When a little learning is memorable

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

When you write do you ever feel the urge to tell your readers everything you know about your subject? Today’s column is a lesson on why we all need to learn that less is sometimes more.

I spent three days last week in a small, windowless room with five other people. You could be forgiven for thinking I was getting CIA training or taking part in some weird psychological experiment or maybe even being brainwashed.

Well, perhaps that last guess would be a little bit accurate. Truth is, I was being trained to teach. Thanks to an international program known as the “Instructional Skills Workshop,” I now have (a minor) teaching accreditation that is useful worldwide. Lest you think this sounds lame, let me assure you that the course leaders used their laptop to play Land of Hope and Glory when they handed us our buff-coloured certificates at the end of day three.

The workshop had 20 participants sub-divided into groups of five. The “core” of the program had each participant presenting a 10-minute lesson every day and then being thoroughly critiqued. Furthermore, each lesson had to follow the BOPPPS formula.

BOPPPS, which is an acronym, means that you begin your lesson with an enticing Bridge-in (also known as a “hook”) then follow it — rapidly — with an Objective (what you want the students to learn), a Pre-Assessment (measuring what the students already know), a Participatory lesson (yes, student participation is mandatory!), a Post-assessment (measuring what the students actually learned) and then conclude with a Summary.

Yes, all that in 10 minutes! To say it was challenging is rather like saying it’s “a bit of work” to qualify for the Olympics.

Fortunately, we could present lessons on any topic we liked. Longtime subscribers won’t be surprised to hear I made “how to mindmap” one of my topics. Others in my cohort taught aspects of Latin, Emotional Freedom Technique, macroeconomics and coffee tasting — so I also learned about a wealth of interesting subjects. My savvy classmates included a PhD grad in Artificial Intelligence, a Master’s student in Kinesiology, a professional indexer and another writer.

The biggest lesson I learned is that when we teach, speak or write, we all seem to be hardwired to try to squeeze in as much material as humanly possible. You’d think we were aspiring to be the Mother Teresas of information — determined to share as much of it as possible with anyone who will read/listen.

On the last day of my workshop, however, I was inspired by the presentation of the PhD in Artificial Intelligence. She gave a delightful — and informative — lesson on how to rescue an injured pigeon, something she’d done herself. During the feedback session I asked her if she’d worried that perhaps she was presenting too little material? Yes, she admitted, that had concerned her greatly. “Don’t fret,” we, her classmates, told her. We all felt her lesson was loaded with plenty of useful insights. And, in fact, we could recite them right back to her.

Mindful of her success, I did some immediate surgery on my own presentation for later that day and completely eliminated a chunk of material. “Right now, I think I’ll have time for that,” I told myself. “But I bet we won’t.” Turns out I was right. And despite this last-minute amputation, the class didn’t feel shortchanged. I had covered all the information they needed.

Whenever we’re speaking or writing, we tend to assume that our audience is eager to suck up all the information we could possibly have to offer. This is wrong! They usually want only a little enlightenment, or a tiny piece of education. Not a great big boatload.

A little bit of learning is sometimes called a “dangerous thing,” but frankly, I’ve now concluded it’s also a more memorable thing.

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