From jigsaw puzzles to instructional design and back

When I was a kid I remember my mom teaching me how to do a jigsaw puzzle. We’d spill all the pieces out of the box and start by looking for the edge pieces. If we saw other pieces we thought went together we’d put them in piles together but the initial focus was on the basic outline. Once we got most of that done we’d move to the middle part. We always did the outside first.

Designing a new learning event should go in a similar manner. Start with the big overview. Start with the whys. Why is this learning needed? What are the goals? And goals take many forms and layers. What are the goals of the course? If a participant successfully completes this course, what would that success look like? We are already building the assessment portion by clearly and carefully articulating the goals. But also what are the institutional goals? How does this course fit into the larger culture and ecosystem of the institution it is being presented in. And not last because of importance, but simply placement in this list, what are the learners’ goals. Why are they participating? What would success look like to them?

So again we are looking at the edges first. The beginning and end. The wrapper around the course. Once you have the structure figured out you can determine what activities will get the learners where they need and want to go. You can figure out what content is necessary to complete the picture. You can fill in the gaps.

Another way to look at this is how a jigsaw puzzle is a great metaphor for creating the best mindset for the learner. Unless you lost some pieces of the puzzles (oh, how sad that moment when you realize you have more empty spots that remaining pieces), a jigsaw puzzle has a promise of completion built into it. All the pieces are there if we just stick with it. It may not be easy. We may have to try and fit things together in various ways to find the right fit, but we can do it. If we keep trying, we can finish it. This is a concept that is ever present in games. People can fail and retry things in games again and again, because they trust that they can win. It is possible. Unfortunately, learners don’t always have that feeling that they can “win.” Does your course have a clear path to victory for the learner?

Also does the designer really get to treat the course like a jigsaw puzzle. We often talk about iterating, experimenting, and applying feedback to improve courses, but do we always do that? Sometimes it is not until we are forced to. We complete the design of a course and frame it like a work of art that must remain pristine rather than something that is ever-evolving and improving. OK, the puzzle metaphor breaks down at this point since there is generally only one right way to put the puzzle pieces together, so I guess that means we are done here for today.

Go, have fun, experiment with putting the pieces together in different ways, knowing that you can do it.