Lessons from the Classroom: What I’ve Learned About Learners from the Frontlines

I began my instructional design journey in the classroom, analyzing educational and behavioral needs of students from nursery school through high school. I have been bitten and kicked. I was even offered drugs when I was mistaken for a peer in high school. I saw teachers who needed to have arms like an octopus to manage their classrooms, all the while exhibiting endless patience and swelling hearts. But I also witnessed the celebrations of expanded vocabulary, the confidence that skill acquisition brought, and the joys of accomplishing goals. I was brought in to consult on the frontlines.

At the time, I didn’t quite grasp how impactful these experiences would be on my future career path. These are the most critical considerations I carry with me from the classroom when designing adult learning solutions:

The best laid behavioral or educational plans aren’t successful if they aren’t implemented correctly. And if they can’t be implemented correctly, then it’s the wrong plan. Through my years in corporate training, I have seen some very lovely solution designs. On paper, they were quite amazing. In theory, I’d venture to say they were genius. In application? They fell short. Sandbox training environments weren’t set up properly, there weren’t enough computers in the classroom, “mentors” weren’t really mentors, managers didn’t want to spend the time to support and follow up, the company hadn’t caught up to the technology yet, social networks became platforms for complaining and not social learning…

We have to not only take the time to uncover the business needs of the organization and the performance needs of the employees, but through due diligence we must also uncover the most appropriate plan to introduce, provide practice opportunities, reinforce, and support employees.

The student is always right. If a skill isn’t being acquired, it’s because I wasn’t teaching it in the way the student could acquire that skill effectively. B. F. Skinner famously said, “The student is always right,” and it’s true! Skill acquisition only happens when it is the right content, presented in the right way, and the right feedback is provided for the learner to practice that skill correctly. If our learners can’t perform the skill at the point of need, that tells us not that the learner is wrong—it shouts to us that our instruction was not effective. Observe learners and listen to them. If they didn’t understand or can’t correctly perform the skill on the job, it’s time to adjust the instruction so that they can.

If the new behavior isn’t easier to engage in than the old one, we’ll never see that new behavior again. This is easily observed in toddlers. It is far easier to pitch a fit than to stop, think about what’s bothersome, and then use words to communicate feelings and needs. This is why we have to make the desired behavior easier!

In corporate learning, we see this gap between current and future state with change management: a new process that is supposed to be so much leaner than the old process actually requires much more effort! New systems and applications that are supposed to make it much easier for employees to do their jobs actually have such a steep learning curve that they are frustrating and no one uses them. For any type of behavior change to be sustainable, we have to make the desired behavior easier, faster, and more rewarding than engaging in the old ones.


My time in the classroom as a behavior analyst has proven to be the cornerstone experience for my instructional design career. Consider your own journey. What lessons have stayed with you that make you effective in your own role?

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