Just a Nudge – Getting into Skill Range

I may have mentioned somewhere that I was active duty USCG for a decade or so, a decade or so ago. If I hadn’t, I have now.

Active duty members of the U.S. Coast Guard get the opportunity to take on jobs like boarding team member (BTM) or boarding officer (BO). While qualifying as a BTM or BO, you become intimately familiar with law enforcement concepts like the use of force, authority and jurisdiction. One of the common tenets of use of force is only apply the minimum force necessary to compel compliance. That means you don’t use a take-down or baton when a professional tone will get the job done. Even when not considering compliance as the goal, this concept be useful when designing instruction performance solutions and experiences that support learning.

This is the visualization of an idea that’s been in my head for awhile. It stands as a rationalization against the pursuit of instructional perfection. This rationalization assumes that learning is a function of the learner and instructional perfection is a futile goal. In my view, attempting to design for perfect skill mastery can actually defeat or smother the natural learning process. I’m pretty sure this concept isn’t an original idea.

Think about a concentric circle with two separate borders. The first border at the center of the circle is skill mastery. This is the zone representing the skill level of people that have have been practicing for a significant period of time and have ascended through the ranks of apprentice and journeyman. The master of a craft has typically poured more into their own development than the average performer. The master has pursued mastery and has probably reached this level of mastery with the careful and loving assistance of a master of the craft. The second border on the outside is the skill range. This defines the minimum level a performer would need to reach in order to “figure it out” and succeed in a task or set of tasks that require the same skill.

This concept assumes that skill mastery is rarely required for accomplishment but does NOT exclude skill mastery as a target when pursued by the performer. Imagine a booming emphasis on “pursued by the performer” voiced by James Earl Jones. I don’t believe skill mastery is driven from the outside. People only reach mastery when they really want to. Never by accident.

The idea here is to design solutions to provide just the right nudge at just the right moment to place folks within range of successful accomplishment. Given the right environment, people can be remarkably adept at figuring things out. If we rob learners of the opportunity to “figure it out”, we risk missing the mark entirely and increase the probability that learning won’t stick or the type of learning that takes place won’t connect in the way we, or more importantly the learner, needs it to. To me, instruction performance solutions and experiences that support learning should be designed as a nudge to help the performer learn just enough to get within range of the next thing or success in the task at hand. Nudge, get out of the way and be ready to give another nudge in a right moment.

Job aids and performance support can serve as perfect nudges — getting out of the way when needed and appearing at just the right moment at the request of the performer. Maybe we can spend more time building for just the right nudge in the right moment and less time building over-engineered content packages?

Instructional perfection is a unicorn. A mythical creature. The effort expended to reach it is not only wasteful but probably defeats your design purpose. Design for nudges and watch deliberately from a distance. Time spent connecting your learners with just what they need, even when that need is another journeyman or master to help guide them, is time well spent. Your learners will excel until they need another nudge and since they used their own natural learning process to move through the skill range, it’ll be far more indelible (they’ll remember the experience).

This doesn’t mean a designer is completely hands-off — it merely means you need to treat your audience as capable learning machines. Because… they are.

In the business of L&D, we tend to beat folks into submission with information. We should really ask ourselves, what’s the minimum force I need apply to compel the desired outcome. We need to be prepared to stop there and stay out of the way. We aren’t the source of learning magic. They are.

11 thoughts on “Just a Nudge – Getting into Skill Range

  1. Pingback: Learning: it’s complicated » Dave's Whiteboard | Dave's Whiteboard

  2. Dave Ferguson

    This just makes so much sense, Steve.

    Earlier today I saw a comment from Reuben Tozman that instructional designers need to stop thinking about “courseware” and “development” and more about “access.” I replied that maybe they need to change from “instruction” to “improvement.”

    Not that there’s no role for formal training — but as Tom Gilbert, Geary Rummler, and lots of other people kept telling us, the key is to work backwards from the results you want, through the processes that produce those results, to the factors that affect those processes.

    Skill and knowledge can and often do have an influence, but so do many other things: tools, job aids, work design, feedback systems, motivation and incentives.

    (I realize you know all this; I’m just reminding myself.)

    This post has me going in so many directions I can scarcely make a coherent comment.

    Reply
  3. P.Henrietta Simmons

    Henrietta S.
    Yes, I 100% agree with this idea of the “nudge” at the right time. I work as an instructor teaching students to become entry level Licensed Practical Nurses. They are required to attain a competence level, for skills but are not “masters” at the skills. The students are taught in the classroom and have simulated nursing labs, but often is not until the students experience the actual “clinical site’ floor time that the students have that “Ah-Ha” moment and actually are able to develop beginner competence in the skill. The clinical experiences are “indelible” experiences, many students carry these memories for years post-graduation. The range of skill and mastery of the skills develop with actual practice. The numerous designs of presentation of lessons is important but nothing is better the actually “hands on” care and face to face interactions.

    Reply
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  11. Angela Vierling-Claassen

    Love this! Especially “Instructional perfection is a unicorn. A mythical creature. The effort expended to reach it is not only wasteful but probably defeats your design purpose. Design for nudges and watch deliberately from a distance. Time spent connecting your learners with just what they need…” I need to be reminded of this every day.

    Reply

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