By Donna Boyette

For those of you who think there’s not a creative neuron in your head, I want to encourage you. I’ll bet if you follow these five steps, you can come up with one or two logical but creative and interactive exercises to make your class more meaningful to your students. They will also make your job easier.

We’ll cover how to:

  1. Choose your subject.
  2. Generate ideas.
  3. Develop your concept.
  4. Create the physical exercise.
  5. Design the flow.

Don’t worry, I’ll offer sources for inspiration when you need it.

Choose the subject
Pick one of these two questions:

  1. What is the foundation on which everything I teach rests?
  2. Is there a topic that always confuses students?

I decided to come up with a creative way to teach students how to access and use multiple systems for both reasons. New employees must learn to use numerous systems to do their jobs at my company, and they often have a hard time remembering all the steps involved.

Perhaps the foundational knowledge needed by your students to understand this concept is defined by where and how those systems impact your company’s various departments. We will use that as an example for the remaining four steps.

Generate ideas
Your first challenge is to find ideas that fit the format and limitations of your class. Taking your class on a tour of different departments might be the best way to teach them the impact their work has on coworkers, but that may not be practical. You might not have time for a tour, or the departments might be in other parts of the country. Therefore, you need a creative way to teach that foundational information.

To get some ideas flowing, find a piece of paper and a pen (or open a new document if you like, although I think there is something more inspiring about pen and paper), and give yourself five minutes to fill the paper with as many silly ideas as possible. Why try for silly ideas instead of brilliant ones? The reason is if your goal is to be brilliant, you will harshly judge every thought that occurs to you, and your list will be very short. If your goal is to be silly, one or two brilliant ideas are likely to sneak in.

Write your topic in the middle of the page and circle it. Then ask yourself, “What is this like?” and write down whatever occurs to you, in random places on the page (to facilitate the creative process).

For our example of systems training and how it impacts other departments, I circled the term “systems orientation” and generated these related terms: meetings, puzzle, training, computers, party, fit, and robots with parts.

Since this is a crucial subject, but not a very complex one, I decided to use the concept of a puzzle to create a simple interactive exercise. If I wanted to teach a lot of detail about each department, I might have chosen a party theme with small talk about job functions, or a meeting theme with agendas for each department.

If this method doesn’t generate any results, try asking a coworker for ideas or borrow (with permission, of course) an idea from a fellow trainer’s class.
Does brainstorming work for you? Do you have a formal method for sharing ideas and strategies with colleagues? Tell us how you collaborate with colleagues to get information and improve your classroom techniques.
Develop the concept
Generating an idea that works within your time and tools limitation is half the battle. A lot of your work is already finished at this point. Now, we’ll develop the concept.

For our systems training exercise, the concept of a puzzle is a simple one. You simply need to determine which departments to include and which systems should be associated with which departments.

Be flexible at this stage. If you find that the information is too involved to be included on a puzzle piece, you might want to switch to a map-based exercise, with directions to each department following the functions the system uses, and a legend describing the department functions. You could do a treasure-hunt theme with the same basic information.

You also must be careful at this stage to remember your objective for this exercise. Don’t let creativity carry you away from the necessary information. Be sure that you tie as many details as possible to the actual terms and concepts being taught.

Once you have the concept defined, including all of the terms and the rules for the exercise, move on to the next step.

Create the exercise
For our systems training puzzle, you might create a clip-art or hand-drawn design to be photocopied for each student. You could have them simply fill in the blanks as you describe each department’s function and the systems associated with it. A fill-in-the-blanks map of your building might also work well.

To make this exercise more interactive and a little competitive, laminate and cut out the puzzle pieces and have individuals or teams of two compete to see who can complete the puzzle first. The exercise will only take a few minutes, and they will be much more likely to remember what they learn than if they are simply given a list containing the information. You will also get their blood flowing, which is sometimes hard to do in a systems-training class.

Design the flow of your exercise
You might find that step five has taken care of itself by this stage. In defining your concept and creating the physical parts of your exercise, you probably developed a good idea of the steps you plan to follow in your new exercise.

Putting these steps (and any necessary instructions) in writing will help you run the exercise more smoothly and will reveal any holes that might exist.

If you can find willing volunteers, run through a few variations of the exercise to see which version works best. You also might want to have a subject matter expert review the entire package to ensure the accuracy of the details and the appropriateness of the analogy your exercise is based upon.

Formalizing your instructions has an added benefit in that you can share the entire package with other instructors in your organization.

Get started!
Now that you’ve read through these five steps, you will want to do one of two things. If there is a piece of paper on your desk with scribbled ideas for creative exercises, start creating.

If, on the other hand, you read through this information with a frown that is still there, you may need more help if you are determined to create an exercise.

I recommend two books by Roger Von Oech, A Whack on the Side of the Head, followed by A Kick in the Seat of the Pants.

Have fun creating! Your students and their managers will thank you as they find that learning with creative exercises makes the information stick.

Donna Boyette is a technical trainer for WorldCom.