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Templates and tools

A colleague who I like and respect recently tweeted: “I can’t be the only L&D person who shudders when I hear the word ‘template’”, and I felt vulnerable because I’ve recently been talking about templates.   To be fair, I have a different meaning than most of what’s called a ‘template’, so I thought perhaps I should explain.

Let’s be clear: what’s typically referred to as a template is usually a simple screen type for a rapid authoring tool.  That is, it allows you to easily fill in the information and generate a particular type of interaction: drag-and-drop, multiple-choice, etc.  And this can be useful when you’ve got well-designed activities but want to easily develop them.  But they’re not a substitute for good design, and can make it easy to do bad design too. Worse are those skins that add gratuitous visual elements (e.g. a ‘racing’ theme) to a series of questions in some deluded view that such window dressing has any impact on anything.

So what am I talking about?  I’m talking about templates that help reinforce the depth of learning science around the elements. I’m talking about templates for: introductions that ask for the emotional opener, the drill-down from the larger context, etc; practices that are contextualized, meaningful to learner, differentiated response options and specific feedback, etc; etc.  This could be done in other ways, such as a checklist, but putting it into the place where you’re developing strikes me as a better driver ;).  Particularly if it is embedded in the house ‘style’, so that the look and feel is tightly coupled to learner experience.

Atul Gawande, in his brilliant The Checklist Manifesto, points out how there are gaps in our mental processing that means we can skip steps and forget to coordinate.  Whether the guidelines are in a template or a process tool like a checklist, it helps to have cognitive facilitation.  So what I’m talking about is not a template that says how it’s to look, but instead what it should contain. There are ways to combine intrinsic motivation openings with initial practice, for instance.

Templates don’t have to stifle creativity, they can serve to improve quality instead.  As big a fan as I am of creativity, I also recognize that we can end up less than optimal if there isn’t some rigor in our approach.  (Systematic creativity is not an oxymoron!)  In fact, systematicity in the creative process can help optimize the outcomes. So however you want to scaffold quality and creativity, whether through templates or other tools, I do implore you to put in place support to ensure the best outcomes for you and  your audience.

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