Years ago, I heard a story about someone being a first-time swim coach and realizing there were two different approaches to take – teaching swimming or preventing drowning. As a result, I wrote: “Are we teaching swimming or preventing drowning?” on a sticky note that I’ve kept over my desk. I keep it there, because I think this is a great analogy for learning. There are a lot of learners out there drowning in information. Think about learning to swim. If someone had tried to teach you multiple strokes in your first class, you would have drowned!
There’s a reason why the first things they teach you are to float and hold your breath under water. Before you can even begin to learn, you need to overcome whatever fears you might have. Only after you get past those primal fears is your brain settled and open enough to learn. Even if the consequences are not as dire as drowning, people still have a lot of anxiety around learning and change. We have to recognize and deal with that first.
You also have to master the basics like how to dog paddle and holding your breath before you can even comprehend how the breast stroke works. Mastery does not happen in your first class, so create an environment where people can practice and build their learning towards mastery over time. The training environment should be a place where it is safe for people to fail and provide enough support to keep learners from drowning until they master the basics. Only when they are confident in their basic abilities can they move on to deeper topics.
However, don’t be afraid of challenging people. It may be a little uncomfortable for them initially, but when they don’t drown, they will appreciate that element of pressure in a safe environment versus encountering it out in the real world. There are pssures in the real world, so those need to be acknowledged and incorporated. Learners must be sufficiently prepared for them. If all you ever ask of people is to tread water, they might not drown, but they will never actually learn to swim.