My Journey Into The Pesky Little Word, Engaging

Time to Engage
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A few weekends ago, my book club announced our new book for the month. Usually, I can’t wait to find out what it’s going to be… but this month, to say my heart sank would be an understatement (dramatic, maybe). It turned out to be Kauzo Ishiguro’s latest science fiction novel: Klara and the Sun. Science fiction is not my cup of tea. Not at all. 

My thoughts drifted back to studying science fiction in English Literature classes at school. There I was, back in the stuffy, teenage angst-infused classroom where I sat perplexed by how anyone could enjoy its (often) implausible nature. 

The novel is centered around the story of Klara, a solar-powered Artificial Friend: in other words, an artificially intelligent robot. I didn’t think I’d make it past the prologue

Klara and the Sun
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Yet, much to my surprise, I devoured Kauzo Ishiguro’s words in what felt like one sitting. I was so captivated by Klara’s human-like emotional connections that I didn’t notice the weekend passing me by. 

I was completely and utterly engaged

This experience sparked my curiosity. How did I lose an entire weekend binging a genre that I had spent years avoiding? Why did I find this book in particular so all-consuming? And the most important question – what is it exactly that makes something engaging?

Fasten your seatbelts. I’m going to take you on a journey

Defining Engaging 

Before we dive in, I have a question for you: what does the word engaging mean to you? 

Think about it. We say someone has an engaging personality, that we watched a really engaging documentary, or that we found the management course we started last week SO engaging. The list goes on. 

But, what does this pesky little word really mean when it can be used in so many different contexts?  

Surely the dictionary is the best place to start? 

Well, the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition is: 

“Tending to draw favorable attention or interest”.  

It provides a weak synonym: attractive.  

And an even weaker example: an engaging smile.

I beg to differ. 

This is because engaging has a much deeper meaning that this simplistic definition completely misses. Let me show you. 

I want you to close your eyes for a second. Think back to a time where you were so focused on something that you lost all sense of time; picture a moment where everything else faded away. 

Maybe it was 7:30 pm last Tuesday when you FINALLY nailed that tricky chord change. Or perhaps it was last Sunday afternoon when you completed the New York Times crossword (well done!), blissfully unaware that your russet potatoes were burning to a crisp. 

This sensation of being so focused on what you’re doing that all sense of time fades away is exactly how I define engaging. I want you to keep this in mind as we continue our journey. 

My View at The Start 

When I first started contemplating this post, I thought engaging learning experiences combined interesting content with interesting delivery. 

Over time I’ve come to have a deeper understanding of what a truly engaging learning experience is.

The rest of this journey will take you through how my thinking changed and if you are thinking similarly to how I was, why yours should too. 

How Do We Get There? 

As we all know, no two learners are the same. Creating engaging courses for different audiences is indeed a challenge, but it’s not impossible if you have the right tools. 

Partway into my journey, I came across this paper by Nomadic Learning on successful learning design for cohort-based learning. 

I have what I would call a love-hate relationship with this paper. To ease you in gently (you can thank me later), I’m going to start with how it aligns with what I believe makes an engaging learning experience. 

What I Agree With 

Successful learning design is a complex puzzle. Fortunately, this paper breaks it down into eight small pieces that are SO important to keep in mind for any learning experience, no matter the target audience. 

Nomadic argues that there are eight essential principles for successful learning design. We know that for a course to be successful it has to be engaging. So, think of these eight principles as different ways to engineer an engaging learning experience: 

8 principles
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Let me show you why each of these principles deserves a place in our learning design toolkit.  

“When it comes to learning effectiveness, peer interactions can be far more important than any instructor’s skill”. 

– Nomadic Learning 

We know peer-to-peer social interactions are needed within our courses. But we shouldn’t just include them for the sake of it. This is because only well-designed social interactions drive engagement. 

What are well-designed social interactions? Nomadic hit the nail on the head with their definition: 

“ This means including enough time for learners to complete a cycle of encountering new concepts, reflecting on those concepts, and finally, applying them to their own work and life”. – Nomadic Learning 

Intentionally planned and constructive discussions develop a sense of community within a cohort. People naturally share ideas, help one another, and engage with the course material on a deeper level. 

Yet for social interactions to be effective, authentic communication in other words, natural, back and forth dialogue – must be present. Let me put that another way. Learners must ACTIVELY communicate with one another. Reacting to a message or answering a bot with a stock reply simply does not cut it. 

How Do We Achieve Authentic Communication? 

One effective way is to engineer structured arguments. Constructively arguing or debating ideas encourages learners to recognize their biases and see problems through a different lens. Interestingly, it also fosters a sense of accountability. If learners know they’re going to be critiqued on their argument, they will spend way more time actively interrogating their own logic. So, we can say it’s a win-win tool for engagement: learners are both socially and intellectually engaged. 

Another way to achieve authentic communication is reciprocal knowledge sharing, as it creates meaningful social and intellectual engagement between peers. How so? Sharing knowledge encourages learners to identify as a team, share ideas, and actively participate in discussions. It is an incredible way to get social and emotional buy-in. Unfortunately, this is too often forgotten in learning design. DON’T make this mistake! 

