We are a straggle of grade-two students, standing by the teacher’s desk at the back of the room. Compositions in hand, we wait patiently for her review. As each one finishes, the rest of us shuffle forward silently. In this 1960 classroom there is no idle chit-chat: not in line, and not in the ranks of still-seated students, waiting for their row to be called.
When my turn arrives, the teacher scans my work quickly, until her eye stumbles on something and her index finger reaches out to tap the paper. What’s this? I lean forward to see what carefully pencilled word has provoked her question. Cood, I read aloud. There is no response: I look up, puzzled. She looks puzzled too, so I add helpfully, You know, like ‘good’. Ah, now the light goes on. We have a short talk on the correct, albeit entirely unreasonable, spelling of ‘could’. I return to my desk, older and wiser in about equal measure.
A week later I am at the front of the room, one of only two left standing. The teacher’s hand goes into the bag and comes out with a slip of paper. I wait, not breathing. Will I know the word? Will I be able to claim the glory that goes with winning the weekly spelling bee? The suspense is driving me crazy! What Is The Word? Could, she pronounces clearly.
Woot! Sometimes, learning comes just in time to support performance. Would that it were always so. Instead, it seems that most of our learning comes in one of two ways — very different, but alike in being painful.
School makes us trudge endlessly through the fundamentals, without any immediate real-world requirement to use what we are learning. This trudgery is how we learn spelling, multiplication, grammar, history (dates and more dates, hurray!) — apparently in the hope that some of it will stick beyond the exam, and be available when needed. Needed for what, is not clear. The next layer of fundamentals, maybe.
Life, by contrast, gives us ‘teachable moments’ integrally related to immediate real-world requirements — ones that we have just failed to meet. This curriculum is less organized but more vivid. Hurting someone’s feelings with a careless comment is an opportunity to learn to think before speaking. Missing a deadline, an opportunity to learn to schedule time for contingencies. Undergoing physiotherapy, an opportunity to learn to exercise consistently. Losing a nest egg in the stock market, an opportunity to learn to diversify.
Can’t there be just-in-time learning, where we avoid both the trudgery and the smack upside the head?
Enter the online game tutorial, in which a prime design principle is to make help available just where/when confusion might arise. Not too early, when it would be intrusive and irrelevant. Not too late, when it would be frustrating and extraneous. Like Goldilocks’ quest for the perfect porridge, help, too, must be ‘just right’ — available just in time. It’s not a simple or an easy task. Successful execution requires the game’s designer to think like a game player and to somehow account for the variety in those players — how they think, what they know, and how much frustration and wandering around they can stand or even enjoy. How designers do it, I have no idea.
I have a better idea of how coaches do it, at least in business. It’s not a simple or easy task there either. It involves a lot of hanging around, and a whole lot of ‘refraining from’. Refraining from trying to explain the whole process in the first five minutes. Refraining from always jumping in to point out a better way. Refraining from endlessly answering unasked questions. Yet always being ready to intervene when the need and the desire for help come together. Just in time.
Is there a standard agenda for these briefings? What do they want to know? My questioner is a retired Army officer but a first-time proposal manager. With multi-million-dollar technical projects under his belt, he is still a newbie at presenting marketing projects to corporate executives. I’m a little startled by his timing — it is, after all, just a few days until the initial project briefing, which will give us the critical go/no-go decision. I feel an impulse to impart everything I have learned from other sessions with these dudes over many years: Don’t go down that path! There be dragons there! Instead, I take the list of All Possible Topics that I carry in my head and select from it to suit this project. The result is a handful of agenda items — some driven by what the dudes will want to know, some driven by what we need from them. He nods, seemingly satisfied even without the detailed explanation still lurking on my tongue, and we carry on. Entirely successfully, as it turns out.
With no apparent effort, my grade-two teacher refrained from overloading me with all the glorious vagaries of English spelling, and dealt only with the issue at hand. With superhuman effort, I refrained from overloading my baby proposal manager with all the wonderful subtleties of corporate decision-making, and dealt only with the issue at hand. Through our respective educations and years of experience, both my teacher and I had acquired — at some fair cost to ourselves and to our organizations — much more than we were called on to deliver in the moment. But we both delivered what was really needed, avoiding both the trudgery of the more-than-you-wanted-to-know answer, and the smack of the late-to-need answer.
Making learning possible: pricey. Making just-in-time learning possible: priceless.