Friday, June 17, 2005

Lessons from Instructional Designers

Unless you've worked in the training business, you may not have heard of instructional design. Tens of thousands of designers create instructional systems (nee training programs) for corporations, government, and the military. They begin by analyzing what needs to be learned lay out the best way to get there. Some designers are quite doctrinaire, rigidly following step-by-step procedures and using very precise methods and jargon. Others approach thngs more liberally, drawing on diverse disciplines such as cognitive science, user interface design, computer games, and storytelling.

In the mid-seventies, when I designed the first business curriculum for the Institute that went on to become the University of Phoenix, there were not many books on instructional design. The discipline was fixated on behaviorism and programmed instruction, that is, applying lessons learned from rats in mazes and pigeons in boxes to human learning.

How things have changed! There are hundreds upon hundreds of worthy books on instructional design. My personal library on learning and instructional design holds 25' of volumes -- and that's after recycling a large chunk of my collection. Numerous universities offer masters and doctoral programs in instructional technology. Corporations invest hundreds of milloins of dollars in Learning Management Systems, Authoring Tools, Automated Testing, and Virtual Classrooms, to mention a few of the technologies involved. As companies have awoken to the fact that learning is the only way to stay ahead of the pack, training has become an important industry.

Why am I telling you this? Oh, yeah. I remember. Squirreled away in the 10,000 or so pages of books and a gigabyte of blogs and notes on my web sites, are some wonderful gems of wisdom about how to learn things. I'm going to try to squeeze the essence of the best and the brightest instructional designers into bite-sized pieces for you to snack on.

Here we go.

Front-end analysis. Begin with the end in mind. When designing a learning experience, start by jotting down what you want to be able to do when you're through. Be specific: do whay, how well, by when?

Is it a training problem? Training is often the fall guy for poorly designed systems, unreasonable expectations, and other management foibles. Ask yourself, "If we held a gun to her head, could she do it?" If they answer is yes, you may have a training problem. Otherwise, the trouble is wrapped up with motivation.

Gap analysis. What's the gap between where you are and where you want to be?

Conception of learning. Arguments still rage over the "right" way to look at learning.
Multiple intelligences. Being bright in one area doesn't mean you'll be bright in all areas. Einstein was terrible at arithmetic but great at theoretical physics. I'm great at conceptualizing things but have so little musical intelligence I can't even whistle on key. Getting good grades could be a separate intelligence, since grades bear no relationship to future success, wealth, prestige, or happiness.

Collaborative Learning. You and a friend learning from, say, a computer-mediated course, will learn more than either of you would by yourself.

Teach. If you want to learn something and never forget it, teach it to someone else.

Punishment is not motivating. Don't beat the dog.

Remembering. Repetition plants things in memory. When you are introduced to a person, use their name several times and you will remember it. When I'm exposed to something I want to remember, I either post it on my blog or jot it down in my journal. With knowledge, you either use it or lose it.

(sidebar = foretting curve)

Concept maps show relationships. They speak to some of us in a flash.

Notes. Don't take notes; make notes. You'll get a lot more out of expressing your interpretation of a situation than recording a speaker word for word.

Pattern recognition. Our brains process patterns, not facts. Whenever you learn something, make a connection. Give it a home in your own framework. Connect it to a familiar pattern.

Get a coach. You cannot see yourself as others see you. Recruit a coach to describe your performance and make suggestions for improvement.

Welcome mistakes. Mistakes teach. Being correct doesn't. Learn from your mistakes.

The real world is a better teacher than a simulation, but learning by doing a simulation is more effective than passively listening or watching.

Reflection. The only thing worse than learning from experience is not learning from experience. When you want to learn something, reflect on it.

You only use 20% of your brain. This is bunk. The "unused" portion of the brain is working on non-motor activities.

Learner-centric design. You are in control. These days, learners always are. Read what you want here but please don’t read everything. Be selective. Read aggressively. Skip around. Do what you like.

Question everything. Skeptics learn; know-it-alls don’t. One person’s variable is another person’s constant.

The 80/20 rule. If you’re not getting enough bang for your time, skip a page. Or skip to the next chapter. This is not for everyone.

Uncertainty engages the mind. A group of students is told to read an essay and answer a set of questions about it. A similar group is instructed to read the same essay but told that the material is quiite controversial. The second group will answers more questions correctly. They had to think about the material.

For optimal learning, be:

* open to new perspectives (knowledge is provisional)
* aware of personal biases (we see what we want to see)
* exposed to unfiltered data (not watered-down interpretations)
* humble (no one has all the answers)

Learn in short sessions. In the 1970s, the Navy did a study to find out how long people can listen to other people talk. How long could they listen? 18 minutes.

Words are not everything. Sound and simple motion convey 90% of the content carried by full-motion video. Personally, I often enjoy the book more than the movie because the colors are better.

Beware of learning that comes in same-size containers. When you come upon a group of workshops, each precisely fifty minutes long, you’ll probably find some filler whose only purpose is to round out the time slot. The essence may be only five minutes worth. Let the 80/20 rule be your guide, not the clock. Don’t waste time on non-essentials.

Not so long ago, it was commonly held that adults can't learn. This is a malicious myth that can lead to learned helplessness.

Later: learning analysis, know yrself, style, etc

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