Knowledge Sharing
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Whether debating, discussing or sharing knowledge – how do we ensure learners actually engage with one another? What about the more introverted members of a cohort? 

The secret lies in creating a sense of belonging and a psychologically safe environment where learners feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences. Learners must feel a sense of safety and belonging. For us as L&D professionals, the most important way is to design shared habits; simple things like encouraging learners to complete an online profile or share real-life experiences go a long way in fostering a sense of community, and emotional engagement.

Secondly, learners need ample time for individual reflection. This is especially true for more introverted learners. Having time to process and reflect on their learning before sharing makes the whole process much less intimidating, and much more engaging. 

Finally, learner-centric design and human stories go hand in hand. Throughout the entire design process, we must keep the learner front and center. By actively fighting the traditional facilitator-centric model, a broader range of voices and experts can be heard. 

And if these expert voices use real human stories, learners are proven to emotionally engage with the material on a deeper level. Think about it for a second. Hearing a relatable tale of adversity gets our buy-in pretty much immediately, no questions asked. If people relate to what they are consuming, they are so much more likely to meaningfully engage, reflect, and discuss what they have learned. 

This journey has shown that each of the eight principles rightfully deserves a place in our learning design toolkit. 

What’s Missing? 

As we’ve seen, Nomadic argues that we need 8 tools in our L&D toolkit to design a successful course. But we’re a few tools short. Three in fact. 

Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water” 

– Loris Malaguzzi

Teaching is given a small mention within the Knowledge Sharing principle. But it deserves to be shouted from the rooftops. We must go beyond this by providing learners with opportunities to actively teach their peers.

Let me explain what I mean here. 

We can teach others in SO many ways. We can review someone else’s work, we can send someone a video to explain a complex financial document, or we can provide constructive feedback on a tricky sales call. 

This is because teaching is an integral part of The Circle of Learning. It forces us to see the bigger picture: we see how all the individual pieces fit together to form a whole. For a deep dive into the Curious Lion perspective, make sure you check out Learning by Teaching

The Circle of Learning
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Okay, so teaching is super important. What’s next in our learning design toolkit? 

Practice Makes Perfect 

Whether it’s how to tackle difficult conversations at work, how to write a better report, or how to start your own business – no matter the topic, without deliberate practice, we all struggle. 

Through deliberate practice, learners are constantly reminded of the ‘why’ behind what they are learning – why it’s important for their real-life jobs or situations. This drives engagement as they can easily see the value in what they are learning. 

As if that wasn’t enough, practice keeps learners intellectually engaged. Working through a tricky accounting problem or discussing a complex management issue requires complex problem-solving and decision-making skills, which intellectually stimulate and challenge the learner. This CAN NOT be overlooked.

Future Perspective 

“There’s also no question as to how mentally engaged the students are. That’s the real key: they’re thinking.” – Carl Wieman

As L&D professionals, we want our learners to be as prepared as possible for the future, right? No matter how uncertain that future may look. 

But hang on a second. What exactly is a future perspective? 

It means providing learners with all they need to be able to apply their knowledge in an unknown future situation. But, how do we go about this? We don’t have a crystal ball. How can we possibly prepare learners for the unknown? By developing learners’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills, we can prepare them for any situation. 

This is because when learners have a deep level of understanding, they are able to critically question and evaluate what they’re learning. And through this, we are actively developing learners’ ability to learn. 

Nomadic made a great start on creating a toolkit for transformative learning, but it is limited, which means missed opportunities. Yet, by improving students’ critical thinking, building in teaching elements, and encouraging consistent practice, we have a full toolkit. So make sure you keep these three tools handy. Believe me, your learners will thank you. 

In Conclusion 

Now we’ve reached the end of our journey into the weird and wonderful world of engaging learning design, let’s take a moment to reflect: 

  • My initial definition of engaging was completely wrong. Engaging learning is more than just interesting content and delivery: it’s about intricately weaving all ELEVEN of these principles into our learning design 
  • Creating engaging learning experiences must be the central principle in learning design. Without it, our courses simply cannot be successful.  
  • Engaging learning design should be intellectually engaging, emotionally engaging, and socially engaging 
  • If we keep these 11 principles at the forefront of our minds, our courses will be engaging, meaningful, and transformative 

Remember how this post started? Yes, my utter dejection over a sci-fi novel. The stuffy, angst-ridden classrooms of my youth sucked the life out of an entire genre for me for far too long.

Thanks to this journey into engaging learning design (this is almost the last time I’ll use this word, I promise!), I have discovered why I was so disengaged: I couldn’t see any value in what I was learning. I now realize that if I had been taught with these principles in mind, my story would have been so very different: firstly, my bookshelves would perhaps sport vastly different titles, my learning experience to date would not be the same, but most importantly, I would have been engaged

We don’t want any of our tools to go rusty, so let’s promise to use them all. 

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