Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Jigsaw - Creating an Information Gap

I guess the two things that stick out most clearly from my teacher training course are 1) go out and learn English grammar/vocabulary as a non-native speaker, and 2) if you want to create speaking and communication in class you need to have an information gap.  The purpose of this post is to dive into that communication gap in in-company training.

The problem with in-company training is that the largest communication gap in the room is between the trainer and the learners.  The trainer possess the English language, and the participants have the business, the processes, the products, the suppliers, the genre, the conventions, the organizational structure, the goals... nearly everything.  Thus, it seems natural that many in-company courses would revert to an ongoing dialog between the trainer and the learners.  The learners explain the business and the trainer explains English (and in my case, why Americans have so many guns).  The learners actually seem to enjoy this communication gap.  They have safety in numbers, they do more listening than speaking, and they learn one or two things.  The curious trainer (like myself) also enjoys this dynamic because "when one person teaches, two people learn".

But I find myself increasingly annoyed by this classroom dynamic.  When I leave a class which devolves to this I chalk it up as a failed lesson and reflect on critical points where I could have guided it in another direction.  I recently performed an annual review of a project I am working on and it led me question why some groups had seen more progress than others.  I began testing hypotheses against groups outside the project.  Indeed, it appears that I see more progress and improvement when I am able to step back from the lesson and create information gaps between the participants themselves.  The survey responses say they have more progress when I am less involved (whether through teaching style or group dynamics).  No surprise, right... less teacher talking time, more functional language needed, etc.  So the answer must be to hand them role cards and sit back to take notes.

Unfortunately, the answer is not quite that simple.  Here a few things to consider when meaningful information gaps in class.

1.  Many people are information workers.  Their value to the company depends on their knowledge of processes and how to do things efficiently.  They are defensive about this.  I simple task such as "Teach the group how to file their travel expenses in SAP" can nearly eliminate their purpose of employment.  Once the group sees how simple the process is, the worker may feel they have to defend their value to company.  Of course, this does not merely apply to lower level workers.

'Silo thinking' can apply to many companies.  This means information can travel up and down in the hierarchy, but not across departments.  This may be the case when there are profit and cost centers for each department and internal pricing. In other words, department X charges department Y for services even though they are the same company.  Additionally, both have sales targets so they can give away too much information to others.

Lesson:  Be aware that information is power and internal pricing means that customers and salespeople may be in the same room.  When designing simulations, don't ask the students to give up more information than needed.

2.  Roles are not needs.  There are several cases in which I have given a student a role and they are simply a prop to the lesson.  The job is simply play the part so that the person next to them can practice specific needs.

This is a lack of creativity on the trainer's part.  I can do better by adapting the role-play or simulation to fit both needs.

Lesson:  Read the role cards critically.  If the overall role-play fits we may want to change "Student A".  This can be as simple as changing the word colleague to manager and vice versa.  The key is to look at the roles and imagine the conversation... does it fit the needs analysis?

3.  More than only jigsaw reading.  In the past we were constrained by the fact that content could only be delivered in written form.  If you are looking for the #1 education app... it is YouTube.  Give one group of students the tablet and watch a video on the laptop in the other room.  When accompanied by a supporting activity... bam!  An information gap.  Exploit it.

 4.  Simulations with different mindsets.  Six Thinking Hats was first written 13 years ago by Edward de Bono.   History has shown that it is largely false; people are simply not that consistent.  If you have not heard of it, he proclaims that lifestyle and values determine approaches to a problem.  Mr. de Bono defined six different thinking styles including speculative, creative, and emotional.

But while it may be useless as a determiner of personal values, it is helpful in training to create differences of opinion.  The lesson is quite simple... the trainer gives the learners a routine situation and assigns various roles based on the various mindsets.

An example of all combined:

You are tasked with assessing a bid for Russia Railways.  (This is a realistic role-play)

  • Give mindsets to various students and initiate a webquest. (Naturally, the roles are targeted.  But this lets the students hide a bit with plausible deniability.)
  • Due diligence:  What did you find?
  • Additional research:  Send groups to watch and report on various videos about the subject.
  • Agree on the overall need/benefits
  • Divide project tasks based on need.  This can go on for several lessons.


Creating an information gap within in-company courses is simple and easy to do.  But the even easier communication gap between trainer-students is a default setting of teachers.  The basic factors to a successful role-play is a data gap, a difference in purpose, and various approaches to a problem.  At the same time, we need to remember that the learners need a certain buffer or plausible deniability.  After all, their value to the company depends on how much they know.

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