The Learner’s Journey

17 May 2019 | Book Reviews

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The Learner’s Journey

by Bastian Küntzel

Books on Demand, 144 pages

This spring at the SIETAR Europa Congress in Leuven, I met Bastian Küntzel. We got to chatting about “what do you do” and “what do I do” and when I told him about my new idea to develop a method for using story structure to teach, he said, “I just wrote a book about that.” I was flabbergasted and immediately intrigued. Called The Learner’s Journey , it combines Bastian’s adult education expertise with story structure. He’d already sold out all the copies he brought and sent me a copy when he got home to Poland.

The Learner’s Journey method is based on Dan Harmon’s story structure, a Hollywood screenwriter best known for his work on the American sitcom Community. His scripts have its origins on a story circle, which is an eight-step cycle that describes the hero’s journey. The key principle of the book is that the learner is the hero. The message for the facilitator is that if you want to teach well, you must design the learning experience on the learner’s needs; you cannot be the hero. 

As a facilitator, it’s too easy to put ourselves at the center of attention. You may get top billing, but you play a supporting role. Essentially you are a sort of mentor archetype, like Dumbledore in Harry Potter. He shapes and sometimes guides Harry, but often misses the most important learning moments. The hero must experience those moments themselves in order to experience their newly discovered abilities and courage.

I love this approach in The Learner’s Journey. It’s method starts with handing the reins over to the learner. All what the facilitator can do is to provide the environment and exercises for them to have that experience in. We’re set designers, as it were.

The book deals with the issues of understanding audiences, situations, stakeholders, needs, and contexts. Understanding your learner in terms of what they need, where they are coming from, and what they will be returning to comes first. From a storytelling perspective, you cannot tell a story well until you’ve taken your audience into account. You have to understand who they are, what they walked into the room with, and how you want them to leave. If you don’t think carefully about these things, your story will be about you and not your audience. It will make you feel good, but not necessarily give them anything.

If you aren’t sure how to do this kind of foundation work, Bastian shares useful talking points points for your pre-planning meeting with a client. 

Once you’ve sorted your foundation, you’re ready to start designing the learning experience. The book moves methodically through all eight stages and describes what the learner should experience and why. It also offers suggestions, methods and activities to facilitate those experiences. I learned some new things here, for example the spaghetti tower challenge as a warm-up to help participants understand the innovation process. Watch a TED talk by Tom Wujec about why kindergartners are better than business students at this challenge and you’ll be eager to try it, too.

One thing that was an eye-opener for me was the idea that orchestration can be part of your planning. For example, if you want to change your learner’s mindset, you could alter the venue or room. Moving a group from one space to another or changing their role from audience to speaker can help learners pass from one stage of the learning experience to the next. Even a coffee break can be incorporated into the learning experience plan! This kind of thinking is wonderfully creative.

The Learner’s Journey also calls for attention to the post-learning experience stage. In other words, how do we ensure that learners have the best chance for turning their lessons learned into transformation when they return to their regular environment? It’s natural to feel inspired inside a learning experience, but hard to keep the momentum when you’re back home. We easily return to old habits, whether they work nor not. The book offers ideas about how we can facilitate learning implementation long after the participants have gone home.

Bastian ends with three concrete examples of applying these methods to create small- and large-scale learning experiences. They are drawn from full-day events. Most of my workshops are between 2-4 hours and it’s hard to imagine squeezing all of these stages into that time frame effectively. We often don’t even manage a coffee break, so I’d like to see the mini-version, perhaps something that takes into account possibilities for contacting participants before they arrive and doing follow up after they’ve gone home.

So, there you have it, somebody wrote the book I had wanted to write, and I liked it. It’s a nice read, full of useful, applicable information. I’ve already recommended it to a couple of people and don’t plan to stop. Sometimes running into someone who scooped your idea means you can have it all on paper without having to write it yourself! Life can be indeed full of pleasant surprises.

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