Monday, August 17, 2009

Learning Together, Playing Together: Where Do You Form Social Bonds?

Let's say you want to create a program that will result in strangers forming new relationships and making deep connections with each other. Maybe it's a learning program for people who want further content knowledge, or perhaps an activity-based program where people make music together or blow glass or build robots. Would you develop a program for experts--people who already have a strong shared affinity and ability--or for novices--people who are new to the topic or activity at hand?

I used to think that experts were the obvious choice here--that people who are already personally invested in an activity are the most likely ones to want to seek out new friends and activity partners who share their interests. But this summer, I had a novice experience that has changed my personal understanding of the differences between relationships formed in new and known situations.

Exactly two months ago, I took a beginner's volleyball class. The class went for five weeks, 2 hours a week. We were all new to the sport, and on the first day, the teacher, Phil, gave a long speech about how great volleyball is and how obsessed we would become. Several of us looked on skeptically-we already had booked schedules and were eking out 2 hours on Tuesday to make this happen. But Phil was right. This past weekend, I spent about 7 hours playing beach volleyball, with another 5 hours spent at a barbecue with my new volleyball friends. That's 1/4 of a weekend spent on a new activity with new friends.

I spend a lot of my free time playing sports with other adults, but I've never bonded so quickly with other players as I have this summer through volleyball. For several years, I've played ultimate frisbee both casually and on organized teams, and I've never been one to socialize immediately with other players. I'm focused on self-improvement and enjoying the game. We get together, we play hard, and then everyone goes back to their lives. I'm friendly with lots of ultimate folks, but it takes me years, not weeks, to connect with them off the field. Similarly with rock climbing, a sport that forces you to play with a partner at all times, I've made fabulous friends... after months or years of one-on-one interactions on the rock and in the gym.

What makes volleyball different? The group of us learned together. We were brand new to the sport together and now we struggle together to improve. We show each other more vulnerability and uncertainty than I do in situations when I'm confident of my ability. We feel bonded to each other in our shared inability--and our beginner status also makes us more comfortable playing with each other than trying to step up and play with the "big kids."

And our instructor primed the social connections intentionally. On the first day of class, Phil said, "You're all a little nervous today. You don't know anyone else, you don't know how to play. It's ok. By the time you leave you will have lots of friends to play volleyball with." He required us to play with lots of different people throughout the class. He set up an email list and encouraged us to set up another evening a week during the class to practice together. About 20% of us went for it and started playing on our own, and now, we have a group of about 10 people out of the original 50 who play together frequently. We went from being led by a strong instructor to being a self-organized group who follow the values we were taught and are starting to connect with each socially in a more substantive way. In other words, what started as a pretty standard programmatic experience was an entrypoint to a much more self-directed, social one.

The barbecue on Saturday night included five of us from the class plus families and significant others. Around the table, everyone remarked on how they felt nervous on the first day of class, how they couldn't believe that it was true that we'd made friends and learned to love a new activity. It was a really special experience, and it has made me much more interested in how we can provide visitor and user experiences that bond novices together as co-learners on a shared journey, rather than just accommodating individual learning goals or focusing on those who are already immersed in an activity.

Phil's technique wasn't complex. He did two important things: he set up expectations that our experience in the program would be social, and he encouraged us to find ways to continue meeting up beyond the course. This is a very simple way of creating a "platform" for us to connect with each other rather than relying on him as the authority who delivers the experience. It helps that he hosts monthly tournaments, which are connection points that help motivate some members of the classes, but I think we'll keep playing together, tournaments or no. And I believe Phil's techniques could be applied to designing volunteer training programs, new member programs, or general content activity programs and experiences.

Is my observation a personal quirk or a familiar story? Do you bond better with others in novice or expert situations? Do you design programs to encourage novices to work and learn together (and make friends)? Have you been part of a novice group that became a tight-knit group of friends? How would you alter the way you deliver programs to novices to encourage them to make friends and continue exploring their new passion together outside of class?

1 comments, add yours!:

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Thanks for this post, Nina. I think your bonding experience with novice volleyball can be had by experts as well. The key elements for bonding no matter the skill level of participants, I think, are 1) using teams to explore/learn new skills or ways of approaching familiar ideas/tasks together; 2) a new or different environment in which the exploration/learning takes place; and 3) a leader (or coordinator) who understands how to raise the "comfort level" just enough so that a group can move forward together.