Sebastian Bailey of Mind Gym Promotes Bite-Size Learning at ASTDNY Meeting

Mind Gym LogoAt the October ASTD NY monthly chapter meeting, guest speaker Sebastian Bailey of Mind Gym spoke on a topic near and dear to my heart: rethinking learning delivery in smaller, more manageable chunks spread out over time to enhance knowledge transfer.  Sebastian calls it “Bite-Size Learning.”  I call it good old-fashioned common sense.  As Sebastian put it succinctly: “It’s not about cutting and pasting, it’s about reconceptualizing what you can do within that time.”
Sebastian led an engaging and interactive session, frequently asking us to partner with another attendee to perform one of his activities.  The first interaction brought out one of his key points: after a short-term change, we all tend to go right back to what’s comfortable and familiar.  Sebastian presented compelling evidence that true change and learning transfer can be better assured by making the learning sessions more manageable in length (he favors a 90-minute maximum), and spaced out over time to allow better reinforcement and retention.  He was quick to note that actual length of any particular session really depends on what’s being taught, and that if something less than 90 minutes will do–even better!  I noted in chatting with him afterwards that this approach also aligns with a reality we all face today when trying to hold an audience: television and film have moved steadily toward shorter and shorter scenes, and more cross-cutting of them, to keep idle minds engaged.  I liked a comparison Sebastian made: ensuring good learning transfer is like practicing good parenting.  Cramming too much information into someone’s head in a short space of time (for example, a two-day executive boot camp) does not provide lasting learning transfer as effectively as introducing topics in smaller doses over a sustained period of time, allowing the learner time and breathing space to absorb, reflect, and associate.
We had another activity and much discussion around what roadblocks might stand in the way of taking a fresh look at learning delivery and migrating to more of a bite-size approach.  I offered two that he agreed with readily: organizational tradition (“But we’ve always taught it this way!”–again, really just the desire to cling to the old habits), and fear on the client’s part that all their learning points couldn’t possibly be covered in less time–that something important would be left out.  In reality, this comes down to solid knowledge of the content, and thoughtful design–not just instructional design, as Sebastian pointed out, but also program design.  To work, bite-size learning needs to be a holistic approach from the start.  Other possible roadblocks identified included lack of commitment and ownership, and insufficient understanding of the material’s key learning concepts.
Here’s Sebastian’s list of common misconceptions about training, and his reply to each:
“Longer = better”   No, it’s just longer.
“The event is the hero”  No, learning transfer is the hero.
“Design for the participant outliers (aka lowest common denominator)”  No, design for the context of the application.  Engage and stimulate everyone.
“We treat people all the same”  We should mass customize (as Starbucks has done).
“The change isn’t worth the cost.”  Focus on value to company and customer satisfaction, not just price.
Sebastian also offered examples of how the bite-size approach is also actually more cost-effective to implement.  More efficient, less costly–that’s a recipe any learning organization should want to embrace.
So how does a learning organization embrace bite-size learning?  Sebastian cited the Pareto Principle, which translated into learning terms means essentially that 80% of your transfer comes from 20% of your content.  In other words, it comes down to letting go of the “Trivial Many” pieces of information and focusing on the “Vital Few” learning elements instead.  After all, as everyone present  agreed, quality of learning is not truly measured by time expended.  The key is distilling your content down to the Vital Few topics, and figuring out how to spend just enough time on each one.
Sebastian also offered this simple model: an ongoing cycle made up of Engage, Participate, and Activate.  Here he gave voice to what many of us in the room already believe: for effective transfer to happen, learners need to have a stake in the proceedings from the start, and to be active participants in the learning experience, not just passive sponges or information buckets.  As a professional actor, I can tell you this from personal experience onstage: the scripts that most “grab” an audience are not the ones that simply lay everything out and tell the audience what to think and feel.  A good script (and good learning) pulls the audience into the event and makes them willing and eager participants.
With regard to possible challenges, Sebastian suggested his own variation of a common model for the areas of likely failure, as applied to learning:
Before (Context for the learning event): 40%
Event (a single learning event): 20%
After (Post-event support for transfer): 40%
In other words, what comes before and after a learning event is most likely to be where we fail to deliver what the learner needs.  Whether you choose to deliver your learning event as “big gulp” or bite-size, that truth remains: we always need to provide our learners with meaningful context for why they are being offered the learning event(s), and support for the new behavior after the event(s).
In closing, Sebastian noted that we all need to focus on increasing “opportunity recognition,” leveraging the power of giving learners targeted hints to help them see the opportunity for the solution themselves. We provide them with the tools, a way in, and motivation–and they put it all together for themselves, enriching the experienced and deepening retention.  With that focused help from us, the learning transfer success factor increases enormously.
Thanks again to Sebastian and to ASTD NY for another excellent, invigorating session.  For more about Sebastian and his company, I encourage you to visit the Mind Gym web site.