“Let Them Build It and It Will Be Amazing”

April 8, 2011

In over 20 years in the education sector, I’ve managed and collaborated with others to develop courses and programs in a variety of ways. Each has their merits. Using the wrong approach can be disastrous.

I was recently hired by a major organization to undertake the development of a new program for them. I thought about how to go about doing this and, because I don’t know them very well, I said, “Look, there are 3 ways we can do this. Here are the options:”

Traditional Approach

Tried and true. Teacher-centered. Deliver as much solid content as possible, to as many people as possible, in the shortest amount of time. Mostly one-way (trainer-to-participant) communication.

This approach is the easiest and in some ways, the most fun (at least for the developer). I develop my goals, objectives and outcomes, build content and deliver it. If I’ve done my job right, someone else can step right in and deliver the content. In the professional training and speaking world, this is called “canned content”. You literally open up the package of materials and feed it to the participants. Or to use another analogy, the program developer is the architect, construction company and interior designer. Once you have finished the job, you invite people in.

I can churn out a job like this on a fairly tight timeline. Because of my own tendency towards perfectionism, no one gets invited to see my work before I’m happy with it. And I’ve been doing this a long time, so I know how to produce quality and do it quickly.

Interactive Approach

This approach allows for increased learner interactivity. Feed them content, and keep them engaged. Allows time at regular intervals for discussion and interaction, rather than “saving all the questions until the end”.

The Interactive Approach, although sometimes cloaked as “learner-centered”, it is really still a “teacher-centered” approach, but does allow participants to ask more questions and permits some lively discussion. The teacher or trainer is very much in control of what happens, how it happens and when it happens. And it’s expected that he or she will maintain control throughout the process.

The teacher needs to know how to keep the discussion on track, cut off those who aren’t moving in the appropriate direction or who take up too much time and generally be an authority figure who guides the process, while building in some flexibility. The program developer is the architect, construction company and may invite others to give input on the final touches, but really, what they say doesn’t change much.

Designing a course like this is much like building a traditional course, except that you build in allowances for interactivity. Over the past 10 years, most of the projects I’ve been involved with have involved this type of project. It allows the client to pay lip service to the notion of learner involvement, without any fundamental changes to how they’ve always done things.

Participatory Capacity-Building Approach

Innovative. Edgy. Highly collaborative and creative. Teacher is replaced by a facilitator who is OK relinquishing some control to participants as they drive the learning process forward.

The Participatory Capacity-Building Approach is likely to be somewhat uncomfortable for participants, since they will be challenged to try new ways of doing things (e.g. using new technologies that they’re not entirely comfortable with). Participants are challenged to be co-creators of new knowledge, as they engage in peer-to-peer-teaching-and-learning. Saying it is an “active learning process” is an understatement.

Essentially, you construct a solid frame. Then you give the learners the tools to build around it, adding to the design, rolling up their sleeves and getting in on the design and doing some of the labour. They then add the final touches. The final product is their work (likely with a few mistakes here and there). In the end, they own it… and they know it. It ends up being a place to call home because they’ve made it themselves.

From a course developer’s point of view, it is highly challenging. The frame you build needs to be rock solid. It needs to make sense to the participants. They must agree to participate, or nothing is built. You have know what tools to give them and show them how to use them (safely) in a short period of time. You must give them guidance on how to protect themselves from distractions and overcome obstacles (such as fear, anxiety and perfectionism). You have to let them know that perfection is not the goal – creation is. You have to let them fail (just a little) and allow them to get up and try again. It requires a facilitator who is comfortable being uncomfortable, who inspires creativity and doesn’t cling to control.

I’ve used this approach with my own classes and internal project staff, but less so with external clients. It’s an uncomfortable place for many organizations. I once thought this approach would be great for a certain client, but when I designed a participatory course for them, they freaked. They said, “We don’t want to build capacity! We just want the frickin’ content!”

I learned my lesson. Since then, I’ve always presented the options. Most clients don’t go for the third option… Too radical… Too uncomfortable.  That is, until recently. A new, highly forward-thinking client, has just said, “Our people do good work. Give us the tools and show us how to build it. I don’t know what we’ll create, but I know it’ll be amazing.”

A leader who believes so deeply in the potential of their people is inspiring and exhilarating to work with.

Let them collaborate (Latin for “work together”).

Let them create something new.

Provide opportunities for them to build their capacity.

Watch them build something amazing.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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