Jun 27 2013

Blue Oak: Boy Scout Training as a Model of Community Creation

Over the weekend, I attended a weekend-long course for Boy Scout leaders: Introduction to Outdoor Leader Skills (IOLS). The course offered by the Twin Valley district training staff was (as expected) excellent, with a mix of lecture and hands-on (more heavily weighted toward the latter). It was very reminiscent of Scouting’s premiere course, Wood Badge. The courses share some similar methods, particularly the explicit implementation and modeling of the patrol method. The result of the patrol method is the rapid creation of a tight community of learners. This community is then reinforced through a series of events, competitions, shared symbols and experiences, and a rich history of personal recognition (today, we call this ‘gamification’).

The Patrol Method

One of the central components of the Boy Scout program is the grouping of boys into semi-autonomous teams. The BSA says:

“Patrols are the building blocks of a Boy Scout troop. A patrol is a small group of boys who are similar in age, development, and interests. Working together as a team, patrol members share the responsibility for the patrol’s success. They gain confidence by serving in positions of patrol leadership. All patrol members enjoy the friendship, sense of belonging, and achievements of the patrol and of each of its members.”

Lord Baden Powell, the founder of Scouting makes the importance of the patrol more explicit: “The patrol system is not one method in which Scouting for boys can be carried on. It is the only method.” Patrols create interdependent links between members and tie them together through shared experience. Moreover, many of those shared experiences are in the interest of accomplishing a shared objective.

The IOLS course attempts to recreate a model troop by first assembling model patrols. Since IOLS is adult training, the patrols are made up of adult volunteers rather than Boy Scouts, and the creation of the patrols is both transparent and explicit to the participants. That is, unlike the boys, the students know that they are being grouped into a patrol and the rationale for it. The course has an introductory evening session where the patrols are assembled and the groups meet to understand the tasks they have been assigned. Most of the tasks are focused around the weekend-long ‘outdoor’ (read: camping) portion of the course. The patrols must meet again at least once before the outdoor portion. These meetings are very similar to the activities that the boys themselves are expected to accomplish before a camp-out: planning a menu, creating a flag and other patrol-specific items related to esprit d’corp, shopping, food preparation, and other logistic issues. While these tasks could be completed by an individual, because of the course objectives to model and reinforce the value of the patrol method, students are expected to share in the efforts and decision-making processes.

In our corporate training programs, some of the most valuable exercises have been group activities. Particularly if couched, even loosely, as competition teams often create not only novel solutions to problems, but a dynamic and valuable learning experience. While there is no doubt incredible value in new delivery modes for education, the lack of effective small-group collaboration has one of the greatest losses with online learning and self-study.

What the technology does foster, however, is a broader audience and platform for collaboration through social education. TSIA Research defines social support as: “Service and support offerings in which voluntary customer actions meaningfully change the customer experience, for those and other customers—either in support or indirectly in the rest of the whole product.” Like social support, with social education, participants can alternatively play either role in the learning process: student or educator. Furthermore, participants can choose the level of interaction. It is left to individual participants to engage with others meaningfully. The challenge for educators is driving the engagement.

Fostering engagement in online communities looms as a top priority at the forefront of every MOOC, discussion board, support knowledge base, or learning platform. To most effectively achieve our objectives, worthwhile engagement activities should be built into every aspect of the student lifecycle. Ideally, opportunities exist even at the point of registration, are carried through pre-work, can be found embedded in the curriculum itself, and then play an enormous role in the learning process after the learning event.

This is one area that I would like to see leveraged more effectively, in both corporate training environments and through Scouting training programs. There is an opportunity to build vibrant communities of learners who participate in the process of social education: but the platforms, tools, and motivation must be carefully built and managed.

Graduation and Gamification

We took part in a graduation ceremony at the end of IOLS. Like other graduations, we received certificates of completion – but we also received specific symbols of not just the training, but the specific course. Bound together into patrols, the graduation served to join all the participants of the course together – both students and staff. Each student received a neckerchief and hand-made slide. The symbols of the course were passed from one generation of instructors to the next for all to see. The ceremony marked the conclusion of the course, but moreover, created a lasting shared experience.

Now, this is nothing new. Graduation ceremonies are hardly novel. What struck me was how well the ceremony served to build social connections between the participants. It was a shared experience. It was a shared experience that we almost universally fail to capitalize on in the corporate training world, despite the significant value that the relationships that it fosters can serve to create further engagement and impetus for social education. This shared experience can be highlighted, reinforced, and used as a foundation for building greater levels of interaction. And yet, it is so very often absent.

Certification programs are an area where there are significant exceptions. At EMC World, Certified Proven Professionals were given bright yellow polo shirts – setting these industry experts apart. Brocade also recognizes certified users at their events. Many organizations provide badges for their certified users on their community pages. Why only certification? Why not create opportunities to recognize users who have completed training? Or users who have completed training on the latest products?

This deserves further exploration. My goal over the summer is to explore the creation of formal channels for post-course community discourse: both for my own organization and also for the Scouting training programs that I run.


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