in a static way in the individual. Whereas performance based learning is predominantly in a team, in a workplace, in a context. Although there'll be skills that are required for that and the knowledge that underpins it, what you're interested in is the capability. Exactly, to be able to perform in the context.

Robin:
How is the idea and process for designing this type of learning different to content driven approaches?

Clint Smith:
Because you're interested in the work role mostly. I always start with the questions about what you have to do. What is the role, what's the task? What are the bits in it? What are the components of it? Which are the challenging ones, parts of it, rather than what do we need to teach people for this job? It's describing the performance first and then pulling back to the various bits and pieces that you need—that the performer needs to be able to draw on.

Robin:
What's the role of questions in designing and extracting out that sort of performance focus?

Clint Smith:
Okay, I think this is the big challenge is to change the nature of the question. Some of it I've found is that and I think it's a common experience, it's a bit like pulling teeth because people are in the other paradigm and take a while to get a handle on what you're trying to get at. The main questions that I ask at the start are: What is the work? What's the job? How do you normally go about it? What are the steps? That's not asking any skills or knowledge questions yet, it's saying no, no, no, what's the process? How do you go about it? And then you draw out from there and say, "Well okay, how do I know you've done it? What are the outputs, what do you have to show? Do you have to produce a report? Do you have to fill in a form? What is the outcome in that sense?" so that you're staying practical, that the purpose is to produce one of those or several of those or whatever they are that you need to do and keep the eye on that.

To lever into that, the next set of questions is, "What's difficult about this? What do people normally have trouble with?" Because the training can then be based on solving those problems, improving performance if you like, rather than the opposite, kind of normative approach, "What are all the things you need to know here and what is the perfect way to do this task?" That's a much less useful question.

Robin:
It still strikes me when you sort of talk about process, a lot of what we do is around working with high level order thinking skills. Sometimes those processes, there's processes in place but people think of processes quite often as following procedures or steps, whereas decision making, managing risk and giving advice are a lot more complicated level skills. How do you find that extracting process works with those sort of higher level skills?

Clint Smith:
I agree there's a danger to confuse process with procedure, but a procedure is something that is fairly well known, that's agreed what the steps are and it's a fairly straightforward thing for people to get a handle on that. But nonetheless, there are processes, if the higher level skills and risk taking is a beauty—or risk management—it still unpacks as a process. If you haven't got a process, then you really don't know what you're talking about. It's in my view. Even those higher level skills, 'approach' is probably a better word than 'process'. How do you tackle this, what's your tactic in going about this? I think some of the most useful stuff is talking to experienced practitioners and saying, "Yes terrific, but how do you get a handle on this? How do you go about it?" That's gold in terms of learning because it provides people with a reusable way of ordering that process. They're obviously not predictable but you nonetheless have a strategy and approach.

Robin:
It's almost about trying to extract out the mental models that an expert has, is that sort of what you're saying?

Clint Smith:
Yes, I'll settle for mental models. I think the problem with the word 'model' is that I would draw the distinction between a model and an approach, that a lot of tertiary education for example is looking at models. In our own field, we have well over a hundred models for instructional design. The problem is, the model's not much good to you when you've actually got to do the task, you need to deduce from that an approach. If this model is appropriate—if this model is correct, if you like—then what does that say about how I do something? That's the question that you ask in a vocational setting rather than a research setting.

Yes, 'mental model' is fine, but the more useful part of that to me is how do you unpack that as a strategy, as a way of tackling things, as a way of going about it?

Robin:
I suppose the reason I was asking that question is, quite often I have seen people—when you do you do start ask these questions, they bring out the theory, the strategy and the model but they don't actually then talk about actually how that's applied. I think that's what's really powerful about the approach work, it sort of sits in between those two things nicely about the actual example of physically how it happens, as well as that sense of what the actual thing that's happening behind it as well. It's sort of a balancing about applying as well as building models.

What are some other examples of questions that you've seen that have worked really well?

Clint Smith:
Okay, I've mentioned the one about why do people have trouble in this role, trying to dig that one out but the other component is that, I think the other part of performance based learning is the recognition that almost all performance is in the context of other people, of people in other roles, of interacting with those other people to get the job jointly done and all the communication that goes on with that.

Pretty simple one: Who else is involved? What's their role in achieving? What sort of things get in the way? What sort of things that others do, make it difficult for you to perform your role? What would they say about you? What would they say are the things that you need to do for the group effort to succeed? They're very challenging questions and difficult to get people to respond to.

Robin:
Okay, that's really interesting because in a Learning While Working manifesto one of the things I talk about is that sense of work is just—by the nature of it—it's just becoming more collaborative and needing more different types of expertise. There's also this really nice line that I've heard recently that all learning is social to some extent and even if it's sort of self-paced, resource-based learning, there's still a person at the other end of that, who's putting that together, who's trying to communicate something.

Clint Smith:
Yes, there's other people interfere with the process role and that's the problem in a sense. (laughs)

I do agree, although I think it doesn't follow from that, that you can't learn without the social factor, I think there's a misunderstanding of that. The fact that when you really get onto a new idea, you're sitting up late at night writing stuff all over a blank sheet, that's not social. It's a really important part of how everybody learns, I think.

Robin:
When you start working with a subject matter expert with this sort of performance focused approach and these sorts of questions we've just been talking about, how do you find that they react?

Clint Smith:
It's usually, you've taken them out of their comfort zone to a degree, depending on their background of course, but most of them have experienced face-to-face training of some sort and depending on the nature of that training, they might tune in or not. The word 'subject matter expert', it comes laden with the idea that they're the fount of knowledge. When you're then asking a lot of transactional stuff about how do people or where do people run into problems here, what's essential to know and what ain't? What do you need to be able to memorise and what can you refer to other things on the way through? That's not something any of us think about a lot, so it's understandably difficult, they're difficult questions to answer. We've had experience of people kind of push back on that or pass over them and get onto the easier stuff which is a list of the topics.

Robin:
What's your general advice about trying to help people make to that shift?

Clint Smith:
Talk about their own work and role and how they learnt it. Which bits have been important to them and which parts of it. That's getting into a bit of storytelling at the personal level and then it may be easy for them to apply that same kind of thinking to the learners that you are trying to design the program for. I think that's really powerful stuff. Getting people to talk about how they learn themselves, as a way of changing a paradigm and very quickly it becomes obvious that the broadly formal experience, even three years of formal experience are not necessarily the main things that they regard as the rich part of their learning.

Robin:
I'm just thinking about a recent moment when I was working with a subject matter expert, when they talked about the fact that they actually really got practice, when they actually had to provide feedback and coaching to other people, just because of the high level of tacit knowledge involved in it. It was interesting because one of the 70 strategies we then embedded into the program was peer coaching and peer observation around that, to try to capture that experience and to actually build on top of that rather than fight it as well.

Clint Smith:
Yes, it's a very powerful thing because it's—even stuff you think you know quite well—it's not that easy to describe it simply to somebody else. I mean that's our whole game is overcoming that problem, in my view.

Robin:
Cool. I think that's a really nice spot to leave us on, in terms of being the challenge, and thank you very much for joining me today Clint.

Clint Smith:
Okay, thanks Robin.


comments powered by Disqus