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Notable Books

Recommended Books

  • Turning Research into Results: A Guide to Selecting the Right Performance Solutions, by Richard E. Clark, Fred Estes
  • How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition, by National Research Council, edited by John Bransford, Ann L. Brown, Rodney R. Cocking
  • Criterion-Referenced Test Development 2nd Edition, by Sharon Shrock, William Coscarelli, Patricia Eyres
  • Michael Allen's Guide to E-Learning, by Michael Allen
  • e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, by Ruth Colvin Clark, Richard E. Mayer
  • Efficiency in E-Learning by Ruth Colvin Clark, Frank Nguyen, John Sweller (2006)

Best-Selling Books

  • The Long Tail

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Monday, 06 November 2006

Nutritious Learning Design

For decades, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been touting schemes to attempt---at least ostensibly---to help Americans eat more healthfully. From the 4-food-group concept to the current food pyramid, the idea has been to help us think more intelligently about what we eat. The development of these formulations have always been under influence by industry groups representing food companies and health advocates, and it has never been clear that the resulting compromises have been effective. Note the current obesity epidemic as evidence.

But now, the Hannaford Brothers supermarket chain is taking matters into their own hands. Hannaford's nutritionists have developed a simple coding system to let shoppers know the relative health value of foods. Three stars is most healthy. Zero stars is least healthy. And while the coding system is simple, the underlying algorithm---the algorithm that assigns the ratings---is complex.

Listen to this: 77% of all the items on Hannaford's shelves rated zero stars. Even most of the Hannaford Store brand items get zero stars. Our choices are not very nutritious!!

As you might imagine, some manufacturers are not happy.

Only time will tell whether shoppers will change their eating habits---or whether food manufacturers will change the formulas for their processed foods to get a better star rating, and Hannaford will be able to track this data very easily. It's hard to tell whether the food pyramid has had an effect. Hannaford's Guiding Star system will be much easier to assess. I hope they've got some control-group stores to make comparisons.

I love the simplicity of the system. It's like a job aid on steroids. It's simple. It's provided exactly when needed (as shoppers make their selections), and it's based on proven nutritional recommendations.

Those of us in the learning-and-performance field can learn a lot from this design.

  1. Ensure that learning designs impact performance situations.
  2. Simplify, to increase how much your learners/performers actually use your stuff.
  3. Base learning designs on proven content. For example, is the stuff you teach in your leadership classes really been proven to improve management performance?
  4. Utilize systems to track your success, so that you can make

To read the excellent NY Times article, click here.

Thursday, 09 February 2006

Learning from Audio: Eulogy of Coretta Scott King

Anna Belyaev and her team at Type A Learning Agency have inspired this question:

"What do professions outside the training/development/performance field have to teach us about learning design?"

They ask this of themselves all the time, and now they've got me thinking. I'm going to share my thoughts when they arise. Here's the first one.

I heard Bill Clinton's eulogy for Coretta Scott King and I was touched by it. It was a simple podcast from NPR. It was just audio. But I was emotionally engaged and I listened with great interest and intent.

Ms. King lead an especially meaningful life as a civil rights leader, advocate of non-violent struggle for racial equality, wife of Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Here's the direct link to the Clinton Eulogy.
  • Here's the NPR page where this and other remembrances are available.
  • Here's another link from Minnesota Public Radio that covers the memorial.

Learning, first and foremost, requires learners to pay attention. This is often a conscious intentional process. It is often an unconscious and unintentional process as well. Either way, attention is one of the leverage points that we can use to spur learning and retention. Usually, if we increase attention we increase learning.

What if we could distill the factors that help keep learners engaged and attentive to our learning messages. Let's take Bill Clinton's eulogy for a minute. What does it do that grabs attention? Can we borrow these factors, or are they specific to eulogies and great public speakers?

Here are some of the factors that may be at work:

  1. Someone had died.
  2. The focus was on a celebrity.
  3. The speaker was a celebrity.
  4. The speaker was a person known for having his own struggles.
  5. The speaker understood his audience.
  6. The speaker got the audience to add energy to the message (clapping and chanting).
  7. The speaker talked about personal matters that most could empathize with.
  8. The speaker utilized religious symbols and meaning.
  9. The speaker repeated themes throughout his speech, but intermixed repetitions with other comments, and varied the surface form of the repetition, but not the underlying theme.
  10. The speaker modulated his voice appropriately, raising it to express power and importance, lowering it to connect personally.
  11. The speaker changed the speed of his delivery effectively, for example speeding up to move quickly through a list of attributes, slowing down, almost stopping, to create a sense of intimacy.
  12. The speaker used humor effectively.
  13. The speaker understood what was acceptable to say in the situation and moment.
  14. The speaker challenged power, creating a heightened sense of tension and importance.
  15. The speaker asked each person in the audience to examine their own actions and their own moral responsibilities.
  16. The speaker made a call to action. He asked for something.
  17. The speaker ended with an intensely moving sentence, tying it back to the person who had died.

What else did you hear that worked to make this a compelling communication? What didn't work for you? Why did things work or not? Did your political beliefs and convictions affect how you received the message?

