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Masters' Q&A - Clark Quinn

Experts Answer 5 Questions on Simulations - Clark Quinn

This is the FIFTH in my series of interviews with experts in our field of learning, development, performance, and business acumen.

Today, it's Clark Quinn, Ph.D., an internationally known consultant, author, and keynote speaker in learning experience design and evidence-informed practice. He's built a career applying evidence-based practices from the cognitive & learning sciences about how people think, work, and learn for organizational performance improvement.

His greatest hits include his books, Millennials, Goldfish, & Other Training Misconceptions: Debunking Learning Myths and Superstitions, Learning Science for Instructional Designers: From Cognition to Application, and Make It Meaningful: Taking Learning Design from Instructional to Transformational.

His company Quinnovation is his vehicle for consulting, his blog Learnlets is his vehicle for sharing evidence-informed perspectives on learning design, and his ongoing work with Upside Learning and Learning Development Accelerator is his outlet for evidence-informed practices in our profession.

DAN: Why do you think leaders at all levels get so much from learning in simulations?

CLARK: First, I think people at all levels get a lot from learning in simulations. Ok, well-designed simulations, but…. The reason’s simple: what learning science tells us works best for learning is repeated practice in context. Mentored live performance is best, but it doesn’t scale well: individual mentoring is costly, and the consequences of live performance can be onerous. The next best thing is a simulation.

To be clear on our terms, a simulation is just a simple model of the world. A motivated and self-effective learner can learn a lot from it. This isn’t the way to bet, so we as learning designers put the simulations in an initial state, and ask learners to take it to a goal state, which we’ve chosen such that they can’t get from here to there without learning the relationships we need them to understand. We wrap a story around the need, and that, in my terminology, is a scenario. (Which we can tune into a game; we turn it into a game by tuning, and we should, but that’s a different interview.)

Scenarios can be implemented in actual simulations (where the world is actively modeled, and the consequences are calculated), or in branching scenarios where the relationships are hard-coded in the consequences attached to a decision. Simulation-driven experiences allow almost infinite replay (because we can add probabilities), but they’re much more work to build. You can much more easily create several branching scenarios to approximate the solution.

So, back to the original question: scenarios give us contextualized practice, which research shows leads to better retention and transfer. With the right choices, the scenario is engaging and provides meaningful practice, which leads to acquiring new abilities. They can be truly transformational!

DAN: How have simulation participants demonstrated their learning back on the job? What’s the return on this investment (financial or non-financial)?

CLARK: It depends on the design, but if you have clear performance goals guiding the design of the experience, then the outcomes should manifest in new abilities too. If you do a good job in your design, whatever decision-making ability you’re asking them to make in the scenario becomes their response in the workplace. If you’ve chosen right, this new ability in the workplace moves the needle on some organizational metric that you’ve designed from the start to impact.

And if you aren’t choosing a specific performance objective to try to impact, why bother?

DAN: What makes learning through a simulation experience unique and meaningful?

CLARK: As above, research says that contextualized practice (with feedback) is the best way to develop new abilities. They need to have a ’story’ setting: a context, then something happens that precipitates the need for a decision, and then the decision has consequences. That’s just a better-written multiple-choice question (please!), but if we drive the outcomes from a branching or simulation basis, this can lead to new decisions (they travel in packs!).

We can even, though not necessary, build examples and information into the game environment as well (the office might have a library for reference and a repository of previous efforts). I generally argue that we shouldn’t expect a scenario (simulation/game) to stand alone as a learning experience, but instead, we should supplement it with models and examples, and in particular, reflection. Consequences convey the outcomes of how the world works, but we may want some didactic facilitation (e.g. recognizing similarities across scenarios) as well.

By the way, unless you can bring in didactic feedback in a natural way in the scenario (e.g. being observed by a supervisor), don’t provide it until you’ve closed the experience. Let them see the consequences, and then bring in any external feedback.

DAN: Some Talent Development Teams partner with Finance leaders, HR leaders, Project professionals, or even senior Operations executives on topics in their area of expertise. How have simulators been adapted in collaboration with these subject experts? What have been the results?

CLARK: You need domain expertise to build meaningful simulations, and some creativity to make them engaging (e.g. my first or last books, the former on building learning simulations, the latter extracting the core principles of engagement). So, partnering with them in the development is necessary to get plausible scenarios, outcomes, and guidance about how to make decisions.

It’s all about the design, however. You can make bad scenarios if you don’t understand the necessary principles. Having a systematic process that starts with a demonstrable need, and specific behaviors that will address it, as well as a process that can embed situations requiring them in plausible and motivating environments, isn’t trivial. When they’re done well, they lead to substantial improvements. Why do aviation, medicine, and the military employ simulations? Because lives are saved when they get it right!

As an aside, I hate to focus on leadership as something reserved for an elite few; everyone benefits from being developed and scenarios are the best way to accomplish that.

DAN: What energizes you about your work?

CLARK: Helping people understand what learning science says is necessary to achieve real outcomes, and how to elegantly integrate the ‘emotional’ side of the story along with, means that folks will end up creating learning that can have a real impact. That’s what motivates me; helping folks help others to achieve better outcomes.

I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to, and able to continue to pursue, what’s known in these areas. Others have found value in my efforts to make sense of the different theories and pull together a synthesis, and that’s highly rewarding. Helping people achieve their goals, particularly if that is helping others achieve their goals, means what I do is meaningful to me and others, and that’s a place I like to be.

Read More:

Also, the scenario ebook I wrote with Upside Learning: Scenario-Based Learning: The Ultimate Asset in Your L&D Toolkit

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