How do you put yourself into the shoes of your learners?

This past fall I had an opportunity to coach my son’s 6th grade school soccer team.

Seattle CYO 6th Grade Boys 2nd Place Team: The St. Joseph Jaguars

I’ve never played organized soccer, but I’ve watched plenty of soccer on tv and we’ve gone to a number of Seattle Sounders games, so I felt like I (kind of) knew what I was doing. I’d run drills in practice and bark orders from the sidelines during the games. I’d pump my fist when we’d score and I’d rub my already thinning hair off my head when the kids would mishandle a pass or lose their assignment on defense.

During our final practice of the season, I organized a Kids vs. Parents soccer game.

Suddenly I realized that cleanly handling a pass (when hell-bent 6th grade boys are running at you full speed) or finding your assignment on defense (when wily, skilled soccer players are slipping into open space that I didn’t even know existed and I’m desperately trying to catch my breath) was a lot harder than it looked on tv or from the stands or while comfortably coaching on the sidelines.

As I hunched over, hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath, dreading how sore I was going to be in the morning, I began to wonder: how often do I do the same thing when I create training programs? How often do I fail to put myself in the shoes of my learners as I’m crafting activities that need to be relevant to their context?

Why Should You Put Yourself Into The Shoes Of Your Learners?

It’s rarely easy to put yourself into your learners’ shoes, but it’s extremely important. And nobody ever said that designing training should be easy. Here are several reasons why taking the time and effort to do this is extremely important:

  • The more relevant the challenges and activities are, the more likely your learners will be able to bring their new learning to their jobs.
  • It’s easier to design relevant content and realistic activities when you actually understand the mind of your learners – their anxieties, their struggles and their pain points.
  • Credibility in the program and the presenter (if it’s an instructor-led program) rise when the learners feel that the person who designed (and is delivering) the training actually understands what they go through on a daily basis.

Some Ways To See Things Through The Eyes Of Your Learners

Do their job. When I was the national training director for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), I was responsible for developing and distributing training materials that would be used by 60,000 volunteers across more than 1,000 local affiliated non-profits across the country.

In order to better understand the audience for whom my team and I were developing training, I decided to become a CASA volunteer myself. I went through the training and took on several cases in which I had the responsibility to tell a judge whether a child should be reunited with their family or kept in foster care.

There is not a chance in the world that the training I was asked to develop would have been anywhere near as relevant, and I would not have received anywhere near the confidence of the learners had I not been through these experiences myself.

Of course, it’s not always possible to actually do the work, so there are several other options at your disposal.

Shadow. Even if you’re not able to actually do the work, finding an opportunity to shadow a person (or people) who do the thing you’ve been asked to develop training for can be a powerful means of discovery. Watching how they work and having an opportunity to talk with them about what they like, don’t like, feel they do well, where they see others struggling and what they wished someone had told/taught them earlier can all be key pieces to putting together a more realistic, credible learning program.

Ask questions. I know that when we work with many of our clients, we’re asked to train people who are located across the country and around the world, so doing their job for a bit or even shadowing are not realistic options. In these cases, we rely on our ability to be curious and ask lots of questions. We’ll often ask to speak with both high performers and not-so-high performers to see if we can identify any differences in habits and practices. Some go-to questions include:

  • What does a typical day look like in your role?
  • What are some of the hardest things to learn about this task?
  • What are some of the most common questions your customers ask?
  • If you could wave a magic wand, what would make this job easier?
  • What should be taught to other people who are going to be doing what you do? Why?

At the end of the day, we’re paid to put together effective, relatable, authentic, credible learning programs that help people do things new or differently or better. Finding ways to come as close as possible to putting ourselves in the shoes of our learners will go a long way in helping to develop effective learning programs.


Need some help putting together an effective, authentic, engaging learning experience for your team? Drop us a line, we’d love to see how our Endurance Learning team can help!

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