When was the last time you had a first time?

On Monday, my kids finally had a chance to enjoy their final Christmas present: ski lessons. Since we were on the mountain anyway, I joined in the ski lessons. It was the first time any of us tried skiing. While the kids seemed to pick it up quickly, I began to reflect how odd it was to be 46 years old and to be trying something totally new to me for the first time.

It was uncomfortable. And beyond the fact it was my first time trying to ski, I was even more self-conscious because my fiancée (who has skied plenty) decided to join my ski lesson.

What does this experience have to do with training and instructional design? Plenty.

A first time for our learners.

In the world of learning and development, we’re often trying to teach new content, skills, models, policies, procedures or practices to groups of people who my be experiencing it for the very first time. Any time we’re designing training or elearning and we know there may be people for whom our content is new, we need to harken back to those times when we, ourselves, were new to something.

This is why an anchor step at the very beginning of any new topic is essential.

One of the first things we learned at the beginning of our ski lesson was how to walk up hill wearing skis. Our instructor demonstrated (comically) what so many people on the mountain looked like as they fumbled around trying to walk uphill in their skis. We laughed, and we also realized that none of us wanted to struggle while trying to walk on the skis, which made this very basic Skiing 101 lesson extremely relevant for us.

That’s what a good anchor step will do for your learners – it will help them connect with your content and get a feel for the relevance and why they should be paying attention.

When your learners fall, sometimes it’s best to let them figure out how to get back on their feet.

If you’ve ever been a beginning skier, then you may be able to empathize with me on this point. On the (many) occasions that I fell, I had absolutely no idea how to get back on my feet with two long planks of fiberglass sticking out perpendicular to my legs.

Could the instructor have helped me to my feet? Probably. But at some point, I was going to need to learn how to get back on my feet on my own. And after about the 8th or 9th fall, I really started to master the ungraceful art of getting back to my feet before someone else ran me over.

Similarly, in training and elearning design, if we can allow our learners to find ways to reflect, experiment, get things wrong, and then figure out the best way to correct themselves, the lessons can be a lot stickier than if you are to “help them to their feet” each time they make a mistake in the training environment.

Balance safety with the possibility of embarrassment.

If I was in my ski lesson with a group of strangers, I probably wouldn’t have cared as much about how much I struggled. However, as I’ve already noted above, my fiancée decided to jump into my ski lesson to just get a little refresher since it had been a few years since she’d hit the slopes.

While she made her way through each of the skill activities gracefully, I either didn’t go very far at all or I threw all caution to the wind and picked up speed and then stopped in the only way I knew how: by wiping out (and then I rolled back and forth on my back, like an upside down turtle, as I tried to figure out how to get back to my feet). There were times I realized I was more worried about how I looked than I was worried about listening to the instructor and learning how to do things correctly.

Herein is an important lesson to take into consideration when we’re designing training for people who work together. Whether they’re co-workers, or sometimes more importantly, if there’s some sort of hierarchical relationship among learners, it will be important to take this into account when designing discussions are activities. Nobody wants to be wrong in front of their co-workers, direct reports may be anxious about saying the wrong thing in front of their supervisors, and supervisors certainly don’t want to look like they don’t have all the answers in front of their direct reports.

Being intentional about how you facilitate discussions or group people for small group discussions and activities can help ease learner anxiety, and when anxiety is lower, the opportunities to learn increase.

One last idea: while I suggested that you think back to your last first time as you’re designing a learning experience, some of us can’t remember the last time we tried something new. If you fall into this category, try being intentional about trying something for the very first time over the next week or two, and pay attention to how you feel while doing it. What makes you uncomfortable (or what helped you stay comfortable)? Then see what transferable lessons you can apply to your next learning program.

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