Mary Poppins and supercalifragilistic expialidocious learner engagement

When it comes to iconic figures in pedagogy, you can’t deny that Mary Poppins’ learning approaches were well ahead of the curve. Whilst watching Saving Mr Banks last weekend (if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it), I realised that there’s plenty we can learn from Mary P’s approach. She knew about everything: from gamified learning, to the endowment principle. This blog post will take a look at a few occasions on which Mary P showed us how a successful learning intervention can be done:

1. “With every job that’s to be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and – snap! The job’s a game!”

Mary Poppins is not wrong. Instructional design is critical, and your elearning initiative needs to be about extracting the ‘fun’ gamified elements from the ‘job’ that’s to be done, not the other way around! Mary P’s task-centric approach is a winner here, as she never loses sight of her learning objective (in this case, teaching Jane and Michael to clean up the nursery). It’s the journey towards it that changes. We’re feeling rather pleased with ourselves as Saffron has recently been named as one of the top 20 companies for gamification in elearning. Gamification may be a buzz word, but how can you really be sure that this week’s ‘IT system treasure hunt’ is next week’s behaviour change? Rapid engagement is one thing, but retaining these lessons is another matter altogether. We’ve learnt that if you keep your objectives in mind, you can’t go too far in this respect. The minute it becomes about playing the game for the sake of it, rather than meeting your objectives, you’re in hot water.

2. “Our first game is called ‘well-begun is half done’”

When setting out to design an elearning intervention, any behaviour changing elearning intervention needs to have a passionate team behind it, and engagement at every level of the business. This isn’t won by sitting in an office fretting about what HR directors would like from a learning intervention, but by going out and asking them! Feedback is a valuable tool. Take a look at past learning approaches that have been successful (and those that haven’t) and work from there. Moreover, if you’ve got an effective communication strategy and clear objectives in place from the very start of your programme, behaviour change will follow. It’s also important to apply this principle in your course itself. Things like a course map are often overlooked as means to an end, but if you can grab your learner’s attention with an unusual and exciting looking launch page, this will help secure that vital engagement early on. Another useful technique to apply is asking learners to complete a diagnostic at the beginning of the course. They’ll get a chance to give their opinion on the topic they’re exploring. If learners feel like they’re able to offer an opinion and think around the learning objectives, they’ll be far more likely to be engaged with the concepts they’re exploring.

3. Mr Banks: Will you be good enough to explain all this?

Mary Poppins: “I never explain anything” Here, Mary Poppins may sound rather blunt, but there’s only one way to change Mr Banks from careworn banker to fun-loving kite-flyer. That’s through letting him work it out himself. Mary recognises the importance of assigning authority to the learner, and letting them discover the truth for themselves, rather than being handed information on a plate. Learning is retained through the associations that learners make in their own minds, not those that are offered to them. Sometimes, when you’ve got a business-critical learning objective to meet, there’s a tendency to bombard learners with information, but this won’t do them any favours in the long term. Always let your learners piece their own understanding together. You should look at equipping your learners with the tools they need to develop their own understanding, because in the long term this is what will enable them to adjust their behaviour accordingly. This leads on to my final tip…

4. “I does what I likes, and I likes what I do”

Ok, so this pearl of wisdom came from Bert (played by Dick Van Dyke, with a truly atrocious accent). But, looking past the dreadful attempt at cockney-ism, he has a good point. Bert takes pride in his work as a chimney sweep because there’s an air of independence about it. Some of the most successful learning interventions we’ve made have used diagnostics, and asked learners to make choices about their areas of focus in order to win engagement right from the early stages of the learning intervention. Who’d have thought it? Mary Poppins can still teach us plenty about how to secure learner engagement. Her approach may seem unconventional to say the least (and, despite technological advances, I suspect flying umbrellas may still be some time away), but if Mary’s bold and engaging approach could transform the Jane and Michael Banks’ of this world, it’s definitely worth a try at your organisation!