The Roads Not Taken

Various adult learning theorists advocate self-direction. Adults want to chart their own paths and learn better if they do so. To me, the model seems very much like surfing the Internet: click here, click there, whatever interests you.

If you’ve done any online courses recently, you probably haven’t seen much that is designed this way. Online courses tend to be particularly linear—mostly devoid of learner choice. Why is that?

One answer is lack of trust. Designers have a goal and subject-matter experts think they know how to get there. They’ve never experience the road-not-taken. They devalue any learning experience that deviates from their preconceived notion. The problem is motivation. If I, as a learner, follow your path and not mine, I’m probably not very motivated. There are multiple paths to learning and we need to facilitate that as course designers.

Another answer is an assumption of efficiency. Designers are often under pressure to deliver the absolute minimal learning in the shortest amount of time. No digressions are possible. No failures, even if thoughtful reflection on a failure leads to superior learning in the end. This way of operating leads to learning that keeps students as dumb as possible for as long as possible. We want the gold, but we have no patience with processing the ore.


Using a Lecture to Teach Dancing

Are you a visual learner or an auditory learner? Or could you be a kinesthetic learner?

Until recently, education theorists were telling us that, if we want to connect with a visual learner, we need to use visual instruction. Auditory instruction, we were told, would fail miserably. Of course, theorists were more subtle than this, but that was the main point. Until the research began to debunk the theory.

My question always was: are words visual (the written word) or auditory (the spoken word)? And then there’s the question of whether a method of instruction is even possible. Can you learn to ride a bike or play a musical instrument simply listening to a lecture or even viewing someone do these activities? The answer is clearly no.

Financial education doesn’t involve balance (except in a metaphorical sense) or manual dexterity. It is largely a verbal domain: spoken and written. Even the math part can be considered to be a verbal skill.

So, do those of us who write instruction for financial services have anything to learn from the debate over learning styles?

The more sophisticated understanding of the learning-styles debate advocates two principles. First, the mode of instruction should be compatible with what is being learned (don’t try to teach dancing with a lecture). Second, use more than one mode of instruction. Show and tell is more effective than show alone or tell alone. No one is exclusively visual or exclusively auditory. One mode reinforces the other.

Let’s all get up and dance to a rule
That was a hit before Dodd-Frank was born
It was a rule a long long time ago
It’s something you know
It’s something you know . . .

In Every Generation . . .

If you’re interested in education, you could spend a few profitable hours analyzing the liturgy for the Passover Seder (feast). We like to think that instructional design is a new and scientific “thing.” But many of the techniques we are “discovering” are a few thousand years old.

The Passover Seder, which is celebrated tonight, is built around a set of four interactive questions, which are answered several times throughout the ceremony in different ways. Although the central lesson of the Seder has to do with remembering the freeing of the Israelite slaves in Egypt more than four thousand years ago, none of the four questions explicitly addresses that learning objective.

Instead, each question refers to a metaphor for learning retrieval. The first question asks the reason for eating the unleavened bread (matzah), which is described as the “bread of affliction.” The second question asks the reason for eating the bitter herb, which causes the learner to reflect on the bitterness of slavery. The third and the four questions refer to other ceremonial acts that cause the learner to reflect about redemption and freedom.

The Seder is also explicitly aware that people possess different learning styles. We read about four types of children—the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask—and are given different formulas for reaching each of them

And there is much more.

The fact is that human beings are a learning species. Learning is age old, not new. It is in our genes to do this and we do it well, so long as we are clear and simple and engaging.

Happy Passover to all my Jewish friends.

Unreality of State-Mandated Continuing Education

State insurance regulators take a dim view of sales training. There’s no continuing education (CE) credit for that. But this misses a key principle of androgogy (adult learning): adults need to be motivated. They need to know that there will be a payoff if they invest time and mental effort. When state regulators nix content that seem too sales-y, they are nixing the motivation that could drive learning. Without this motivation, agents are just putting in the time to get their license renewal. They take the easiest courses and learn very little.

Of course, it’s not that black and white. There’s certainly a spectrum of learners. Many people in the field lap up learning, spending way more time than CE rules would require. I’ve done it myself and gotten rewarded with a variety of advanced designations—and with knowledge.

I do sympathize with regulators, though. If you are going to require regular education, you have to require something with a minimum level of meatiness. I just think they go a little too far.

As a writer of continuing education courses, I want to set my concepts in a world that has a reality that is recognizable to the learner. The real world is a world of sales. When we remove that, we need at least to ask the learner to reflect on customer needs and suitability of solutions we offer to meet those needs. It’s not sales per-se, but it’s close (needs and suitability are components of many effective sales strategies). And it puts an ethical slant on the material that usually pleases the regulators.