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The AAA Maps Approach To Learning


Create learning programs that emulate the old-school AAA map, not the modern-day turn-by-turn GPS. The former is capable of teaching navigational and problem-solving skills, the latter will churn out a bunch of obedient zombies.

The Age of Paper Maps

I moved to the US from India in 1997, specifically to Rochester in upstate New York to study Computer Science. The internet (especially world wide web) had not yet gained widespread adoption in India, and my only source of information about the US were Hollywood and the brochures from US universities. As a result, I honestly thought Rochester was a hop skip and jump away from New York City. I mean, it was in the same state after all and wouldn't it be great to party in NYC once in a while! Sure enough, I would later find out the enormous land mass that exists between the two cities.

After a few months I bought my first car, a run-down Honda Civic hatchback, walked into the nearest AAA office and picked up a free paper road map that would guide me along the six and half hour drive to New York City. I followed the squiggly lines of the map through highways, pit stops, gas stations, tunnels, finally driving over the George Washington bridge witnessing the majestic skyline for the first time. It was breathtaking.

Along the way, I took many wrong turns and missed exits, often having to pull into a gas station to ask a grumpy attendant for directions. However, by the end of the trip, I had learned valuable navigational skills that would serve me well on all future trips. In a way I had acquired a new visual language that could help me decode the path from any two random points in the US. All I needed was the right AAA map.

The GPS Zombie-fication

GPS is one of the most revolutionary inventions of the digital age. It has alleviated the stress from those who are map-challenged and provided the foundation for driver-less cars. What it has taken away is the ability of the driver to learn navigational skills. You no longer need to know anything beyond the immediate next turn, which it will promptly shout at you enough times so it's unlikely you'll miss it. Even if you do miss the turn, it will do the mental gymnastics on your behalf to put you back on track. It will also put on a British accent to sound more didactic. We have traded learning for convenience.

The Failure of Corporate Training Programs

Most corporate training programs today emulate the GPS. They spoon feed information to you without any context. They provide no sense of direction or the over-arching objectives. They demand you click buttons in a certain sequence so that you can get from one step to the next, and there is often only one button to click so as not to tax your delicate brain. They surely test your ability to follow dumb directions, but don't bother to enable any new skills that will be needed to navigate the challenges in the real world.

Developing Learning Programs as Maps

The AAA Map should serve as a good reference point for someone creating a training curriculum for corporate employees. Here are the salient features that should be emulated:

  1. Paint the high level picture. Where is the student now and where do they need to go?

  2. Point out milestones, don't provide step-by-step directions. In other words, instead of spoon-feeding micro-level instructions, provide discrete objectives that the student needs to achieve, along with reference knowledge and tools that allows them to figure out their own path.

  3. Offer multiple pathways. In real life, there are more than one ways to solve a problem, shouldn't it apply to the training experience as well?

  4. Allow for taking wrong turns. The best way to learn is through mistakes. It is also better to trip in the safe learning environment rather than in the real world when the stakes are high.

  5. Give the student access to coaches if they hit a wall, just like the ubiquitous gas station attendants.

The GPS is great for convenience, it’s just not a good template for creating learning programs. Some times revisiting an older technology can provide valuable direction (pun intended).


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