How to Design Engagement (and Avoid the Problem of Empty-Calorie Fun)

 

Do the Academy Awards give an Oscar for Most Inspiring 40-Second Video? Because I’d like to nominate the above video, from coach Trevor Ragan of Championship Basketball School. Suggested title: “Super-Psyched Little Dude.”

This kid is not merely excited. He is super duper excited, in a way that is both focused and contagious. A psychologist would say that he is deeply engaged. As Trevor writes, this engagement fuels a subsequent rocket-launch of learning and improvement. As it usually does.

Engagement is perhaps the most important, yet least-understood element of the talent-development process. Where does it come from? Why does it happen in some learners and not in others?  How do you sustain it?

The biggest problem, I think, lies in the way we think about engagement. Because real engagement is easily confused with its far-less-productive twin: mere fun. That confusion — which is like confusing lightning with a lightning bug — lies at the core of some of our barriers to effective learning.

We’re all familiar with classrooms, sports teams, and offices that are absolutely brilliant at engineering fun, yet far less brilliant at producing real improvement. The late coach Tom Martinez called them “ice-cream camps” — places where the focus was not truly on skills, but rather on the sweet, entertaining buffet of activities that filled the day.

So the real question is: how do you spark engagement and avoid the empty calories of mere fun? Here are a few ideas:

  • 1) Spend time designing a game that is built around the specific skills you want to teach.   Aim to place learners in their sweet spot: tasks that are not too difficult, and not too easy.
  • 2) Talk less. Real engagement doesn’t happen when a teacher or coach is talking (a recent MIT study showed that student physiological arousal essentially flatlines during lectures). Engagement doesn’t come from words, but from actions and involvement.
  • 3) Aim for swift feedback. The most engaging games are transparent: you don’t need a coach or teacher to inform you how you’re doing, because the game tells you.
  • 4) Keep it social. Engagement operates like a virus. As the video shows, small groups are a good way to increase the odds of those viruses being transmitted.
  • 5) Do the minimum: The leader’s role is to do nothing except to keep things moving. Set the stage, then back off and let it happen. A good leader’s job is sort of like cloud-seeding. You can’t make the lightning strike happen. But you can design the conditions where the chances increase.

That’s not to say that fun isn’t a vital ingredient — it is. But the key is to understand that fun should be the seasoning, not the main dish.