Questions are a Gift-Wrapped Opportunity


When I was in public education and started delivering professional development presentations and lessons to other teachers, I found myself nervous. I wanted to do a good job. I wasn’t sure I had enough experience. Many of the teachers I was presenting to were much older than me.

I was also nervous about being asked a tough question.

This fear was born out of two things. First, I was a bit of a hot-headed young professional, and relished asking hard hitting questions, sometimes just to be the person who asks hard questions (oops).

The second reason, is because I saw questions as a test, as a challenge, to the authority of the speaker.

I was quite wrong.

Questions, even tough ones, are gift-wrapped opportunities for any trainer, speaker, or leader. Consider the following:

  • Questions are a wonderful example of engagement. Whether you’re leading a presentation, lesson, or meeting, you want your attendees to learn. Learning increases with engagement, and questions are a high form of engagement. This is a good thing!
  • Questions help innovate. Everyone has blind spots in their understanding of a topic. Questions can help identify these blind spots, bring new ideas to the table, or approach a problem from a different perspective.
  • Questions tell you where you went wrong. As a leader, trainer, or presenter, your job is to lead others on a journey from where they are, to where you want them to be. Questions help jump-start those who fell off the cart on the journey, get them back on track, and help you become more effective.
  • Questions, or how you respond to them, set culture. Imagine an effective culture for your environment. Is fear, anger, sarcasm, or apathy a part of that environment? Probably not. How about enthusiasm, respect, energy, or collaboration? How you respond to questions sets the culture for your setting. Your response to questions should model what you want to see out of others.

Finally, it’s okay not to know an answer to a question! A question you don’t have an answer to is an opportunity to learn, innovate, and build a culture of knowledge. Modeling this learning, in the face of uncertainty, is imperative for any trainer, teacher, or leader.

A Little Something Extra


One of the things I learned early in public education, is that students respond well to rewards. Positive reinforcement, such as prizes, gratitude, extra recess, free time, and treats always lifted my student’s spirits.

Believe it or not, I also saw a positive correlation between rewards and learning retention with my students.

So I used rewards as a classroom strategy.

And I used them a lot.

To be honest, some days I just wanted to have a calm classroom. Other days, I targeted a specific learning or procedural outcome, with the reward used as a tool for motivation.

Feeling Good about Learning Tools

In the adult learning space, we use something called the Kirkpatrick Model to determine the effectiveness of a learning tool.

At the base level of Kirkpatrick’s model, the reaction of the learning participant can be measured in many different ways – one of which, is enjoyability.

Was the learning tool enjoyable to interact with?

Was the training enjoyable to engage in?

Think of positive responses to these questions as a door opening. Once this door is open, it allows for learning, knowledge accumulation, and behavior change. If a participant doesn’t engage with a learning tool or training in a positive and enjoyable way, the door stays closed and learning won’t occur in the first place. Without learning, knowledge transfer can’t occur, and behavior change is unreachable.

A Little Something Extra

So what does this mean? To put it simply, if a participant enjoys a training, they are much more likely to learn from the training.

When I hold trainings, or build a learning tool, I try to keep this in mind. I always try to include something extra for the learners, to make them feel better about the process. In a webinar style training, that could be an FAQ document provided at the end. With in-person trainings, it could be candy dishes available for the participants.

Whatever it is, giving something extra can make for a more enjoyable experience – which translates to better learning outcomes.

Lessons from a Middle School Classroom: What are we Doing Today?


I taught Middle School for almost a decade. Even though my first day of teaching was in my early twenties, I still remember those first moments. I was standing in the front of my room, cleanly shaved, and wearing a tie. I was proud – I had done it! I was a teacher.

Then the bell rang, and 850 Middle School students flooded the halls.

Earlier in the week, I had confided with a few veteran teachers. I told them that I was nervous about how to handle student behavior. My colleagues assured me that “it would be fine,” and that Middle School students are angels during the first few weeks of school. As those 850 Middle School students flooded the halls of the first day of school, all the confidence and pride I had turned to jelly in my stomach.

“Where’s my locker?”
“Who are YOU?”
“What are we doing today?”

A cacophony of questions, and a bit more cussing than I had anticipated, accosted me from all sides.

I was able to sort everything out in those first few minutes. I made it through my first day, then my first week. Over the next eight and a half years, I thoroughly enjoyed teaching. But it was one of the questions I was asked on my first day, that stuck with me, and made me a better teacher.

“What are we doing today?”

When it comes to learning, people learn better when they know upfront what they are supposed to learn about. I learned quickly, that to get the best possible learning experience for my Middle School students, I needed to answer that question at the beginning of every class.

“Today, we’re going to learn how to sketch a design from Bird’s Eye View.”

 When I started teaching at workshops and conferences, I found that question was just as important.

“Today, we’re going to learn how to use game mechanics to increase motivation from your students.”

The same holds true outside the Middle School classroom, in what I’m doing today. If I’m running a meeting, presenting an idea, or training on a new feature, learning improves when I start by answering the question:

What are we doing today?

A New Look at Professional Development


One of my focuses in 2020 is to commit to professional development time.

I started 2019 with a strong professional development goal, but it soon dropped off and made way for, well, work. After a workshop I attended a few months ago, I realized that I was doing myself a disservice by not maintaining that professional development time. Here is my plan to attack this gap in my own growth as an instructional designer.

Put it On the Calendar

First, I am going to explicitly schedule time for myself, and put it on the calendar, repeating, throughout the year. If I don’t do this, it’s just too easy to skip, or have something else take its place.

My initial goal was to spend a small amount of time daily, related to professional development. After thinking more about it, I believe my time would be better served if I commit 1 hour a week to growing a skill of some sort. This way, I am less tempted to skip, and I have more time to focus and dig into deeper content.

I’ve recently started tracking where I spend my time while working. Looking at the past month, I believe 1 hour a week is more than doable.

Engage with other Instructional Designers

I am fortunate enough to work with 3 other incredible, talented, and brilliant instructional designers. Not only do I view my teammates as the pinnacle of professionalism – but each one of us has different areas of strength and expertise.

One of my teammates has incredible systems knowledge, team management skills, and very (very!) high aspirations. Another of my teammates has great experience in the industry, and an unwavering commitment to creating and following effective processes. Yet another teammate has an incredible eye for design, and is always on the cutting edge of new trends and tactics when it comes to e-learning.

Not only can we learn together, but I believe we can learn from one another. This, I think, is one of the greatest strengths that my current company can offer all of us.

My Plan

My plan is to block off two different times on my calendar each week. One time block will occur on the second and fourth weeks of each month. This time block will be a meeting time with my teammates. The idea is that we’ll meet together, and share best practices and resources around a single, narrow topic under the umbrella of Instructional Design. The other time block will occur on the first and third weeks of every month. This is individual research time, devoted to the topic we will be discussing as a team in the following week.

I sent an email to my teammates earlier this week, suggesting this format. It was met with energy and optimism – and I would expect nothing less from my teammates. But I don’t want this time to become a worthless meeting – I want to make sure that this time is valuable to all of us.

So I’m still figuring out exactly how our meeting will run. Right now, I’m leaning towards giving everyone 15 minutes to share resources, ask questions, lead a discussion, etc. That way, each one of us can create, or find, the value they want from this professional development session.

Share Your Knowledge

Have you done something similar to this in the past? I would love to hear your experiences with collaborative professional development. Share what you’ve done, so we can learn more together.