By Donna Boyette

Trainers who find it easy to invent creative concepts to use in technical training classes sometimes find it difficult to initially grasp technical material themselves. I fall into this technically challenged group, although, as a technical trainer, it is dangerous to admit.

The reverse is also true. The technically gifted often have a hard time using or designing creative material. Some technical trainers cringe when asked about incorporating these types of creative exercises.

“Tinker Toys?” one trainer said, his face looking like he had just gotten a mouthful of brussels sprouts. “Yeah, I tried that, but I…” and he trailed off as his expression worsened trying to articulate the emotion.

Just as learning technical concepts and processes hurts the brain of the technically challenged, creativity must hurt the brain of the technically gifted.

However, creative exercises can help students retain more information by capturing their attention. In this article, I will discuss how you can introduce your students to the types of creative activities that are both fun and educational.

Toys, crafts, and imagination
Letha Costin, a training manager at WorldCom, has a training style that I admire. I asked her if she used creative exercises in her classes when she first began teaching.

“No, at first I didn’t know to,” she said. “But it certainly did alter the ability of students to learn once we incorporated the hands-on exercises.”

Costin uses Tinker Toys when teaching technical subjects to adults. She has students build their own “circuits” using labeled and color-coded parts to represent the components of a voice or data circuit.

I use the cut-and-paste method in a similar exercise in which students use clip art and colorful shapes to represent the various sites along a circuit route. The students must also label the equipment used to transmit data for a DS0 (Digital Signal Zero) versus a T1 circuit. It’s fun to watch the various stages of the learning process take place.

My toolbox includes pre-cut clip-art computers and other equipment along with colorful triangles, squares, and rectangles made from construction paper. The students use scissors, glue, and markers to “build” their “circuits.” I have them start from scratch, so they discover how much they still don’t know. Later, I give them diagrams to help them along.

As students ask questions and get answers during the initial discussion, they say, “Oh, OK, that’s how that works.” But when asked to physically re-create what they have learned using paper and glue, they say, “Now, where does this go?”

A second “aha!” takes place when the creative activity begins. The knowledge is embedded a little more deeply, becoming learning that sticks.

How creativity helps the learning process
Mike Metivier of Metivier and Associates, Inc. believes that one of the primary reasons creative exercises work is the use of analogy.

“Using mental models that are already established is a much more efficient way to teach,” he said. “Because the mental model already exists, you can simply say, ‘This is like this.’”

I used the analogy of neighborhoods and highways to create “The Great Telecom Jewel Heist” mystery to test knowledge after teaching the difference between private line and Frame Relay circuits.

In this interactive exercise, the suspects have alibis that place them in one neighborhood or the other, and students must determine whether the suspects could have been near the scene of the crime. One alibi involves driving along T1 Highway, exceeding the speed limit of 1.544 Mbps, so the suspect couldn’t have been near the crime scene, where the speed limit is only 64 Kbps on DS0 Highway.

One student said she would always remember which direction the CSU/DSU faces because she figured out how Albert stole the jewels from the CSU/DSU safe. Her comment reinforces Metivier’s theory of mental models.

“Mental exercises can be very powerful when, through the process of discovery, they link new ideas, information, or concepts to what students already know or believe,” Metivier said.

Costin uses the analogy of a railroad station and assigned seats on railway cars to represent digital cross-connect assignments. When I used her PowerPoint presentation in class, my students had that first “aha!” as they visually worked through which rail connections they would have to make to reach their destinations.

But, I goofed. I tried to save time by leaving out the hands-on activity, so the knowledge didn’t stick. Next time, I will hand out the worksheet and ask my students to play a game that is challenging and linked to the subject matter, with seating assignments and connections exactly matching the format of actual multiplexing assignments.

Costin explained how playing this game had benefited her students.

“They didn’t understand digital cross-connect and multiplexing until after that exercise, and they had been in the industry for years,” she said.

Playing with the information makes students more comfortable with new concepts.

“It’s not so intimidating,” Costin said.

“They’re not just using words they don’t really understand.”

Putting it into practice
How can you maintain the technical expertise you need while adding the creativity needed to help the learning stick? Here are a few ideas:

  • Identify the students who just aren’t getting it. They could be just the ones who can design a creative way to explain the subject.
  • Ask a creative coworker to help. Someone with a lot of toys on his or her desk may be just the person you need. Have this person sit in on your class and learn the basics and then design and facilitate the creative exercise.
  • Be careful not to judge too harshly. Remember that if you are in the technically gifted camp, you probably won’t like anything the creative folks invent. Do, however, be certain that the exercises relate to the subjects you are teaching.

Don’t forget the techies
Some technically gifted students in your class may reject the idea of using the paper and glue learning method. You can offer these techies the option to do some research while the others are cutting and pasting. He or she can then present new information to the class after the others explain their work-of-art circuit diagrams.

After a time, you might find that creative ideas start occurring to you as you develop new training materials. This will make everyone’s job easier because when technical trainers become more creative, creative students can become more technical.

Donna Boyette is a technical trainer for WorldCom.

What part of your classes do your students enjoy the most? Do you use creative exercises to explain a complicated subject? Send us an e-mail and we will share your thoughts.