5 mins read

The Learning and Development Cutlery Drawer

Who took all the spoons…

Thanks again must go out to my partner CJS, who has opened my eyes and mind to a new world of appreciation for neurodivergence.

I should start with a bit of context. If you have never come across these before, the world of neurodivergence has a few metaphors to help articulate what life feels like to live with one or more conditions, e.g. Dyslexia and ADHD (I have the former and my partner the latter).

The Cutlery Drawer

Spoon Theory – a metaphor for life cost on internal resources

First described by Christine Miserandino, the basic premiss is that you start each day with a set number of spoons (each spoon = a unit of energy), and during the day, the various things you do require a different number of spoons (e.g. making breakfast = 1 spoon, traveling to work = 2 spoons etc). The spoons represent your ‘internal resource bank’. Each of us have a certain number in our reserves, the activities in our day have a personally defined energy cost. Note – we may even start the day depleted based on things like poor sleep (subtract 1 spoon).

Find out more here: https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/

Fork Theory – a metaphor for our capacity to handle external stressors

Fork theory popped up in 2018 described by Jen Rose, it was born out of the phrase:

“Stick a fork in me, I’m done,”

Forks represent external stressors. The theory is intended to express that everyone has a ‘Fork Limit’. Too many forks and we are finished. There is only so many stressors any one person can handle in a day, then you need time to rest, to heal and recover. Stressors (the forks) are personal and can be minor irritations, such as loosing (and then finding) your house keys, or big things that trigger past trauma. Where spoons perhaps replenish overnight, the impact of fork damage takes longer to heal.

Find out more here: http://jenrose.com/fork-theory/

Knife Hypothesis – a metaphor for borrowing energy from tomorrow

Attributed to Terry Masson‘s, the knife hypothesis proposes that, when there are no spoons in the cutlery drawer, you reach for a knife.

Except the knife is unlikely to be fit for purpose, it cuts deeper and once used still needs to be cleaned (a debt is created). The knife hypothesis is about borrowing energy from tomorrow, which if not restored means waking the following morning already in (spoon) debt.

In practical terms, personally when I was out of spoons I borrowed resources from tomorrow through ‘red bull’ (a high now for a crash later – it catches up in the end). Note, if you continue to borrow from tomorrow the damage the knife does is greater than that of the fork! And now there is even more dirty cutlery in your sink (which has to be dealt with at some point).

Find out more here: https://medium.com/@tilaurin/the-knife-hypothesis-a-companion-to-spoon-theory-d20764c28349

What cutlery cost does your learning and development have?

I offer just a few parallels and examples here, for face-to-face events…

How many spoons does your learning cost?

Think about this in the context of a physical face to face event, consider – what have you planned that might cost energy to your learners?

  • The welcome – simply entering a room can be hard for people and this sets the tone for their experience. If they lose a spoon within the first 5 minutes of their time with you everything else can be a multiplier cost. Think carefully about how you create a welcoming environment, soft (low threat high engagement) introductions with simple conversation starters that people can opt into as they feel comfortable.
  • Group work – the thought of working with a stranger can really put some people on the back foot. Think how you build toward this from the introductions. Save your paired or small group icebreakers until people have settled into the space. Perhaps start with activities that allow people to have personal reflection time, where they build a response to a low threat task before having to speak to others about it.
  • Speaking in the open – be considerate with cold calling people for questions. Whilst someone may have the answer and love to tell you, using this too soon with those who have yet to feel ‘safe’ could shut down their desire to engage quickly. Consider how you use questioning techniques and when to ask for volunteers, when to use direct invite and when to use open questions to a room.

How many forks can your learners handle?

This often relates to the learner feeling less than happy as a consequence of their engagement in the event. Consider how the culture for learning may exist as well as their navigation of the venue.

  • Getting instructions wrong – this is a common thing. Multiple instructions and two-part questions or the use of abstract concepts can prove confusing. Keep things clear and concise, repeat instructions if needed and make it ok for learners to check in with you on the quiet. Also be is concrete as you can.
  • Ideas been rejected – set the climate where ‘all ideas are valued’. No matter how random its worth valuing these for 2 reasons. Firstly, these ideas may be what is needed to help you contemplate beyond your current plain of thought. Secondly, it’s just good manners and shapes things for greater participation from all.
  • Getting lost in the venue – where you have a multi room event, getting lost (or the feeling of getting lost) can be a major stressor. It leads to people feeling inadequate and giving themselves a hard time. Be clear with verbal directions and signage. Offer to guide people (follow a leader) and just give people enough time to move.

Are people using a knife because they have nothing left?

Are you asking people to borrow from tomorrow. This often can be the case for events that run back-to-back over a weekend or, conferences where we are challenged to pay attention to different insights in a short space of time.

  • Within session cognitive load – be considerate of the learners starting point. If you are sharing multiple layers of new quite challenging knowledge without the right foundation or some form of growing scaffold, you may find the learner either draws upon their reserves to keep up, which reduces their capacity for future sessions, or they shut down.
  • Across session cognitive depletion – Switching between challenging topics can be hard for most of us, plan for this perhaps by have in slightly longer breaks between sessions. Allow people time to decompress before re-entering the learning experience. Also, an added challenge here is the energy cost of meeting new learners in the next session they enter. If we have no more energy (spoons) we are in trouble.
  • Consecutive events diminishing return – if you are running events back-to-back over 2 or more days, please consider the impact if you then set homework! Having to manage the internalisation of new learning during the day, may have taken much of a person’s energy. To then set homework or overnight tasks could lead to you getting a less than full capacity learner the following day. And each day you may get less.

In closing

My guess is many of you are already doing this without even thinking about it. But perhaps this set of metaphors can help you fully appreciate both the experience of the learner (neurodivergent or not) and your capacity to accommodate for energy cost (spoons), potential stressors (forks) and borrowing from tomorrow (knifes).

When time allows, I may extend the cutlery metaphor but for now I’ll leave it there.

Kurt Ewald Lindley – exploring the energy cost of being a (neurodivergent) learner