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ATD Blog

Multiple choice or Multiple strategies


Fri May 26 2006


This week in a delightful discussion group called Business Creativity (an international but essentially Indian Yahoo group focused on Human Resources), the moderator challenged the list with a multiple choice question in the form of a human resource case study problem (essentially, whether or not to grant paid leave to Don, an employee seeking to further his education on company time). This provoked some interesting feedback, but most of the contributors stayed strictly within the implicit reasoning of the initial choices.

I saw this discussion as an opportunity to review some of our classic pedagogic strategies and made the following reply, highlighting some points about formal and informal learning as well as CoPs:


I see this exercise as a first phase of creative thinking, and this for three reasons.

  1. As in most multiple choice questions (and many case studies) there is no developed context, which means the intangible, invisible aspects of social reality are absent and we are condemned to work at the level of abstract principles, which never apply "cleanly" to reality, but do provide some "reasoned guidelines" (unfortunately in our pedagogical tradition nobody ever makes this capital point about the relativity of the principles we are meant to learn).

  2. In people management, there are plenty of wrong answers but never a totally right one (precisely because of context), yet multiple choice in the teaching-learning tradition leads learners to believe, first, that there is one right answer; second, that the trainer knows that answer; and third, that we will "know" that answer for eternity at the end of the exercise.

  3. Multiple choice questions limit the horizon if we use them as a strict frame for reflection, but their value can be to open the horizon by showing that there are indeed multiple possible answers. They can start the brainstorming process going by challenging people to imagine the variables of context that will influence the best selection of strategy. Doing it in multiple phases, as is the case here, is one way of opening the horizon.

In other words, questions like this can be a springboard for creativity so long as we accept to think outside of the box and even aim precisely for that by pushing the cases further and, if need be, to their breaking point. Two of the techniques we use in training where an activity starts with a multiple choice are:

1. to use it to brainstorm on ANY and ALL kinds of similar cases within the experience of the group of learners, who then must account for as many elements of context as possible (including, for example, personality issues, social networks, etc.), all of which allows us to discover the importance of these "social reality" issues. In other words, the learners fill in the missing context from the initial case by relating it to real, known contexts. This actually helps, on another level, to build group and individual confidence and to create the reflex of relating what would otherwise be considered as "canned wisdom" to their own very real human context.

2. to go back through a deconstruction phase and find out why each of the initial choices was proposed (i.e. what kind of reasoning lies behind them -- including the good reasons that lie behind faulty choices -- but also, what was the didactic strategy of the author of the question! - a process which often makes people think on a different and highly stimulating level).

These are processes that work well within a group of learners in a seminar but aren't easy to apply in an online discussion group, where the level of mutual knowledge and personal trust is impossible to assess. They also work well in CoPs (Communities of Practice), which is the major theme I'm now working on, in conjunction with informal learning. As a case in point of the deep compatibility between formal and informal learning, multiple choice questions -- the simplest of teaching tools -- are highly formal but can provide occasions for lively informal learning. We maintain, of course, that in all configurations people learn mostly from informal exchange, but -- as Jay Cross, the leading light on the subject, insists -- that formal learning can be structured in such a way as to encourage it. Unfortunately, that still rarely happens.


At the end of the day, my answer to Don (in my own context, not the abstract one proposed in the question) would be to throw two questions back to him: what do you need to learn and what are you expecting to learn from the course you want to enrol in? I wouldn't try to dissuade him from taking the course (and discussing how that fits in to his work schedule), but I would try to better understand what his goals are and how they correlate with mine (i.e. the organization's). I would use the knowledge gained from this exchange to understand in what form what he needs to know professionally exists (or fails to exist) in our real work context. I would then look at ways in which three separate things can happen:

  1. How to make more explicit within the workplace the "knowledge" or skills he's hoping to acquire.

  2. How to foresee support within the workflow for what should have been learned in the formal phase (to avoid the highly predictable loss of formally acquired knowledge).

  3. How existing social networks (determined through ONA, Organizational Network Analysis) can be used to support, develop and share this kind of kind of knowledge in informal settings.

This would probably lead to the definition of one or more CoPs, as well as the integration of Don into one of them.

Of course, everything I've said above focuses only on the learning side of the problem, which certainly wasn't the initial intent of the question. But I hope this serves as a demonstration of how something as formal as a Multiple Choice Question built around a specific learning point (in this case, how to manage work time in relation to personal and organizational goals) can stimulate creative contributions. That works, of course, only if the trainer's attitude is also creative. Unfortunately, many trainers are still thinking in terms of pre-established "teaching points" and fail to recognize what I would call "lateral wisdom".

There's increasing reason, however, to believe the old school is losing ground and new approaches to learning -- first as a complex personal, social and professional goal, then as a process -- are truly emerging. The process has always been put first, but the priority of goals is finally being recognized, at least in some quarters. And that should lead to some unexpected new conclusions.

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