The Learner’s Journey

This spring at the SIETAR Europa Congress in Leuven, I met Bastian Küntzel. We got to chatting about “what do you do” and “what do I do” and when I told him about my cool new idea to develop a method for using story structure to teach, he said, “I just wrote a book about that.” I was flabbergasted and immediately intrigued. His book is called The Learner’s Journey and combines Bastian’s adult education expertise with story structure. He’d already sold out of the copies he brought and sent me a copy when he got home to Poland.

The Learner’s Journey method is based on Dan Harmon’s story structure. Harmon is a screenwriter best known for his work on the American sitcom Community and works with a story circle. The story circle is an eight-step cycle that describes a character’s journey. The circle has the essential features of the hero’s journey simplified, making it easier to both remember and apply. For The Learner’s Journey, artist Michal Wronski created beautiful art to compliment Hermon’s circle graphic.

The key principle of this approach to designing learning experiences is that the learner is the hero. The learning experience must focus on the learner’s needs and supporting them. The message for the facilitator is that if you want to teach well, you cannot be the hero.

You may get top billing, but you play a supporting role. This is easier to understand using Christopher Vogel’s mentor archetype. In Harry Potter, Dumbledore is the mentor. He shapes and sometimes guides Harry, but often misses the most important learning moments. The hero must experience those moments themselves in order to experience their newly discovered abilities and courage.

I love this approach. As a facilitator, it’s too easy to put ourselves at the center of attention. After all, you’re the one in front of the group and all eyes are on you. The Learner’s Journey method starts with handing the reins over to the learner. All the facilitator can do is to provide the environment and exercises for them to have that experience in. We’re set designers, as it were.

The next section of the book dives into understanding audiences, situations, stakeholders, needs, and contexts. Understanding your learner in terms of what they need, where they are coming from, and what they are returning to comes first. From a storytelling perspective, you cannot tell a story well until you’ve taken your audience into account. You have to understand who they are, what they walked into the room with, and how you want them to leave. If you don’t think carefully about all of these things first, your story will be about you and not about your audience. It will make you feel good, but not necessarily give them anything.

This section on how to look at your audience and what to take into account is important and useful. Facilitators must take all of these factors into account before you start planning the learning experience. If you aren’t sure how to do this kind of foundation work, Bastian shares a set of conversation points for your pre-planning conversation with a client. It’s a useful and applicable insider tip from an experienced learning experience developer.

Learner’s Journey Wheel illustrated by Michal Wronski

Once you’ve sorted your foundation, you’re ready to start designing the learning experience. The Learner’s Journey moves methodically through all eight stages and describes what the learner should experience and why. It also offers suggestions to facilitate those experiences and suggests methods and activities. I learned some new things here, for example the spaghetti tower challenge as a warm-up to help participants understand the innovation process. Watch a TED talk by Tom Wujec about why kindergartners are better than business students at this challenge and you’ll be eager to try it, too.

One thing that was an eye-opener for me in this section was the idea that logistics can be part of your planning. For example, if you want to change your learner’s mindset, you could change the venue or room. Moving a group from one space to another or changing their role from audience to speaker can help learners pass from one stage of the learning experience to the next. Even a coffee break can be incorporated into the learning experience plan! This kind of thinking is wonderfully creative and could change the way you plan your next learning experience.

The Learner’s Journey ends with a call for attention to the post-learning experience stage. In other words, how do we ensure that learners have the best chance for turning their lessons learned into transformation when they return to their regular environment? It’s easy to feel inspired inside a learning experience and hard to keep the momentum when you’re back home. We easily return to old habits, whether they work nor not.  This method offers ideas about how we can facilitate learning implementation long after the participants have gone home.

The book ends with three concrete examples of how Bastian has applied these methods in different settings to create small- and large-scale learning experiences. He goes into some detail about what each stage looks like in the three different programs. These events and examples are drawn from larger events, meaning at least full-day events. Most of my workshops are between 2-4 hours and it’s hard to imagine squeezing all of these stages into that time frame effectively. We often don’t even manage a coffee break, so I’d like to see the mini-version, perhaps something that takes into account possibilities for contacting participants before they arrive and doing follow up after they’ve gone home.

So, there you have it, somebody wrote the book I wanted to write, and I liked it. It’s a nice read and full of useful, applicable information. I’ve already recommended it to a couple of people and don’t plan to stop. Sometimes running into someone who scooped your brilliant idea means you can have it all on paper without having to write it yourself! I plan to enjoy that.

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Want to get a copy of the book but not sure where to find it? Go to The Learner’s Journey website and order yourself a copy!

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