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Rethinking Learning Design for More Effective Simulation Training

By Mike Vaughan - April 01, 2017

The professional instructional design community is typically at the forefront of learning innovation. But, even within this community of experts, human nature prevails and leaders fall into the familiar “teach to the objective” approach.

Many organizations, including those specializing in corporate development training, have jumped onto the technology and gamification bandwagon, adding badges, gifting, virtual goods, whiz-bang graphics, and leader boards to spruce learning and talent development up. The good news is that these techniques have improved completion rates. The overall result, however, is still the same: learners may know a bit more, but they are not capable of doing more. Applying new technologies or the latest gimmick without applying new design strategies is like applying lipstick to a pig. It’s cute, but you still don’t want to kiss it.

As an executive leadership development company, my colleagues and I at The Regis Company found ourselves falling into this same alluring trap. We built the first technology-enabled, web-based business simulation platform optimized for developing how-to-think workers. Yet, we struggled with falling back on traditional design habits. We received rave feedback from participants—after all, who doesn’t love an engaging experience—but in fact, this approach still resulted in the same problem–people knew a lot but could do little.  In the end, we realized that we needed to significantly shift our mental model regarding the purpose of leadership training.

Here’s what we came up with: The best leadership development training programs force students to stop and think, re-evaluate their mental models, and reach their own insights into how to modify their personal thinking or behavior.

This seems obvious, but it is surprising how few corporate development training programs really challenge people to stop and think. Even fewer programs ever get people to evaluate their mental models and refine them. As educators, we often get too caught up in trying to convey the right information to “address” learning objectives. In other words, educators tend to be course centric instead of brain centric.

A brain centric design places students in the middle of evolving situations and allows them to work outward in spirals that reflect how we learn best—by generating our own insights as a result of trial and error. Leveraging simulation training to foster this spiral approach of moving between real-world situations and foundational learning is critical to engaging the learner as he moves between states of clarity to valleys of uncertainty. It is this process that allows participants to recognize limiting beliefs, rewrite flawed mental models, and realize the benefits of experiential learning.

In our next post, we’ll go a bit deeper, discussing four cognitive conditions that, when implemented via various design principles, create an optimal learning environment.

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