Many businesses underline the importance of learning and development (L&D) in equipping and empowering their workforce. Think about how the COVID-19 pandemic nudged millions of remote workers around the globe to learn new software, pivot to new skills, and find new ways of working.

For most employees though, such lessons did not stem from formalized training programs; rather they came from collaborative learning driven by internal subject matter experts (SMEs).

Experts and collaborative learning

Having an internal SME tutor employees is a cost-effective way of spreading knowledge across the organization. Experts help companies plug gaps in knowledge or skills faster – for instance, when employees need to learn about new features, solve specific problems, become proficient in a new software, etc.

One of the best things about collaborative learning with SMEs is how it drives conversation, iteration, innovation, and feedback. This is what some refer to as the ‘learner’s mindset’. Conversely, one of the biggest challenges is getting SMEs to curate relevant lessons that impart critical skills and knowledge. For this, they must first remember what it means to be rookies, and the struggles that they faced when learning about the subject for the first time.

Rediscovering the novice state – a case study

In 2014, a student at Harvard Business School, Ting Zhang, set out to understand how can experts help novices. He arranged two tasks for his research. One was to encourage some participants to maintain diaries during their summer internships and note down milestones, experiences, and challenges. Months later, these diaries became a valuable resource for those participants or veteran interns to teach other interns. Their lessons were armed with meaningful actions around finding mentors or seeking clear explanations of job roles as opposed to vague advice.

The second task involved reshaping experts into novices, so they could recall the initial struggles of inexperience. He did this by asking one group of skilled guitarists to play the guitar with their dominant hand, another group with their non-dominant hand. The experience reacquainted the second group with the feelings of being a novice, and they were better able to advice beginner guitarists.

Here’s how experts can apply the findings of Zhang’s ‘rediscovery’ and ‘inexperience’ to create a learner’s mindset:

  • Simplify concepts: Most experts tend to focus on abstract models that pair together abstract rules. However, when learning something new, creating abstract models can confuse and frustrate learners, since they have no reference model to begin with. Thus, to simplify, experts can provide opportunity to discover, experiment, and problem-solve in more concrete and tangible ways.
  • Find tools and get help: Experts that are unsure of how curriculum development works can always seek assistance from an instructional designer. These experts can help the SME vet their content, create storyboards and engaging materials, and clarify learning objectives. All of this will help structure lessons, keep discussions on track, and guide SMEs in imparting real-world practical skills rather deep theoretical knowledge.

Applying the learnings of Zhang’s study to the business world, we see that when experts learn to be patient and empathic towards learners, they can create lessons that teach rather than preach.

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