Thinking about the empty chair
18 Wednesday Jun 2014
A couple of weeks ago I read Daniel Pink’s new book, To Sell is Human. Pink argues that all of us are in sales jobs these days, no matter whether we think we’re in sales or not. That is, our title might not be “salesperson” but most of us spend large portions of our days convincing others to do something, whether we’re writing emails, collaborating with colleagues, negotiating with our kids or spouses, or engaging in some other activity through which we’re encouraging the people around us to climb onto our proverbial bus.
Pink’s writing is engaging and the book is a fast read. And just like Malcolm Gladwell, Pink likes to present case studies to illustrate his points. In one such vignette Pink talks about Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos and how Bezos has become legendary for including an empty chair at meetings at the giant company’s Seattle headquarters. What does the empty chair represent? The customer. The empty chair encourages Amazon staffers to always think about who they’re working for; it can serve as a compass when making decisions, as in “What would the customer want?”
The concept of the empty chair is right in line with some of the human-centred design thinking material I’ve been reading these days. Design thinking encourages us to think first and foremost about our end user/client/customer/participant and their experience. While not going as far as observing the end user in the field, thinking about who’s sitting in the empty chair can help bring the spectre of the end user into the room with us, and hopefully help us to remember to keep them at the centre of our decisions.
It got me thinking about who sits in the empty chair in my fields, in facilitation and instructional design. Whose perspectives do I need to consider? Here are some ideas:
Chair #1 – The Learner
When designing lesson plans, we can certainly imagine that the learner is sitting in the empty chair. I’ve seen lesson plans – and sometimes use them myself – that have a space for not only “instructor activities” but “participant activities” too. This inclusion helps us visualize the flow of our course and concretely write down just what the learner is doing at each point in the lesson plan. For example, are they passively sitting and listening or are they engaged in conversation or in another activity?
Thinking about the learner sitting in that empty chair may help us also to consider their thoughts and feelings. What is their mood as they walk into our workshop? How are they feeling in the afternoon after a sugary cookie break? What else is going on with the learner that we need to consider?
Chair #2 – The Expert
We could also think about the empty chair being filled by the expert. Or many experts. This could encourage us, when planning our lessons or courses, to think about how to bring the knowledge of other experts in our field into our classroom, either live or through webinar or video. Or could we, as Alex Couros does in one of his “open boundary” courses, pair students with volunteer external mentors to make the course experience even richer?
Chair #3 – The Public
Another occupant for the empty chair could be the public. How could we engage the public in our courses in some way, to get their first impressions, feedback, or engage in dialogue about our topic, and bring our observations back for discussion in our course? For example, in an online course I just developed for volunteers, we asked the participants one week to practice their “elevator speech” – describing the volunteer role they were training for – with someone in their network and report back to our group on the conversation. We asked them to engage the public because we realized that the role was hard to describe and we wanted them to not only be able to describe it in their own words, but be able to answer questions from typical people on the street about what the role was in understandable ways. The public’s feedback can be so important to us as we learn how to talk about what we do or even about what we’re learning in more accessible ways.
Chair #4 – The Future Learner
And finally, another empty chair could be thought to have a future learner of ours sitting in it. Someone that hasn’t yet taken the course we just taught, but who will be in it next. In that way we can remember to evaluate our courses and ourselves as facilitators and instructors. What would we change in the course for next time? What would we change in ourselves for next time? What do we still have to learn? Closing the design loop with evaluation and making changes for the better for our future learners is not only great instructional design and teaching, it’s a way to honour our students.
Who else could you imagine sitting in the empty chair in an educational environment? Are there other people’s or group’s needs that you consider when thinking about designing curriculum, developing courses or teaching them? I’d love to hear in the comments.