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Mind-Blowing Lessons From a High School English Teacher

Thursday, October 24, 2019

I recently attended a conference solely focused on gamification in learning. As a custom e-learning development firm, we’re always interested in how organizations engage with learners. We often attend training that stretches our thinking. What I didn’t expect was to be utterly overwhelmed by a high school English teacher.

John Meehan, author of EDrenaline Rush: Game-Changing Student Engagement Inspired by Theme Parks, Mud Runs, and Escape Rooms, challenged my way of thinking with a few pointed questions. John is a teacher as well as a teachers’ coach who works with educators to expand their idea of what’s possible in a classroom. He starts his first coaching sessions with a couple of (mind-blowing, challenging, and dare I say genius) questions. The conversation goes something like this:

John: Are your students required to be in your classroom?
Teacher: Yes.
John: If they weren’t required to be in the classroom, would they show up?
Teacher: Um, I don’t know. . . . Probably not.

Let’s stop there for a moment. If you’re reading this, chances are good you are in some way responsible for providing training to adults. So, let me ask you the same questions John asked but with a grown-up twist:

Are your learners required (or strongly encouraged) to take courses you are responsible for? If your answer is anywhere close to “yes,” answer this one: If they weren’t required to be there, would they show up?

See, it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a high school English class or a required compliance training, John convinced me that we have an obligation to differently serve our learners. We should be creating learning experiences they want to be a part of.

In John’s coaching sessions, he follows the last question with, “Why not?” So, let’s do that as well.


Why wouldn’t our learners come to our courses if they weren’t required to? I can think of a lot of reasons:

They don’t value the content. They don’t have time. They don’t immediately need the content. We could go on, but I wonder if the real answer is that they think corporate training is boring, dull, painful, useless, and so on.

I know this hurts. We’re good at what we do, right? Our content is solid. We present it in a professional and engaging manner. We’ve been recognized in our industry for what we bring to the table. I agree. We’re awesome. But so was Ms. Lamb. She was my high school English teacher, and I loved her. But Ms. Lamb was no John Meehan.

So, what’s he doing that’s so special? He’s meeting his learners where they live then pushing them beyond their comfort zones. He runs his American lit class as a massive multiplayer, yearlong game. Before you get distracted thinking you didn’t need that when you were a kid, please go back to the second question from present day: If your learners were not required to be in your courses, would they show up? Do you think that serving your learners differently could change the answer to that question?


John shared some of his students’ work. One of my favorites was a report on Dante’s Inferno as told by a young woman narrating a tour through a minecraft land she created. As she narrated the virtual tour of hell as she interpreted it, John challenged us, “Tell me she doesn’t understand this story.” We couldn’t. She got it. With every example he shared, he made that same statement. “Tell me she doesn’t understand that poem, novel, etc.”

So, you know how this works; I’m going to ask you the same thing. Do your learners do anything in or after your courses where you could confidently say, “Tell me she didn’t master that content”?

Meehan uses gamification in a masterful way. And it works. But I didn’t leave the conference thinking that gamification was the only answer. In fact, I’m more interested in the questions. How can we get people to want to be in our courses even when they’re not required?

Do yourself a favor—check out John Meehan on Twitter @MeehanEDU. He won’t disappoint.

About the Author

Amy Morrisey is the president of Artisan E-Learning and serves as sales and marketing manager. Amy started with Artisan as a contract writer/instructional designer. She was the production manager for four years and helped the team to double its capacity. As president, she stays focused on maintaining the high standards our clients have grown to expect. She believes that staying close to our clients, our people, and our work is a smart way to do that. One of her favorite things to do in the e-learning world is jump in with a client to write a storyboard that is creative and application-based. Before working with Artisan, Amy spent 17 years in corporate training and development predominantly teaching leadership development and coaching teams and executives. She currently serves on the board of ATD Detroit.

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