Notes On… Obstacle Courses for Learning Experiences

There’s some great stuff out there on the science and structure of effective learning: concepts like constructivism; cognitive loads; and scaffolding.

But how can you design a great learning experience for people without getting lost in all the theories and models?

Here at Wavetable we love diving deep into learning science, but also find it incredibly helpful to think about our work through the lens of games.

Games are in the outputs: like the Curiosity Test we built for Amplitude’s product marketing team; or our remix of Cards against Humanity that acts as a tool to build skills in storytelling and conflict resolution.

But games are also a great way to help frame the higher level work.

Here’s an unusual game we apply to the way we approach the design of programs, workshops, and micro-learning experiences. And it comes courtesy of a French navy lieutenant.

Before Parkour

Lt. Georges Hebert

The concept of an Obstacle Course has been around a long time - since Ancient Roman times, and probably much earlier.

The term itself though wasn’t coined until the 1930s by legendary physical educator and French navy trainer Georges Hebert (fun fact: he described them as ‘un parcours’ - which led to what we now call ‘parkour’…). Hebert had his charges work hard.

Hold on a minute, though.

Barbed wire? Tunnels of mud? Rickety wooden structures that are 20ft high?

Unless you’re a real glutton for punishment, this doesn’t sound much like a game. Until you think about the other type of obstacle course - the one for kids.

These come with a multitude of colors, shapes, quirks, and surprises. Sometimes it’s a long-form outdoor activity; others it can be a simple board game where they roleplay a character of their choice.

And unlike their military namesake, these Obstacle Courses are inclusive rather than aiming to weed people out; they invite some strain, but avoid inducing pain.

What the two types of Obstacle Course do share is their audience-focused design and wide variety of modalities. They’re built to be challenging for their users - but not too challenging. They use a broad range of modes and formats to test out different abilities and keep people engaged.

As you may have guessed by now, the concept of the Obstacle Course maps wonderfully to designing experiential learning.

Build your own

Imagine your offering as an Obstacle Course. Sketch it out.

- Where is it located?
- How long does it last?
- Where are the really challenging bits going to be?
- What does the equipment look and feel like?
- When may their attention wander?
- How do people get warmed up?
- What’s in the background?
- And are there any surprises you want to spring?

Our friends Gary & Christina do a great job riffing on this concept for their $1k Kickstarter challenge:

Design an obstacle course, not a syllabus. One thing that we have validated repeatedly is that no amount of lecturing will get across the core points of this class; some things just have to be experienced. But as the instructors, we can’t fully control or design each student’s experience—rather, we have to build an obstacle course through which an experience is likely to happen.
When designing an obstacle course, our building blocks are habits, challenges, and constraints. We have learned that it’s important to keep the objectives for the students concrete, even if our teaching goals are lofty and abstract.
There is no one-size-fits-all design; instead, you have to design the obstacle course based on your setting and context. There are lots of factors to consider:
* How do you design an obstacle course that works for the whole class, when everyone is starting from a different place?
* How do you keep people moving?
* How do you build trust?

It doesn't matter if you’re starting out with one simple concept, working your way up the ranks, or are already a highly decorated general(ist).

The Obstacle Course is a powerful metaphor for all kinds of designers.

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