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Facilitating Fast Learning

Interactivity, simulation, and entertainment are the keys to enabling fast learners.

It’s funny — and more than a little alarming — to think about the places in which most executive learning takes place. At the majority of schools, students are taught in big lecture halls. In business, workers are generally herded into cavernous hotel ballrooms. Neither facilitates what are, in my view, the essential prerequisites for enabling fast education: interactivity, simulation, and entertainment.

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Let’s take these one at a time.

Interactivity

At some business schools, like Harvard, where entire curricula are based on case studies, there are no lectures. Lectures imply right interpretations and right answers. Managerial situations seldom have right answers, in the sense that management is an art, not a science. Engaging a classroom in interactive discussion puts everyone — students and the instructor — on equal footing. The instructor cannot arrive with canned answers, and students cannot participate unless they are prepared to think in real time. Learning can become indelible because the classroom becomes an organization where a decision must be made and a course of action defended.

This truth is so powerful that every lecture hall and ballroom — spaces designed for broadcast monologues and weighty pronouncements — should be destroyed rather than be deployed as learning environments. Those spaces are dangerous to our competitive advantage as an economy, in the same way that the buildings that Albert Speer — Hitler’s chief architect and industrial planner — built to glorify the Third Reich were dangerous, after World War II, to the creation of a democratic society. At Phillips Exeter Academy, where every class takes place at a round table, the principle of interactivity abounds. At that school, teachers often observe, “Every conversation is an opportunity to teach.” In truth, the only way to teach, I argue, is through conversation.

Simulation

Imagine that you are training people for business in the aerospace industry. You are familiar with the impact of the flight simulator on your pilots and astronauts. You would never consider sending anyone up into the sky or space without first learning everything there was to know through simulation. Why should business be any different?

Fast education will depend on our understanding of how to put future managers into spaces before they actually get there. Call it time travel or seeing around corners. But this will be essential: knowing how to do something before you have actually done it.

Of course, interactive case discussions — since they model organizational process — are a compelling way to extend the metaphor of the flight simulator to managerial learning. But simulation, through multimedia representations of virtual or real business situations, will reinvent what we mean by “studying” cases and texts.

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Entertainment

Participants of the Information Age often make the clichéd observation that attention has become a scarce resource in our economy and society. Too much information and too little engagement make communication difficult. Without first engaging the attention of students or managers, it’s impossible to teach or to learn.

The lessons for educators from the entertainment industry are all about management of attention. Who knows better how to keep humans “glued” to complex flows of information than video-game makers, movie studios, and broadcast and cable networks? Like it or not, education competes with those information purveyors. That means that fast education must entertain as persuasively as media companies, engage as completely as Hollywood storytellers, and challenge as thoroughly as video-game makers. In entertainment’s war for market share, businesses extract insights from demonstrated best practices; in education’s war for mind share, practitioners should do the same.

Put those three elements together, and you have a powerful formula for fast education: Interactivity stimulates commitment and thinking; simulation delivers skills before they’re needed; entertainment wins the war for mind share. Anything less, before long, won’t win any plaudits as fast education; we’ll scarcely consider it education, at all.

Jeffrey F. Rayport (jeffrey@tnbt.com) heads Monitor Marketspace Center, a research, media, and consulting unit of Monitor Group, a strategy-services and consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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