Lessons I’ve Learned from Thiagi

Dr. Sivasailam "Thiagi" Thiagarajan (Photo credit: BGI Photography)

Dr. Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan (Photo credit: BGI Photography)

One of my favorite mentors and colleagues, Thiagi, recently celebrated his 75th birthday. I’ve been using the occasion to reflect on some of the most important things I’ve learned from him.

A lot of people rib Thiagi for being too silly or playful or whacky or irreverent — and, indeed, he is all of those things — but when it comes to producing relevant and engaging training, he’s got a lot of great tricks up his sleeve.

Here are five of my favorites:

1 – Let the Inmates Run the Asylum

One of the first significant insights that I picked up from Thiagi, over a decade ago when I first started working with him, was this: when creating a training program, if I do all the work up front for the participants, I really do them a disservice. Here’s how he put it:

The person who learns the most in an instructional project is rarely the student. It’s usually the instructional designer. This because it’s the instructional designer who is combing through the content and trying to determine what’s most important, what’s most relevant to the learner’s job, etc. And because the instructional designer is often several steps removed from the day-to-day work of the learner, s/he’s in a terrible position to determine what’s important.

So, he encouraged me to turn over more of the work I was doing as an instructional designer to the learner.

He referred to this as “letting the inmates run the asylum” and suggested that whenever possible I should include in my designs ways to help the learners teach and test one another. This to help bring immediate, real-world relevancy to the material.

A disciple once complained, “You tell us stories, but you never reveal their meaning to us.” Said the master, “How would you like it if someone offered you fruit and masticated it before giving it to you?”

No one can find your meaning for you. Not even the master.

–A. DeMello

2 – Most of the Learning Happens During the Debrief

Thiagi’s quick to say that the content is not important (we can Google the content), and the activity is not important (if there only for the sake of activity). What’s important, for learning, is the processing of the content or the activity. He goes as far as to say that it’s patently unprofessional to offer students an activity without offering an opportunity to debrief the activity.

How does he define debriefing? Debriefing is simply thinking about your experience, reflecting on it, and answering questions of this nature:

  • How do you feel? What was your reaction?
  • What just happened? What did you learn?
  • How does this relate to the real world?
  • What if you were to do it differently, how might that effect the outcome(s)?
  • What next? How will you change your real-world behavior as a result of the insights gained from the activity?

Clients will push back about the time it takes to debrief — sometimes it takes more time to debrief than it takes to run an activity. I learned from Thiagi that it’s important to encourage clients to make time for debriefing.

Thiagi offers this rationale: “People don’t learn from experience. If they did, we’d never make the same mistake twice. They learn from reflecting on their experience.” And this mantra: “no meaningless activity for the sake of activity.”

3 – Games Help Learners Engage with the Content

I first learned about Thiagi as a games guru. When I needed a game for a course, he was my go-to guy. After meeting him and working together for a few years, I became a huge games advocate. I once asked him why he encouraged use of games so strongly. I expected a single answer, he gave me a host of them.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • Games accommodate the needs of many different types of learners
  • They make learning more active
  • They help introverted learners find ways to participate
  • They help us handle rapidly changing training content
  • They speed-up instructional design
  • Games reminds us that humans are a playing species

Remember: if you play a game, don’t forget to process it afterward. Debrief it. No activities for activities’ sake.

4 – The Four-Door™ Model for eLearning

Example screens of a course using Thiagi’s four-door model

Thiagi gave me one of my favorite models for building great eLearning. He suggested that any good eLearning course ought to have these four components:

  • Library
  • Playground
  • Café
  • Assessment Center (a.k.a. Torture Chamber)

The library contains the content of the course or module—the information required to master the learning objectives and to successfully complete the final performance test. It typically contains pre-built or existing content: videos, documents, slideshows, photos, audio files, etc. Learners are invited to study the content in any sized chunks that they prefer.

The playground contains fast-paced frame-games that provide practice in recalling and applying the content from the library. The frame-games typically require the learner to type or choose short answers. Learners can play each framegame repeatedly at up to three levels of difficulty to increase fluency.

The café contains social learning activities. One common activity is the open-question game which uses open-ended questions to encourage the learner to reflect on the content presented in the library. Learners respond to each question by typing an answer in a text box. When complete, the learner can review the answers given by experts and fellow participants. The café may also include other social-learning components such as wikis, blogs, message boards, etc.

And the assessment center — sometimes affectionately referred to as the torture chamber — contains the performance test. Typically, instead of using multiple-choice questions, the evaluation asks the learner to complete or participate in an actual job-related assignment.

You can visit any of these “doors” at anytime to complete the course. Or none at all (except the Assessment Center). You get to choose your path through the course.

I had an an extraordinary opportunity a few years back to implement a four-door program with Sun Microsystems (now Oracle). My team won a Brandon Hall Gold Excellence in Learning Award for our work with Thiagi’s model. We found that people loved this model because it gave them choices, it gave them autonomy. One of my favorite pieces of feedback about the program was that it “respects the needs of the adult learner.” I love that.

5 – Thirty-Five, the Game

Finally, I can’t talk about Thiagi without mentioning my favorite training game. Thiagi introduced me to this fun, useful, and versatile game for helping learners process content.

It’s called Thirty-Five. And it does several important things.

For the learners, it helps them…

  • think deeply about the content from several perspectives
  • build a general consensus about what was most helpful, useful or valuable about the program
  • get out of their seats and get some blood and oxygen pumping through their bodies and brains
  • have some fun

For the facilitator and/or the client, it helps them…

  • obtain a self-ranked list (ranked by the students themselves) of the most helpful, useful or valuable components of the program. Instantly.
  • plan for how to support the workers immediately following the program with relevant tools and resources
  • plan for more effective courses in the future

You can find instructions for playing this game here.

For More

Here are some resources you might find useful for learning more about Thiagi™ games, models, best practices, etc.:

On Letting the Inmates Run the Asylum –

On Debriefing –

On Games –

On The 4-Door Model –

On Thirty-Five (35) –

If you have any questions about how to implement any of these, or how to start using any of them in your designs, let us know. Be sure, also, to visit thiagi.com.

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Posted in: Analysis, Design, eLearning, Facilitation, Four-Door Model, Games, Performance, Rapid Instructional Design, Tools, Training

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