thiagi.com About Us ASTD Interview
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Sivasailam Thiagarajan ("Thiagi"), president of Workshops by Thiagi, is a prolific writer, designer of hundreds of games and simulations, decades-long ASTD member, and perennial favorite at ASTD conferences. Thiagi wrote the chapter on games and simulations in the ASTD Training & Development Handbook and has served as president of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association and the International Society for Performance Improvement. He is writing a book and an Info-line to be published by ASTD early next year.
Ring ... ring... ring...
"Hello. I cannot find Thiagi around. But please leave a message because I'm sure he's extremely eager to talk to you."
After that playful voice-mail introduction, true to his word, Thiagi did eagerly consent to an interview with ASTD. On the 476th day of his self-imposed design-a-game-a-day challenge, he took time to talk about his background, his philosophy, his renewable source of inspiration, and his upcoming book and Info-line. He was about to leave for Indianapolis to conduct a pre-conference workshop at ASTD TechKnowledger 2000.
Thiagi has been following his own advice -- to play with, not within, the rules -- from an early age in Madras, India. In fact, his entrance into the learning and performance profession was a form of early rebellion. When his headmaster father advised the seven-year-old never to become a teacher, Thiagi "decided that was the only career I wanted in my life, being a negative child."
Later, as a teacher of high school physics, he was invited to a lecture, after which he got into an argument with the guest expert. Explains Thiagi: "He thought I was a smart aleck, but when he went back and checked the citation I gave him, he found out I was right and he was wrong. He invited me to become his graduate assistant at the psychology department at Indiana University." And Thiagi stayed in Bloomington, Indiana ... "Because, like a little duckling, I was imprinted. Because of the early reinforcement of my individualistic behavior, I thought, 'This must be home,' so I stayed."
ASTD: Your interest in games and interactive activities had an early start, didn't it?
Thiagi: Yes, as a physics teacher, for example, rather than lecturing on the internal combustion engine, I just took my class outside. We went out into the street and hot-wired a car -- took it all apart, looked at the engine, put it all back (so we would not be arrested) ... and came back to class. So it was literally street learning rather than classroom learning; experiential activity at the most intense levels. Later, when I was just about to finish my doctorate -- in a combination of instructional systems and cognitive sciences -- the U.S. Office of Education accepted my grant proposal to design training packages using games to train teachers working with handicapped children.
ASTD: What is the main focus of Workshops by Thiagi?
Thiagi: My mission statement says, to help improve human performance effectively, efficiently and enjoyably. My focus is on the enjoyable part. I believe all learning must be enjoyable. It is not true that true learning requires suffering and pain. That's my major approach. Within that, my specialty seems to be designing games, simulations, experiential activities and fun approaches to learning.
ASTD: It sounds like fun!
Thiagi: Yes, but fun is a bad word, so I usually and correctly say my focus is on getting the learners engaged rather than letting the learners have fun. For example, a couple of months ago I worked with the local hospice designing a game on death and dying -- dying with dignity. It definitely was not fun, but it had people absolutely engaged.
ASTD: Can you share a little about the book you will publish with ASTD next winter?
Thiagi: I'm doing a couple of books. With [ASTD's] Ethan Sanders I'm doing a book on different types of performance improvement interventions. The whole idea is very quickly spreading that training is only one part of improving human performance. So this book is going to be a collection of strategies for improving human performance. It will deal with training, with motivation, with support, with technology, with wellness -- a whole variety of approaches or interventions to help people move beyond being just an order-taking trainer into being a performance strategist.
I'm also doing an Info-line book on what I call "lecture games" or interactive lectures, which combine the control and structure of lecture presentations with the excitement and effectiveness and motivation of game-like activities.
ASTD: Do you find a difference in how different audiences respond to games and activities?
Thiagi: Yes and no. A lot of people say, you cannot play these games in Australia or with Navajo Indians, or among Polynesians; don't try any of your American games with this group; they will hate it. I don't take anybody seriously... before long, there are a whole lot of people absolutely engaged. As my psychology professor used to tell me, playing games is such a universal human need -- all cultures, all people, all nationalities, all ages, all genders play games. We are a species which plays. So given that, there is absolutely no problem conducting games anywhere in the world.
Having said that, let me hasten to say that the way people prefer to play games depends on their cultural values and beliefs. For example, I definitely will not play Twister with a mixed gender group if I'm in India, where cross-gender touching is a taboo. When I'm playing games with a group in Japan which consists of older and younger people, I will isolate the older people and make them judges, make them leaders, make them scorekeepers, make them pep talk providers or something like that, because that particular culture has a great need to show respect to age. So primarily what I do is play the same game, but I tweak it to suit the needs of a given culture or a given audience.
ASTD: Are there differences within a single culture, depending on the type of occupation, for example?