Obviously, there are some things on my list above that we may not be able to use in our training. Religious symbolism has its pitfalls. You can't always find celebrities as voice talent. You can't always find great public speakers. You can't kill someone every time you create a course on Microsoft Excel.

But we can at least move in these directions. We can sometimes appeal to people's sense of responsibility or justice. We can sometimes find appropriate ways to get highly-visible company personalities to get involved. We can sometimes find real-world stories that show the negative consequences of what happens when training recommendations aren't followed.

I'm a big advocate for research-based or evidence-based instructional design. As we move through our own worlds, we can keep track of what grabs our attention and what spurs our learning. We can also pay attention to fields whose very survival depends upon grabbing attention or creating learning. There wouldn't be television, theater, radio, newspapers, magazines, pornography, religious services, performance poetry, books, ballet, music, or Cirque du Soleil if people in these professions hadn't figured out time-tested ways to grab attention and keep interest. The factors they use are there for us all to see and hear (and experiment with and utilize in our instructional designs), if only we begin to look and listen!!

Friday, 18 November 2005

Learning in the Citizenry

Learning is a many-splendored thing. Want evidence? Consider the overabundance of theories of learning. Greg Kearsley has a nice list. To me, this overabundance is evidence that the human learning system has not yet been lassoed and cataloged with any great precision. Ironic that DNA is easier to map than learning.

Being a political junkie, I'm fascinated with how a population of citizens learns about their government and the societal institutions of power. Democracy is rooted in the idea that we the citizenry have learned the right information to make good decisions. In theory this makes sense, while in practice imperfect knowledge is the norm. This discussion may relate to learning in the workplace as well.

Take one example from recent events. On September 11th, 2001, the United States was attacked by terrorists. The question arose, who were these terrorists? Who sent them? Who helped them? One particular question was asked. "Was Saddam Hussein (dictator of Iraq) involved?" I use this question because there is now generally-accepted objective evidence that Saddam Hussein was not involved in the 9/11 attack in any way. Even President Bush has admitted this. On September 17th, 2003, Bush said, in answer to a question from a reporter, "No, we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th." Despite this direct piece of information, the Bush administration has repeatedly implied, before and after this statement, that the war in Iraq is a response to 9/11. We could discuss many specific instances of this---we could argue about this---but I don't want to belabor the point. What I want to get at is how U.S. citizens learned about the reality of the question.


Take a look at polling data, which I found at I've marked it up to draw your eyes toward two interesting realities. First, look at the "Trend" data. It shows that we the citizens have changed our answer to the question asked over time. In September of 2002, 51% of Americans incorrectly believed that Saddam was personally involved in September 11th. Last month in October or 2005, the number had dived to 33%. The flip side of this showed that 33% correctly denied any link between Saddam and 9/11 in October of 2002, while today the number is a more healthy 55% correct, but still a relatively low number. If we think in terms of school-like passing-grade cutoffs, our country gets a failing grade.

The second interesting reality is how different groups of people have "Different Realities" about what is true. You'll notice the difference in answering these questions between Republicans and Democrats.

These data encourage me to conclude or wonder about the following:

  1. Even well-established facts can engender wide gaps in what is considered true. Again, this highlights the human reality of "imperfect knowledge."
  2. Stating a fact (or a learning point) will not necessarily change everyone's mind. It is not clear from the data whether the problem is one of information exposure or information processing. Some people may not have heard the news. People who heard the news may not have understood it, they may have rejected it, or they may have subsequently forgotten it.
  3. Making implied connections between events can be more powerful than stating things explicitly. It is not clear whether this is also a function of the comparative differences in the number of repetitions people are exposed to. This implied-connection mechanism reminds me of the "false-memory" research findings of folks like Elizabeth Loftus. Are the Republicans better applied psychologists than the Democrats?
  4. Why is it that so many citizens are so ill-informed? Why don't (or why can't) our societal information-validators do their jobs? If the media, if our trusted friends, if our political leaders, if our religious leaders, if opinion leaders can't persuade us toward the truth, is something wrong with these folks, is something wrong with us, is there something about human cognitive processing that enables this disenfranchisement from objective reality? (Peter Berger be damned).
  5. I'm guessing that lots of the differences between groups depends upon which fishtank of stimuli we swim in. Anybody who has friends, coworkers, or family members in the opposing political encampment will recognize how the world the other half swims in looks completely different than the world we live in.
  6. It appears from the trend data that there was a back-and-forth movement. We didn't move inexorably toward the truth. What were the factors that pushed these swings?

These things are too big for me to understand. But lots of the same issues are relevant to learning in organizations---both formal training and informal learning.

  1. How can we better ensure that information flows smoothly to all?
  2. How can we ensure that information is processed by all?
  3. How can we ensure that information is understood in more-or-less the same way by all?
  4. How can we be sure that we are trusted purveyors of information?
  5. How can we speed the acceptance of true information?
  6. How can we prevent misinformation from influencing people?
  7. How can we use implied connections, as opposed to explicit presentations of learning points, to influence learning and behavior? Stories is one way, perhaps.
  8. Can we figure out a way to map our organizations and the fishtanks of information people swim in, and inject information into these various networks to ensure we reach everyone?
  9. What role can knowledge testing, performance testing, or management oversight (and the feedback mechanisms inherent in these practices) be used to correct misinformation?