It can’t sound like school: designing a curricular tool for real-time value.

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Written by Chris Huizenga

Recently we built a newly minted Entrepreneur’s Toolkit for Techstars, a global tech accelerator that has both start-up weekends and accelerators as programs they offer to entrepreneurs. We wrote and tested the content, designed the worksheet curriculum, curated the videos, and visually designed the site. As with most of the curriculum we design, we built with the learners in mind, and that meant thinking not only about their process but about the action they need to take at the end of the day. We consistently asked ourselves: “How do we get these start-up founders to the point of delivering their pitch to a room full of prospective investors?”

By starting at the point of action and building with these founders (as opposed to for them), we were able to understand that many of the participants in Techstars programs dislike school or some even dropped out of school at some point. They don’t want to be “assigned” to something and they don’t want to be led to learn something that they don’t find helpful or actionable.

A couple of things we reflected on as we built this toolkit:

Work from back to front.
If you’re starting to build out curriculum, or even if you have some old curriculum laying around waiting for a refresh, one thing to ask yourself is: What do I ultimately want these learners to do? Academics can sometimes overthink learning objectives around what they want students to be able to learn, which is fine if these are students who are just dabbling in the content. But if I’m an executive paying significant amounts of money to further develop the people on my team to get them mentally, physically, and emotionally invested in our success, what do I want them to actually be able to do now? Start with the end in mind, and work your way back to where your learners are. Knowing those two endpoints will dictate the route and what preparations you’ll need to make.

Design in the their voice.
You have to use the learner’s language, their nouns and verbs. And beyond that there’s a deeper connection that you must build between the learner and the learning vehicle. Building empathy for your learners, or coming at the design of the curriculum from a first-time learner’s point-of-view will shake the living daylights out of your initial curricular plan. This is where a lot of instructors and professors get stuck. They work like mad to build a curriculum tool that works, and then they keep it around for years. What ultimately happens is that they gradually lose impact with the learners as the activities or examples become less and less valuable and aligned to what they will need to make or do. You may still teach a new cohort of students to solve yesterday’s problem, but the way your learners look at that problem is not the same way your previous cohorts viewed it. It’s not the same problem. Redesign your course content to better fit the learner’s language and their point-of-view, and watch them engage the problem on their terms.

In summary, when working to build the skills, talents, and capacities for people, we are faced with a choice: Teach people so that they’re able to learn and recite it. Or, guide and demonstrate for them so they will be able to do and/or make it.

Which one are you here to do? Where are your people now, and what goal are you trying to help them reach… today?