I've been designing learning experiences for nearly two decades, from planning conferences during my years in the nonprofit technology world, to conducting workshops for coaching clients and their exec teams, to teaching The Art of Self-Coaching and Interpersonal Dynamics at Stanford.
I've found that the process of developing these experiences and repeating them over time follows a predictable evolutionary path:
1. Discover what's broken.
We clarify our message and our goals, curate a curriculum, create our materials, fuss over the logistics, practice until we feel ready, and then finally go live--which is when we finally discover what's broken. The problem is that we can't see what's broken in advance because it's in our blind spot--there's always something we simply fail to grasp about our message or materials, our learners, or ourselves until we're live. Sometimes we realize what's broken afterwards, but often we see it in real time, as we're standing at the front of the room facing a sea of confused or unhappy faces. The key is to acknowledge the problem, avoid getting rattled or defensive, and move on with grace. This requires comfort with imperfection and failure, a response I've developed after lots of practice. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
2. Fix what's broken.
After the first iteration we go back to the workshop, determined to fix things. Maybe our message was wrong, or our goals weren't aligned with those of our learners. Maybe our materials were flawed, or the logistics were just too complex to pull off. Maybe we didn't practice enough and were unprepared--or we practiced too much and were stiff and robotic. The key is not to blame anyone else (especially the learners), because that will only prevent us from fixing the problem. We have to look in the mirror and tell ourselves, compassionately but firmly, "You screwed up. Take responsibility, learn from your mistake, and make it better."
3. Fix what's working.
We roll out our new and improved design for another group of learners, and nothing breaks--hallelujah! Our message is on point, our learners achieve their goals, the materials and logistics are just fine, and we're sufficiently well-prepared without being overly rehearsed. Everything works--but in the absence of glaring problems to fix, it dawns on us that all the things that work could stand further improvement. Simply working feels like a rather low bar. The problem now isn't our willingness to exert the extra effort--it's our willingness to let go of ideas and practices that we're attached to and fond of. They may work, but that's not good enough anymore, and we have to cast them aside. The key is finding the strength to murder our darlings, the strength to let them go. This will be painful, but as Pema Chödrön has noted:
The thought of letting go is usually very frightening. You may feel that you're going to die, or that something is going to die. And you will be right. If you let go, something will die. But it's something that needs to die and you will benefit greatly from its death.
4. Fix ourselves.
Having fixed what's broken and fixed what's working, we're doing better than ever. Everything's dialed in. Our message is carefully crafted, our learners are fully satisfied, our materials spark delight, and the logistics are smoothly oiled. And now that all the surrounding noise has died down, in the quiet that follows we can finally hear an inner voice that's been calling for our attention. Teaching is an act of service, but there are no entirely selfless acts--we teach out of some inner need, some personal yearning. We can only fulfill this need (or even be aware of it) after our learners' needs have been met, and once that occurs we must take care of ourselves. The key is recognizing that teaching is both noble work and a tough job, and we have skin in the game. To do this sustainably our own needs must be met, and often that requires making some changes in our approach to the process--and in ourselves. I believe that every coach should have a coach, and that goes for anyone who teaches in any capacity.
5. Enjoy it.
At last--teaching nirvana. Our design is perfected, we're at the top of our game, life is good, and everybody's happy. We can't stay here indefinitely, but there's no need to rush. The key is to be present in the moment and grateful for the experience--because like all moments, it must end. This realization inevitably triggers some sadness, but it can be helpful to acknowledge the importance of endings: "The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the melody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either."
6. Get bored and break stuff.
One reason why teaching nirvana is an impermanent state is because perfection is boring. It's actually worse than boring--it's stagnation. If we want to do good work, we'll find a winning formula and stick with it. But if we want to do great work, we'll pay close attention to our own level of engagement, because it's impossible to be truly great when we're bored. The key is to recognize the cyclical nature of our own learning and notice when we're in a flow state and when we're not. It's also helpful to acknowledge that when we think we're an Expert, we may still be a Hazard.
For further reading...
- How to Start a Workshop or Talk
- 20 Tools for Coaching and Teaching
- Neuroscience, Joyful Learning and the SCARF Model
- Planting a Flag (Thoughts on Teaching Leadership at Stanford)
- Teach Concepts, Not Features (Jakob Nielsen on Lifelong Skills
- Committing a Microaggression While Teaching a Class on Microaggressions
- Moments of Impact, by Lisa Kay Solomon and Chris Ertel
- Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, Lynda Barry
I've had the good fortune to be a student of some of the most dedicated, caring, and demanding teachers in the world. I learned this craft by watching them practice it, and I strive to live up to the standards that they set for me. Thank you...
- Lloyd Schaefer, English, Cumberland Valley High School
- Millicent Rinehart, English, Cumberland Valley High School
- Naomi Duprat, English, Cumberland Valley High School
- Selby Doughty, Art, Cumberland Valley High School
- Tim Dayton, English, Duke
- Richard Lerman, Performance Art, School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Boston
- Dagmar Herzog, History, Brown
- Tom Simons, History, Brown
- Mary Gluck, History, Brown
- Chris Mauriello, History, Brown
- Roberto Fernandez, Organizational Behavior, Stanford
- James Van Horne, Finance, Stanford
- Joel Peterson, Real Estate, Stanford
- Mary Ann Huckabay, Interpersonal Dynamics, Stanford
Over the past decade I've also had the privilege of collaborating with Carole Robin, Evelyn Williams, Gary Dexter, Lara Tiedens, Richard Francisco, and Scott Bristol at Stanford, and their influence has made me an immeasurably better teacher.
I'm particularly indebted to Mary Ann Huckabay, Carole Robin, and Roberto Fernandez (now at MIT)--I wouldn't be here without them.
Photo by Kevin Dooley. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.