NOTE: This week, I continue my practice of weekly excerpts from my various books. This week, the excerpt is from the beginning of Volume 1 of the Experiential Learning series.
If you’ve never designed experiential exercises–and possibly even if you have–getting started may seem quite formidable. Over the years, we’ve found that the concept of zerolevel design gets us over these startup willies, so we’re offering it as our first tip.
A zerolevel design is the simplest design that will satisfy the principal learning goals.
The idea behind the zerolevel design is to relieve, as quickly as possible, the anxiety of designing exercises.
Once you have a zerolevel design in hand, you know you can do at least a minimal job as learning leader, so you can relax and feel free to be creative about coming up with something better. You know that if you fail to come up with a better exercise, you still won’t fail in your class, because you do have an adequate exercise in hand.
1.1 A ZeroLevel Example
For instance, as part of a process improvement program, we were asked to teach how observation could be helpful. We hadn’t done such an exercise before, but we needed to say whether we would do it or not. Here’s a zerolevel design we cooked up ten seconds after we were given this goal, a design that allowed us to accept the assignment on the spot:
1. Divide the class into two groups. (In a large class, use an even number of groups.)
If you’ve never designed experiential exercises–and possibly even if you have–getting started may seem quite formidable. Over the years, we’ve found that the concept of zerolevel design gets us over these startup willies, so we’re offering it as our first tip.
A zerolevel design is the simplest design that will satisfy the principal learning goals.
The idea behind the zerolevel design is to relieve, as quickly as possible, the anxiety of designing exercises.
Once you have a zerolevel design in hand, you know you can do at least a minimal job as learning leader, so you can relax and feel free to be creative about coming up with something better. You know that if you fail to come up with a better exercise, you still won’t fail in your class, because you do have an adequate exercise in hand.
1.1 A ZeroLevel Example
For instance, as part of a process improvement program, we were asked to teach how observation could be helpful. We hadn’t done such an exercise before, but we needed to say whether we would do it or not. Here’s a zerolevel design we cooked up ten seconds after we were given this goal, a design that allowed us to accept the assignment on the spot:
1. Divide the class into two groups. (In a large class, use an even number of groups.)
 Designate the groups as A and B. We don’t tell the
groups, but A will be performing a simple process
without the help of observers, while B will be performing the same process with observers. A is the
control group.

Privately tell the B groups to chose one of their
members to observe their process.

Give each group a deck of shuffled playing cards.
(For large groups, use multiple decks.)

Tell them their goal is to sort the cards into a specified
order as fast as possible,
but with 5 second penalties for each card out of order.

Time each group as they sort the cards. When
they are all finished, have each group check another
group’s deck for cards out of order. Apply penalties
and post the net times.

Now have each group meet and discuss how they can
improve. The B group, of course, has a designated
observer who can provide information as seen from
the outside.

Shuffle the cards and have each group sort again.
Measure and post the times as before.

Using their experiences, invent principles of how
observation can help or hinder process improvement.
Now this is a very simple exercise, but it will get people
talking about process improvement. With this in your
back pocket, you can relax and begin thinking of better
things. For example, you might make adjustments to tune
this exercise–give the observers a checklist to guide their
observations; practice on sample groups to decide the best
group size and number of decks; modify the exercise for a
large class so you have groups of different sizes.
But even more important, you can put this zerolevel design aside and come up with something completely different. That’s the big advantage to a quick, zerolevel design. At the very least, it will keep you from slipping back into reading slides full of bulletpoints to a sleeping classroom.
But even more important, you can put this zerolevel design aside and come up with something completely different. That’s the big advantage to a quick, zerolevel design. At the very least, it will keep you from slipping back into reading slides full of bulletpoints to a sleeping classroom.