Monday, March 24, 2014

Learning through "infuriating feedback"

One of the things that I'm most passionate about doing well when designing learning is providing feedback. In immersive design, practice without feedback is useless, and often can reinforce the wrong behaviors. For example, if you're trying to perfect your golf swing, heading to the driving range and hitting a bucket of balls without the guidance of a golf pro to help critique your form may lead you to practicing a whole bucket full of bad swings. 

Yet very rarely do any of us perform a task in a vacuum; we're constantly bombarded with feedback, both subtle and obvious, that reinforces what we're doing well and discourages us from continuing less than stellar behaviors. We love hearing the good stuff, getting that positive reinforcement. In game design, quick victories are by design to make players feel good, feel confident, hoping to hook them in to continue playing even as game play becomes more difficult and complex, and victories and positive reinforcement are harder to come by. In "real life," the same dynamic exists. I love to hear the feedback of people after I speak, to hear how something I said struck a chord or helped them make a connection or see something in a different light. Even better, I love when people compliment my kiddos, as that provides me with some positive evidence from non-biased sources that I'm doing ok in the toughest job that I have.

Negative feedback, critique and even punishment surround us every day too. I am always amazed as a mom about how often I have to say, "chew with your mouth closed," or "put some clothes on," or "put your dirty laundry in your hamper, not just on the ground next to it." More subtle things, like a look from my boss or my husband, are enough to make me pause and consider what I just did to elicit that reaction. In game design, negative feedback design creates for interesting play dynamics; losing points, finding yourself in a death spiral that you just have to wait out, or an abrupt game over when you make a bad decision are all ways to provide critique to your play performance and prompt you to try again and do better.

This continuous flow of positive and negative feedback help us learn and shape our future behavior. Other factors contribute to our decision-making, but ultimately, it is the balance of potential risk and reward that are in constant competition to determine the decisions that we make, and we depend on this river of feedback to help us determine if we're on the right path.

Which leads me to the best boss I ever had. 

Imagine you're at work, managing a big project and people and faced with situations and decisions that are new to you. You have a one-on-one with your boss and you go in prepared to describe the situation and get insight and feedback on how to proceed. When you enter the office, your boss is nose to the laptop and barely acknowledges you're there. You know that you have limited time, so you ask if you should get started. "Yes, go ahead," your boss says, still not looking up from the laptop. 

You start describing the current status of and issues with the project. You describe what you've done so far to resolve issues as they've come up, and you end with the current dilemma and request advice on how to proceed. 
To which your boss replies, still not looking up, "what do you think you should do?"

Infuriating. If I knew what to do, I'd just do it! I want guidance, I want insight, I want feedback!

I had a couple of meetings that went exactly like this with my boss. Every time I left those meetings, I was pissed. How rude! What am I supposed to do? Why didn't my boss give me any advice?

And yet...

I was getting feedback. My boss was saying: "you don't need me. You actually know how to proceed. I trust you to figure this out. If you make a bad decision, that's ok, you'll come back to me and I'll repeat this again and you'll try something new, until you find the right answer."

It was these "non-feedback" meetings that gave me confidence to make decisions. They helped me learn to reflect, consider options and take my best guess. Sometimes I didn't make the best decision, but often I did. As I worked with my boss longer, our meetings became less about resolving issues and more about personal development and strategy. 

Coaches, mentors and managers can give helpful advice and guidance in some situations, but the best way they can be leveraged is to challenge you to do your own thinking and growing. When you're designing practice in immersive learning, consider designing with infuriating feedback: opportunities for reflection and safe failure. Not only will you build confidence in decision-making, but you'll be teaching leadership and reinforcing risk-taking and experimentation. 

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