What kinds of methods best support learning?


In group training, one of the differences between trainers is their ability to develop learning methods appropriate for each situation. From the theoretical perspective, this phenomenon is surprisingly poorly known, and it is largely based on empirical knowledge. Most methodology handbooks are organized according what happens in each method, instead of on the kinds of problems it can be used to solve.

The benefits offered by different methods often have to do with motivation and inspiration. Actually, the same can be said about the function of the methods as about motivation in general. People are different, and the method should appeal to the starting point of each participant. In a training group, some participants are motivated by the power of influence and leadership, while there are some more interested in working together with others, and yet others who want to succeed at the task itself. The best methods offer all three main types opportunities for self-realization and success.

While completing my teacher training a couple of years ago, I carried out a small-scale study on this theme. I analyzed some 1,500 training activities I found in the guides and handbooks on my own bookshelf to determine what kinds of learning mechanisms they use. My goal was not to classify the entire mass. Rather, I wanted to find general models which emerge in different contexts and as different applications. The assumption was that the frequently used mechanisms have also been found to work well. From a practical standpoint, it was necessary to limit the scope to general methods, which can be somewhat loosely be called “facilitation methods” or – as is common in American literature in particular – “frame games”. The term describes the fact that the methodology framework remains unchanged, but it can be linked to any situation-specific content. Because of this limitation of scope, some good methods, such as simulations designed for a particular purpose, were excluded from this analysis.

The observations were interesting and even surprising in part. A relatively large number of activities used in training are in fact variations of a few basic ideas. Besides training, the same ideas would also seem to occur in other areas, such as creative problem-solving in the industrial sector. It seems there is a wider need for such an analysis, because my article on this issue was accepted for publication in the 2013 Pfeiffer Training Annual, perhaps the world’s best-known training journal.

As a result of the analysis, I identified the five most common mechanisms or methodologies. Each one shares the same way of handling information, even if the methods may appear hugely different. It is also common that the methods applied in practice are combinations of two or more mechanisms.

The first mechanism is called sorting and it is also widely applied in commercial game products. In sorting, the task is to put items or people in an order – sometimes even physically– or to pick a limited number of items from a larger collection. Eurorail á la carte, an activity used in tolerance education, is a good example of a creative application of this mechanism.

If a trainer asks the participants to name an animal which reacts to threat in a way similar to their own, they are using a second mechanism, the metaphor. Metaphors are particularly popular when handling ambiguous or personal topics.

The third mechanism is called summarizing. In activities belonging to this group, the task is to fit something into a limited space, in one way or another. To do this, the key content must first be identified. Practical approaches may be linked to slogans to be printed on T-shirts, pantomimes or preparing a hypothetical job advertisement.

The fourth mechanism is role-taking, where the participants assume and apply a role other than their own and thereby broaden their perspectives. Manager–supervisor role games are typical examples of this mechanism, but traditional debating or Edvard de Bono’s Six thinking hats method are also about role-taking.

The fifth and final method is structured sharing. The need to share experiences and views between participants exists in almost all training situations, and a number of different working methods have emerged to meet this need. In addition to having an independent use, sharing is often a part of a larger activity.

This is obviously a very rough classification, and it doesn’t do justice to the variety of the methodologies or the trainer’s personal creative input in facilitating the methods. As such, it is still the best analysis I have seen of the kinds of cognitive processes which make up an inspiring and useful activity. It has also proved to be a fairly good starting point for tailoring a method for a new situation on the basis of the customer’s needs.

The Pfeiffer Training Annual contains an article entitled “What Makes Up the Most Beloved Activities? Framework for Rapid Training Activity Creation” where I discuss this issue more extensively. Released in December, the Annual can be pre-ordered from Amazon, for instance.

Lauri Luoto