Tip #550: Something New: Thin Slicing

“He who wishes to teach us a truth should not tell it to us, but simply suggest it with a brief gesture, a gesture which starts an ideal trajectory in the air along which we glide until we find ourselves at the feet of the new.” Jose Ortega y Gasset

Curriculum designers often take a large topic and “chunk” it down into smaller more bite size pieces that become distinct modules in a training program. We know that the brain cannot process a lot of information at one time, so this makes perfect sense.

For example, we want new business owners to learn the skills they need to develop and sustain a successful business. So we create modules that each focus on a different skill set: managing finances, managing staff, marketing the business, funding the business, setting quality control systems in place, etc.

Then we walk the new business owners through each module in a linear fashion, one step at a time, from the definition of relevant terms to a check for comprehension and, if skill development is the goal, to application of that skill in a practice session. If attitude change is desired, we have them analyze of the benefits of the change or the consequences if the change is not implemented.

If there is a need to take the learners more deeply into the topic, we may ask them to evaluate a situation against a given set of criteria, or give them an opportunity to create something new, based on what they have learned.

There is nothing wrong with this approach. It is time-tested and works very well. Since the curriculum incorporates learning activities that enable the learners to both develop and demonstrate their new learning, we can observe its effectiveness throughout the course of the training.

But what if we took a completely different approach? What if, instead of breaking down a topic into “chunks, “we built up to the topic using “thin slices”?

Stephen J. Meyer is the CEO of the Rapid Learning Institute. In his blog: Thin Slicing as a New E-Learning Strategy, he explains how thin slicing can be used in curriculum design.

He begins by referencing the fact that Malcolm Gladwell popularized the term “thin slicing” in his book, Blink. Gladwell used it to describe the brain’s ability to “intuitively spot ‘thin slices’ of experience and, with very limited information, draw powerful and surprisingly accurate conclusions.”

Meyer then explains that: “We have hi-jacked the term, altered its meaning a bit, and applied it to learning. Thin slicing is about isolating thin slices of learning and delivering powerful insights from very limited information.”

How does this work? Meyer cites a Dartmouth University study that revealed that charts and graphs are the most effective way to persuade people of facts that contradict their core beliefs. This is due to the fact that the brain trusts visuals more than words.

This insight was delivered to salespeople in a 7-minute module. They immediately realized that they needed to change their word-laden sales presentation.

In essence, that one fact lit a match that ignited an immediate fire of intention and action. This thin slice introduced one concept that changed one behavior and led to one outcome.

I have actually used thin slicing in my train-the-trainer classes, albeit unconsciously, when I have introduced the idea that the memory is emotional. I have the trainers close their eyes and imagine going on a vacation. After that, we discuss the fact that many of their senses were engaged (sight, sound, feeling, possibly even taste and smell), but they did not see any words in their visualization. The insight they take from this “thin slice” is the need to incorporate experiential learning activities if they want their learners to remember what they learn in their classes.

I could see using this “thin slice” to begin the learning activity design portion of a train-the-trainer program. I’m not sure how “thin slices” would work from that point on. For example,

simply having the insight that learning requires engaged senses does not automatically lead to knowing how to design learning activities that actually engage the senses. Or at least my linear brain can’t conceive that it will.

I can see how a “thin slice,” a compelling fact, might result in an “a ha!'” moment. I can’t see how that necessarily creates the knowledge and ability to act on that insight.

What do you think?

May your learning be sweet.


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