Setting the Course – The Importance of Destination

by Dave Thomas

Jigsaws and the Journey.

One of the activities that has seen a resurgence during quarantine is the age-old pastime of jigsaw puzzles. Since John Spilsbury’s “Dissected Maps” of the 1760s, jigsaw puzzles have ebbed in and out of popularity. Today, puzzles are primarily for entertainment and distraction rather than for their original purpose of education. As I recently watched family members building a picture of cats with feather hats piece by piece I had to ask myself a question, even as I joined in to help – how do people sustain interest in such a mundane activity without drifting into bored disinterest?

Then I realized that the answer to that question had application to Marquee’s online teaching. The most common question we receive as instructors is, “How do you keep people interested during your sessions?”. To get the answer, I reminisced about one of the smartest people I have ever had the privilege of knowing: my mom.

Frame the Day

Mom was a huge jigsaw puzzle aficionado and loved puzzles in general. In between the New York Times crossword that she completed each day and the three or four books that she read each week, there was always a puzzle on the go in our house. She had a system for puzzles and her first commandment was “Find the edges”. We dutifully assembled all the pieces with one straight edge until the square frame of the puzzle took shape. Then we were ready to start assembling.

Online classes are the same. The first thing is establish the “frame of the day”. Providing people with a sense of both objectives and limitations is key to setting up the class. We do this for Marquee’s in-person classes as well but online it is imperative that it be clear and articulated early on. Like a puzzle, knowing the dimensions of the job allows us to focus and tackle the tasks ahead.

Collect the Similar

Mom’s next directive was to collect all the similar colours and patterns into groups. By working with one group of colours on one part of the puzzle, we could make progress in an orderly way.  The odds of clicking a piece into place and the resulting “aha” moment of accomplishment is much higher with this focus.

The online classroom is the same and successful classes require even more planning than an in-person session. We always have our training days broken into 15-minute blocks but for a webinar format much of the day is even tighter with 5-minute increments of activities and objectives. With the day framed we want our participants to understand each subsequent activity with certainty and how each section of the day will fit to the next. We also want to ensure a sense of accomplishment for each segment and ensure that everyone experiences that “clicking into place” moment as they progress through the day.

For case studies, which are our preferred format for classes, this can often be challenging since teaching a case can often be freeform with lots of dialogue and ideas discussed by the class. You must channel the conversation and constantly steer in these circumstances. We will always validate a participant’s input but we have to exercise the discipline to say, “we are covering that later but right now let’s complete this”.

Keep Checking the Picture

Ultimately, it’s completing the picture that matters. No missing pieces, everything fits into place. For a jigsaw puzzle, it’s the picture on the box lid, tipped on its side like a billboard showing us the finished product. If our interest wanes, we can always glance up to remind ourselves of the goal.

The instructor performs this role in a webinar. After every work session, break, or discussion we are constantly pointing out the big picture: here is what we have done, here is why we have done it, here is the next step, and don’t forget this is where we are headed. Learning is ultimately a journey. In a virtual environment with unknown distractions, screen fatigue, and a lessening of immediate social community, keeping the participants on course is paramount. What may seem repetitive as an instructor is reaffirming and helpful for the class.

A picture is worth a thousand words but can tell a more impactful story when those pieces are aligned. And it’s that critical link that gives us the confidence to unpack our next set of “puzzles”.