Thiagi: Exactly. The way accountants play a game is very different from the way social workers play the same game. The games engineers prefer are very different from the games trainers prefer.
So there are personality differences, there are occupational differences, gender differences, age differences, experience differences, and so on. NO individual is going to like exactly the same game somebody else will like. One of the strategies I use is basically the idea that the rules of the game are meant to be changed. One of my favorite quotes is "don't play within the rules of the game but play with the rules of the game." Any game I play, I have at least a dozen different modifications, plus many more I can make up on the spot to increase or decrease the level of competition, to increase or decrease the level of self disclosure, touching, physical movement, cognitive complexity, and so on. You can make these changes even while you're playing the game.
ASTD: One of my questions was going to be whether it takes certain personality traits to make these games work -- and I think you're saying you have to be flexible.
Thiagi: Exactly. We did a study to discover the characteristic behaviors of excellent facilitators. We came up with the alarming conclusion that there is no single characteristic that is common among all of these facilitators. Not only that, but the same facilitator behaves in a very inconsistent fashion every time she is conducting the same activity. So we came up with the face-saving but extremely meaningful conclusion that the most important behavior on the part of facilitators is flexibility -- to be able to change, to be able to modify. If you are rigid, you are going to fail miserably. On the other hand, if you are capable of being responsive, reactive to the audience needs, you will do great.
One of the things I recommend to people who want to become game facilitators is to take improv [improvisational theater] classes. Put yourself in a place where somebody throws out something and you've got to act it out, or come up with a story, or do an improvisational skit.
ASTD: What challenges do you see facing the profession as a whole today?
Thiagi: One of the main challenges is the attitude that says, we've got limited time, just give us the facts and stop fooling around playing games. That's one challenge -- people seem to be very busy, and they just want the content.
The second challenge - which is both a challenge and an opportunity -- is that you've got to go online. You've got to go Web-based, CD-ROM based, because more and more training is moving in that direction. You can export almost anything you can do in a form of a classroom game to an online, Web-based or CD-based activity.
The third challenge people are facing is the tendency to confuse bells and whistles with instructional effectiveness. There are many slick games produced by Hollywood types with all kinds of fancy bells and whistles. But my research and studies being done by graduate students seem to indicate not only that bells and whistles don't contribute to learning, but also that they possibly distract people from paying attention to the key message.
ASTD: How long have you been a member of ASTD?
Thiagi: Ages and ages. I think I joined ASTD as soon as I could afford it out of my graduate assistant's salary, probably sometime in the early '70s.
ASTD: What have you found most helpful about your membership?
Thiagi: I get a lot of useful up-to-date information from reading the T&D journal, by attending the conference, and being able to develop relationships with a group of eager, happy people who are practitioners, out there on the firing line without any great need to publish scholarly books.
ASTD: Would you like to add anything else in summing up?
Thiagi: One of the philosophies shared with me by my grandparents is the importance of taking serious things lightly and light things seriously. Find out what makes people laugh and learn. And take serious things lightly -- don't get hung up on WBT or human performance technology. Be able to laugh at yourself, laugh at your own pretensions.
A Thiagi Favorite:
One of Thiagi's favorite games is "35." As he described it, given a 50-person class of emergency managers:
The principle behind this game is that people learn best when they create the content. Give each class member an index card, and tell each to write one strategy or one suggestion on how to do better job of managing emergencies. Give them an example.
Step one: Everyone writes a strategy on an index card.
Step two: Tell everybody to look at the card, to note how brilliant the idea is, then emotionally detach themselves from the idea because they are going to send the idea out into the real world, and let the best idea rise to the top and the worst sink to the bottom.
Step three: Everybody turns the card face down and gives it to somebody. They keep doing this, rapidly, until all of the cards are mixed up.
Step four: You blow the whistle and have people find a partner. These pairs of people compare the two ideas on their cards and distribute 7 points between these two ideas to reflect how practical and useful the idea is. We do this in a matter of 30-45 seconds. Put the point values on the back of the cards. Swap cards as before. Next time the whistle blows, we form partners again. So we compare two ideas at a time for a total of five different times. At the end of the fifth round, each card will have five numbers on the back.
Have class members add up the numbers and start counting down from 35 -- the maximum score an idea can get. You keep counting down until someone has a card with that number of points, say 23 -- and that's the top idea generated and evaluated by the group of people. Keep counting down until you have identified the top 10 ideas, and briefly comment on all of the ideas.
This activity lasts for about 20 minutes. You can use this as an icebreaker, as a closer activity, any time during your workshop. The whole concept behind it is that participants know a lot and bring their own ideas; if you can just structure the situation and get out of the way, they can learn a lot.
Copyright © 2001. Workshops
by Thiagi, Inc. All rights reserved
Revised: February 1, 2001