Even Socrates went to the Marketplace: Soft Skills for ISDs and Other Thinkers

Like many intellectuals and creatives, we ISDs tend to be a bunch of beautiful eccentrics. That’s a great thing: our perspective—dare I say genius—is what gets us invited into some of the most interesting and complex discussions. Those are fantastic places to be—until we don’t get invited back.

Why does that happen? Don’t our colleagues and clients value our passion and expertise?

Yes, and. Yes, they value our work, and they value it even more when they experience us as approachable and easy to work with.

As many of us discovered in middle school, the deepest thinkers don’t always project well socially. When we become engrossed in a project, or revved up about an idea, we’ve been known to bypass a few social norms. We don’t mean any harm; it’s all part of the passion we invest in our work. But our colleagues and clients may be put off by what they view as disrespect for process—and people.

We can nurture relationships without fundamentally changing our strange, beautiful souls. It just takes some empathy with the folks around us—and a couple of minutes to reflect. Asking myself following four questions has helped me remain humble, honest, and included in conversations I care about:

Are you on time?

Inspiration doesn’t happen on demand, but you should be able to estimate how long a deliverable will take to complete. Offering a reasonable estimate and following through is a straightforward way to endear you to any project manager. If you’re struggling with a deadline, communicate: the sooner, the better.

If, like me, you frequently find yourself in a quandary between two or more treatments, write the options into your high-level design. Your client will appreciate the extra thought you put into the project and the engaging discussion that ensues from weighing both options.

How—and how much—are you speaking?

Heavy citation of theory and other academic flourishes not only alienate business partners, they also erode their trust. Intellectualization is called a defense mechanism for good reason: it keeps others at bay. Try saying, for example, “We know people tend to remember the first and last things they learn,” rather than referencing the primacy and recency effects. The most intelligent people are able to adapt their idiom so that others feel comfortable, not condescended to.

Also consider how much you’re speaking: it’s natural to hold the floor while you’re presenting, but are you holding it hostage? The meandering, philosophical conversations we enjoy among our peers often sound dull and navel-gazing to clients. Worse, it gives them opportunities to veto ideas at the brainstorming stage, before we have a chance to polish them. Unless it’s a designated ideation session, resist the urge to pontificate in front of clients.

Are you fighting for face time?

Account and project managers are specialists, just as we are. They have a clearer sense of the client’s budget and risk tolerance, because they’re constantly taking the pulse of the relationship. We need to hear and incorporate their insights: they play a critical role in a client’s acceptance of our recommendations.

If your account team wants to present a learning design to the client, your job is to give them the tools to do so—not fight to be the “sage on the stage.” Trust their reading of the relationship, and make sure they understand the rationale behind your design.

If you’re frequently excluded from meetings, consider the possibility that your presentation style may not sit well with the client. Try asking your internal team for constructive feedback and rehearsing with them before your next client-facing presentation.

Do you pay your debts?

It’s important to acknowledge the shoulders we stand on. Those of us who work in a corporate environment enjoy job security founded upon contracts negotiated by others—and resources that cushion us from losses. Those in business for ourselves depend on our clients’ willingness to invest in our ideas and take risks. You can pay subtle homage by using “we” language in meetings and referencing conversations you’ve had with your team and client to underscore your respect for their contributions.

When you’re rewarded for a great idea or a successful implementation, enjoy that recognition: you’ve earned it! But stay humble. Success is fleeting, and it owes as much to business, economic, and global factors as it does to individual expertise. We may be thinkers by trade but, without a market, our craft would have no audience. Even Socrates, the quintessential teacher, philosopher, and questioner, had to hawk his learning programs at the agora. Appreciate everyone who sees the value in your work—and helps you sell it.

Tiffany Vojnovski

The idea that school could be different first came to me—as did most risky ideas—through fiction, specifically Notes on the Hauter Experiment, a futuristic novel set in an automated boarding school. Screens replaced teachers, and flashing lights cued students to move to their next class. Those who disobeyed were punished with grating alarms and foul odors. Whether the author, Bernice Grohskopf, had a background in instructional design or simply excelled at reimagining the boarding-school bildungsroman, one thing was clear: school was ripe for an LX intervention.

I didn’t revisit the idea until I joined the New York City Teaching Fellows program; but this time, I was the teacher instead of the reader. Via a fast track to certification, I was charged with teaching in one of the highest-needs schools in the country. My challenge was to boost students’ achievement by several grade levels while adding rigor and interest to the high-school English curriculum. After a lot of trial, error, and reflection, I learned how to help my students succeed. However, I never felt comfortable enforcing the poorly thought-out procedures and meaningless paperwork our school leadership imposed upon students. I believed in the value of knowledge, and to organizations devoted to learning and exploration. What I wasn’t sure I believed in were the virtues of going through the system in a single “right” way.

If anything positive came out of my complicity with the school’s—and district’s—lamentable LX, it was the empathy I developed for my students. If their job was to learn and follow the rules, my job was to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Any procedure that caused confusion about what to do when they entered class, where to find learning resources, or how to turn in completed work needed to be redesigned. When students arrived in a classroom designed for professional learning, they acted—surprise!—like professional learners.

My commitment to LX has been the link between my teaching and instructional design practices. Rather than despair that learners aren’t who we want them to be—more literate, more professional, more successful in whatever way we value—we should design learning tools that make these ends accessible. Learners themselves can teach us how: thanks to the design thinking model, we have a series of steps for engaging learners in empathy interviews and quickly prototyping solutions that might help them.

It’s easy to view the learner as a faceless cipher sitting at the other end of an eLearning module. However, once you meet someone face to face, you can’t help but care about their experience. Not every learner is skilled in metacognition or speaks the language of academia, but all learners can tell us, in their own idiom, about the obstacles and fears that trouble them—and the interventions that would improve their lives.

Learning is more than a system of rewards, punishments, and behavioral cues meted out by machines. My commitment is to maintain an open mind and to treat every learner as a sympathetic character.
Tiffany Vojnovski

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