The parallels between our learners and elephants

Last week I had the opportunity to spend a day at the Elephant Freedom Project in Sri Lanka. I had the opportunity to take an elephant (her name was Manika) out for a walk (kind of like walking a big, big dog), give her a bath and learn more about Manika and Asian elephants in general.

Elephant Bath

As I listened to the project coordinate, Nishan, talk about Manika, I was struck by the parallels between elephants and the learners in our training sessions. Here are five such parallels: 

  1. Sometimes they need to un-learn before learning. Manika spent 30 years in the logging industry, where she needed to obey every command or she would be subjected to harsh physical abuse. When she arrived at her enclosure at the Elephant Freedom Project, she simply stood still, waiting for someone to give her a command. It took a week for her to be comfortable enough to walk around her enclosure on her own. Too often I’ve found our learners have been conditioned to sit still, listening to a presenter without needing to engage or participate. It may be uncomfortable for them to be asked to do something (like turn to the person next to them for discussion), but it’ll be good for everyone if they can un-learn their expectation for passive learning.
  2. Sometimes they get bored. Every time we took Manika out for a walk, we needed to take a different path to prevent her from becoming bored. Apparently bored elephants are a recipe for trouble. Similarly bored learners are not what we want – whether from click-through elearning or even presentations where the engagement strategies are the same every time (presentation followed by Q&A). Need some inspiration on how to mix things up for your next presentation? Here are 8 ways to involve your learners.
  3. Sometimes extra credit is necessary. There was a point when a volunteer was asked to run ahead and hide several stashes of food in a field. Some of the food was hidden behind bushes. Other food was hidden up in trees. This was an enrichment activity – though Manika had plenty of grass and banana trees to eat (more about this in my next point), this was an activity to help keep her brain sharp. Our learners could benefit from some “all right, let’s see what you can do” activities. Perhaps these would be challenges to remember what’s already been covered (a sort of learning boost) or an opportunity to apply what’s been taught.
  4. Watch out, they can be sneaky. Apparently elephants like banana trees. And, apparently, homeowners don’t like to have their banana trees ripped out of their lawns by an elephant. During our walk, the mahout (elephant keeper) would search for banana trees that no longer produced fruit, then he’d cut it down and feed it to Manika. After devouring what seemed to be a particularly tasty banana tree, Manika seemed to wait until the Mahout was distracted, and then she reached out with her trunk and ripped another tree from the ground. Neither the Mahout nor the homeowner were happy about this… but perhaps they shouldn’t have turned their backs! There are times during presentations and training sessions when people are asked to work in small groups. While this can help facilitate the learning, it’s not “break time” for the presenter. In fact, if a presenter isn’t monitoring conversations and group work, he may not realize if his learners have questions, are confused, or simply are making plans for happy hour as soon as the presentation is over.
  5. Sometimes they don’t want to be led. One of the most important safety lessons we were given prior to taking Manika for a walk was this: elephants don’t like to follow people, they like to go at their own pace, so be sure to walk behind her. Learners like to go at their own pace, too. Presenters who present too fast may lose their audience, while presenters who go too slow risk the frustration of learners who are ready to move on. Presenters can avoid always having to “lead from the front” by offering learners opportunities to explore and interact with content on their own.

Sri Lanka is full of places where you can ride elephants or see them do tricks. As I learned at the Elephant Freedom Project, you’re not really supposed to do those kinds of things (because of the “training” the elephants are subjected to in order to perform). Similarly there are lots of more traditional professional development opportunities… but do we really want to subject our learners to that sort of “training”?

 

2 thoughts on “The parallels between our learners and elephants

  1. here is another commonality: Elephants require about 68.4 to 98.8 L (18 to 26 gal.) of water daily, but may consume up to 152 L (40 gal.).
    So we need to provide our learners lots of water….and then breaks at least every 90 minutes so they can “rent their water”.
    No sodas, just water!

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