Yesterday ran in fits and starts. The morning was easy, charging through a section on the role of the guide in learning, but from there it got harder. Whilst i was putting words down, it started to feel unstructured, rambling, and i eventually gave up and went walking.
There’s something deeply satisfying about a recreational walk, especially one like yesterday, through the wet woodlands around the edge of the estuary, where you can stomp your way through every step of progress and feel the miles add up under your feet. It’s not hard walking, but the distance is earned. And it provides plenty of time for thinking: ranging from the next section of the book through to memories of seeing the Red Arrows flying over this very spot last year, just a couple of days before the fatal crash that stole away one of their number.
After a fairly protracted period of reflection, i turned to Lego to inspire me for the final section of the day, looking at how we deal with building concepts in learning. A somewhat trite analogy maybe, but i think i’m going somewhere with it… time will tell!
Extract: Building concepts
Whilst only some of you will appreciate the full majesty of it, i am very lucky to be the proud owner of a Lego Millennium Falcon. I am taking the leap of faith that you all know what that is, even if you don’t recognise the sheer joy of owning it. If you happen to think that a millennium falcon is some kind of elderly bird of prey with a dislike of date changes, it’s probably best if you skip this section altogether.
Now the thing about Lego is, and indeed this may be considered the whole point of the exercise, you have to build the spaceship yourself. It comes in pieces. One thousand two hundred and fifty four of them to be precise (the truly nerdy of you will have identified from this that i own the ‘standard’ model, not the collectors edition which comes in an eye watering five thousand one hundred and ninety five pieces and which would actually cause me to have to move out of my flat).
When you build a house, you go from the ground up. In fact, you start underground with the foundations, with the grooves, trenches, channels and holes for the services and the poured concrete for the rest of the building to sit upon. This is because houses are, on the whole ‘gravity bonded’. Gravity bonding is a wonderful terms that an architect perpetrated on me once, meaning that if you hold it upside down it will fall apart. Unlike my Millennium Falcon, which can swoop and turn in a reasonably convincing way.
Arguably, steel frame buildings are also able to swoop and turn, but are just less likely to do so, even thought their rivets and welding would allow it. In any event, Lego has the advantage in that all the elements are bonded together, which means you don’t have to start at the bottom and work up.
In fact, you start by building all sorts of abstract elements. Sure, you build the legs, but then you build a number of weird flaps that, in time, turn out to be the hinged sections of the roof that can be folded back. You build some strange tubular sections that turn out to be the walls when they are all bought together and you build an odd tubular module that ends up as the cabin. There is also a central section, essentially a robust box section floor, which is the most solid of all the elements.
When the time comes for the actual assembly, you start with this central section and add the legs underneath. Then you wrap the walls around it, add the hinged roof section on top and finally bolt the cabin onto the front. Once all of those structures are in place, you decorate it with assorted tables, antenna, odd toolboxes, the escape pod and Han Solo’s chess set.
You build the parts first and then assemble them around a central framework into the whole, which forms a neat if rather glib metaphor for learning. ‘Concepts’ are strange things, the term itself somewhat overused but sitting, nevertheless, at the heart of much learning. It’s the essence of what we want to convey, the underlying concept. As such, we should take some time and effort to think about how we build and demonstrate concepts. Do we just throw it down and all stare at it, or do we build it slowly, or even surprise ourselves by talking about other things and then turn around and there it is.
To an extent, all of these approaches can work in different contexts. Sometimes we start small, working out from things that we already know to be true, building small new pieces of logic and agreed knowledge and then turning around to see that we have built the full concept and can now recognise it for what it is. At other times, we look at the whole and then take it apart to units so small that we can understand them.
Whilst my purpose here isn’t to get too philosophical about this, i do feel that it’s important to consider what concepts sit within the learning we are building and to proactively think about what approach we want to take to training them. One thing we absolutely want to avoid is missing them out altogether. Sometimes we spend so long looking at the details, explaining how to do things and what not to do that we fail to point out the concept standing in the middle of the room looking sheepish.
The central narrative is a good place to start. It’s the equivalent of that box section of flooring that the rest of the Falcon was built around. Starting with a core of commonality and accepted foundations is important. If we launch into the theoretical too fast, people may engage in the conversation, but it’s just too abstract to do much with. A ‘narrative’ is just a fancy name for a story, and stories are great to communicate with as we all use them all the time, so the story format for a piece of learning can work well. Not little red riding hood, but rather a clear track that starts and ends in a defined space. If we want to train people to be better at sales or better at interviewing, it’s best to find a story that works in this space.
If it’s interviewing, lets hang the whole piece off the story of finding, interviewing and appointing someone. Or if we are training someone in the mechanics of making and baking a cornish pasty, lets find a narrative that works there. Maybe from the fields to the shop, or the story of the ultimate customer and their day at the seaside. The point is that whilst there may not be much to learn in the story itself, it allows us to position all of the other elements as we bolt them on.