Putting Momentum in Your Instruction (Part 2)

Momentum is mostly about keeping a rhythm. You can easily put rhythm into your lessons by thinking in terms of directional signs and changing landscapes on a good road trip.

Momentum is a beautiful thing. On a drive across the country, it’s the reassurance of signs that prove we’re getting closer and closer to our destination. In a classroom, it’s the student’s sense that a lesson is moving along in a noticeable way.

Interesting instruction relies heavily on momentum, the second of the four factors I’ve found in interesting learning environments. Those factors are:

Children on a long road trip can lose a sense of momentum rapidly and begin pestering their parents with the old question, “Are we there yet?” They’re more concerned with arriving than going. Momentum in a good training session carries a satisfying sense of going and confidence that we’ll be arriving soon enough at each lesson objective.

Momentum is mostly about keeping a rhythm. You can easily put rhythm into your lessons by thinking in terms of directional signs and changing landscapes on a good road trip.

Posting Signs Along the Way

A detailed lesson outline is like a list of mile markers that indicate specific locations on a highway. The instructor is the only one who needs to see that much detail. Attendees just need to see occasional signs that indicate meaningful movement. Many instructors make the mistake of dumping all their mile markers into slides and handouts and having everyone read every point in unison. This creates several problems.

For one thing, attendees probably won’t stay in intellectual unison. Text is a powerful stimulus and sends people’s minds in multiple directions. If you limit the amount of text you display, you will control the focus.

Second, some people will read the points faster or slower than you do, and not hear much of what you’re saying.

Third, some attendees won’t feel a need to listen to you if you give them a handout containing everything you want to say. They can read it on their own time. (I mean, surely you have more to say than what you put on a handout or slide.)

You’ll hold attention better and keep a more unified rhythm by revealing only the most important points. These are like the signs we appreciate on the highway: “Welcome to Ohio,” “Leaving Morgan County,” “Mammoth Cave 125 mi,” “Food next stop.” They tell us we really are making progress.

Suppose you’ve been assigned to train welders in certain metals your company uses to meet a big client’s specifications. You can easily convey a sense of momentum by means of clear divisions in the lesson plan, and then sticking to them. For example:

  • “Welcome to this training. Help me make it a good one. On the table are three different metals. With your help, we’ll discuss their properties and then go outside and practice welding each metal. Let’s talk about the properties first.”
  • Ten minutes later, outside: “With the properties in mind, see which pairs of metals can be welded together. You have two kinds of welding machines you’re already familiar with, and 15 minutes to weld.”
  • Thirteen minutes later: “We’ll stop in two minutes.”
  • Two minutes later: “Stop. Please take your final products inside and put them on the table.”
  • Inside: “Now let’s find out what you learned about the welding equipment.”
  • Three minutes later: “Now let’s talk about the compatibility of the metals.”
  • Ten minutes later: “After we take a break, we’ll look at different kinds of files and grinders, and I’ll ask you which ones should be used on the welds you’ll need to make for our client.”

The above steps are simple signs you post along the way that give a continual sense of progress. Whenever you’re tempted to destroy momentum by rushing through your material, just remember this: If a piece of information is critical to your lesson, drive a signpost into the ground right then and there and give it the time it deserves. Work it. Discuss it. Take questions. Don’t just require that it be memorized.

Changing the Landscape

Signposts are not enough. A good lesson needs something interesting in between, just as a road trip is more enjoyable when it has a variety of scenery and terrain. If only my drive to the Texas panhandle had been that way.

I like the rise and fall of the forested roadways of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Southern Indiana. I like the zig-zags, tree lines, and steep grades of the Rockies and the high Andes. I love the winding rough coast of Maine. So I almost died of boredom when I drove from Indiana to Amarillo, TX, by way of the Great Plains. The flat, featureless landscape along the interstates of West-Central Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma created a perpetual moment of non-experience in which I felt as far from Amarillo as I could ever be, no matter what the signs said. There just wasn’t much going on in between.

You can add landscape to a lesson by changing content, method and the room configuration. Here are a few examples:

  • You could put the table with the three metals on it at one side of the room before the session. Then, after a brief start at the front of the room, you could ask everyone to turn their chairs toward the table, where you walk over and begin a discussion on the metals.
  • Going outside to weld is already a change in landscape.
  • Giving the trainees a hands-on task is, too.
  • So is having the trainees take their products back inside.
  • Before sending them inside, you could let the trainees tell what they learned about the welding equipment, like a good show-and-tell.
  • Then everyone could go inside and discuss the compatibility of the metals. One person could hold the welding samples, while the people who made them pointed and explained their findings.
  • Afterward, trainees could gather around the table and examine each other’s work more closely.

Don’t overthink momentum. It’s mainly a matter of rhythm. Information overload will kill it, and a respectfully paced quantity and variety will nurture it. When you safeguard momentum, you are telling your people that their time is safe with you.

Max T. Russell has specialties in educational media and human learning and memory. His e-book, “How to Be an Interesting Teacher: Mastering the Four Factors of Interesting Learning Environments,” is on Amazon. You can contact him at maxtrussell.1@gmail.com.

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