Meaning changes with distance – learning centers around the person

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When designing a workshop, it’s important to understand distance and meaning. How people learn is affected by how close they are to the information source.

Understanding how distance affects learning means you can design workshop activities and materials that enable participants in different ways. It’s also means you can understand why your workshops can fail people who have differing cognitive capacities and cultural backgrounds so you can plan alternatives or mitigate problems.

Human centred learning

There are 3 distances that I will discuss in this post (there are others: both within a person and very far away).

People organise information relative to themselves.

These distances are all centred on the person – the learner, the participant. They are:

  • Ultra-
  • Peri-
  • Extra-

I will explain them and how I have used them in workshops.

I will do this in reverse order.

Extra-

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Extra-personal is the standard mode of teaching and lecturing. The authority figure talking from a distance with a screen or board next to them.

Authority is raised up, distanced and alone.

Most people react to this pattern by taking on their old student behaviours.

  • They pay attention (or not)
  • They sit close to the speaker (or not)
  • They take notes (or not)

It’s the classroom – a mode of learning that most people will have passed thru. They will comply (or not) dependent on childhood experiences. They will learn (or not) because of those historical experiences.

Your role, your use of slides and your use of whiteboard diagrams is always held within this pattern.

Extra-personal is powerful but it centers around the teacher and that is not necessarily good.

I still use slides a lot but that is to stop me rambling off topic. The more confident I am about a topic, the fewer slides I use. This is however, invisible to participants and thus not a good way of planning workshops. I am trying to reduce my slide use but that extra-personal authority is a strong pattern.

Watch for it in yourself and feel it. Observe it in others when you sit in an audience.

Peri-

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Peri-personal is the space around a person. It runs just beyond the person and into the space around them.

This is the classic ‘Table Activity’ space for learning. It involves furniture, shared objects and people.

The people are not necessarily the teacher. They can be other participants, other learners or just people who happen to be nearby. Those social interactions and differences change the information, the meanings and the lessons learnt.

Peri-space is one of the most powerful spaces that humans create together. It enables extended cognition and can, with good emotional support, create powerful learning experiences.

Peri-space is generally excellent for workshops and can also be good for small group talks. Sitting with people and telling them ideas is different to the whole “speaking from a distance” ideal of lecturing.

The problem with peri-space is it can go wrong due to that social interaction. Loud personalities, social discomfort and time-delimited goals can create tensions that make learning harder not easier.

This is why observation, facilitation and personal skills are so important to enabling learning in this way.

Ultra-

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Finally there is Ultra-personal space. This is literally the space on the body and held by the person.

This is the space that is closest to the person. Any information within arm’s reach and within grasp is different. The notes that a person makes, what they do in a laptop and what they make with their hands is qualitatively different to things that are spoken or shown at a distance.

This creates one of the crucial ideas of learning centered on distance from person: information can travel over the distance and change as it travels. What is shown and said by a person on stage is different to what a participant writes in their notebook. Crossing the liminal spaces of Extra-, Peri- and Ultra- changes meaning. Anchoring to the participant’s position and their sense of direction is the point. Organise in terms of their perspective, as learners, not yours, as a teacher.

Ultra-personal space is something I use more nowadays thru cards and postcards. This is because I want the person to literally feel the point I’m making and consider if it is meaningful to them.

However, there is a danger in that. Putting stuff into the Ultra-personal space requires permission and respect. Material created for this kind of work need to be able to be accepted and rejected. I found it annoying when people left things behind but I’m learning not to.

Extra-, Peri-, Ultra-

Each of these personal spaces has different strengths and weaknesses.

More than anything else, when preparing a workshop, simply recognise the spaces and how they radiate around each and every person in the room. Everyone will have a different sense of what feels comfortable, each person will have a memory of situations like this where they have loved or hated learning in the three different spaces and realise that every activity and object you create will change relative to each person and as information moves between spaces.

There is no right answer. There is awareness, observation and adaption to individual needs.

Written by

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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