Friday, January 22, 2016

Creating Learning Materials - As Easy as Possible, But Not Easier

I have been creating a short introduction to Insight Mapping on the Skillshare platform and the creative process has been a source of numerous new insights for me. One of these insights had to do with the level of difficulty or complexity of the materials I was presenting and especially the level of complexity of what I was asking the learners to do as a project for the class.  I recognize my own tendency to make things more complicated than necessary, so I was keeping a close eye on how "brilliant" I thought my ideas were.  The more "brilliant" I think it is, the more unnecessarily complex it typically is.  At that point, I was reminded of Albert Einstein's words:
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." ~ Albert Einstein
Whether Einstein actually said that or not, I wonder if we can extend the idea to learning.  How about "everything should be made as easy to learn as possible, but not easier."  If you make it too easy, you've gone too far and not much learning is happening.  It makes sense, intuitively.  [There is also a trade-off between speed reading and comprehension... no kidding!]

A few weeks back, I enjoyed a Chief Learning Officer (CLO) webinar by Alex Khurgin, Director of Learning at Grovo, about teaching employees to learn.  Part of Khurgin's push was something I've heard over and over again about making it easy for people to learn, essentially by removing all possible barriers.  One example is that to deal with employees' shrinking attention span, we should deliver micro-learning.  While I'm all for eliminating day-long training sessions, there are limits to how much "chunking" makes sense.

Bite-size learning doesn't encourage deep thinking and the level of focused attention that is necessary to start making connections between prior knowledge and new knowledge.  We need focused attention (without distractions) to engage our whole brain, so why purposefully feed ourselves chunks that are so small, they become distractions themselves.

The answer to "I don't have time for 20 minutes of focused attention" shouldn't be, "we'll give it to  you in ten 2-minute chunks".  The answer should be, "make the time for 20 minutes of focused attention."  Connecting the dots and learning takes time. There are no shortcuts.

Dorothy Leonard also recently pointed out in the Harvard Business Review that organizations need to make learning hard, leveraging Robert Bjork's research.  One way to ensure deep learning and long-term retention of learning is to use the case method.
"A well-run case-based discussion constantly challenges students.  As they are asked to diagnose and debate solutions to a given situation, there is rarely an easy or obvious answer." ~ Dorothy Leonard in "Why Organizations Need to Make Learning Hard."
Since I was listening to all this "make-it-easy-to-learn" approach soon after being introduced to Robert Bjork's concept of "desirable difficulty," I thought it would be useful to clarify.

Here's how I mapped out my thoughts (so far):

"Make it as easy as possible, but not easier."

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