Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

17 April 2010

Designing for an uncertain world

Clark @ 9:42 AM

My problem with the formal models of instructional design (e.g. ADDIE for process), is that most are based upon a flawed premise.  The premise is that the world is predictable and understandable, so that we can capture the ‘right’ behavior and train it.  Which, I think, is a naive assumption, at least in this day and age.  So why do I think so, and what do I think we can (and should) do about it?  (Note: I let my argument lead where it must, and find I go quite beyond my intended suggestion of a broader learning design.  Fair warning!)

The world is inherently chaotic. At a finite granularity, it is reasonably predictable, but overall it’s chaotic. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model, recommending various approaches depending on the relative complexity of the situation, provides a top-level strategy for action, but doesn’t provide predictions about how to support learning, and I think we need more.  However, most of our design models are predicated on knowing what we need people to do, and developing learning to deliver that capability.  Which is wrong; if we can define it at that fine a granularity, we bloody well ought to automate it.  Why have people do rote things?

It’s a bad idea to have people do rote things, because they don’t, can’t do them well.  It’s in the nature of our cognitive architecture to have some randomness.  And it’s beneath us to be trained to do something repetitive, to do something that doesn’t respect and take advantage of the great capacity of our brains.  Instead, we should be doing pattern-matching and decision-making.  Now, there are levels of this, and we should match the performer to the task, but as I heard Barry Schwartz eloquently say recently, even the most mundane seeming jobs require some real decision making, and in many cases that’s not within the purview of  training.

And, top-down rigid structures with one person doing the thinking for many will no longer work.  Businesses increasingly complexify things but that eventually fails, as Clay Shirky has noted, and  adaptive approaches are likely to be more fruitful, as Harold Jarche has pointed out.  People are going to be far better equipped to deal with unpredictable change if they have internalized a set of organizational values and a powerful set of models to apply than by any possible amount of rote training.

Now think about learning design.  Starting with the objectives, the notion of Mager, where you define the context and performance, is getting more difficult.  Increasingly you have more complicated nuances that you can’t anticipate.  Our products and services are more complex, and yet we need a more seamless execution.  For example trying to debug problems between hardware device and network service provider, and if you’re trying to provide a total customer experience, the old “it’s the other guy’s fault” just isn’t going to cut it.  Yes, we could make our objectives higher and higher, e.g. “recognize and solve the customer’s problem in a contextually appropriate way”, but I think we’re getting out of the realms of training.

We are seeing richer design models. Van Merrienboer’s 4 Component ID, for instance, breaks learning up into the knowledge we need, and the complex problems we need to apply that knowledge to.  David Metcalf talks about learning theory mashups as ways to incorporate new technologies, which is, at least, a good interim step and possibly the necessary approach. Still, I’m looking for something deeper.  I want to find a curriculum that focuses on dealing with ambiguity, helping us bring models and an iterative and collaborative approach.  A pedagogy that looks at slow development over time and rich and engaging experience.  And a design process that recognizes how we use tools and work with others in the world as a part of a larger vision of cognition, problem-solving, and design.

We have to look at the entire performance ecosystem as the context, including the technology affordances, learning culture, organizational goals, and the immediate context.  We have to look at the learner, not stopping at their knowledge and experience, but also including their passions, who they can connect to, their current context (including technology, location, current activity), and goals.  And then we need to find a way to suggest, as Wayne Hodgins would have it, the right stuff, e.g. the right content or capability, at the right time, in the right way, …

An appropriate approach has to integrate theories as disparate as distributed cognition, the appropriateness of spaced practice, minimalism, and more.  We probably need to start iteratively, with the long term development of learning, and similarly opportunistic performance support, and then see how we intermingle those together.

Overall, however, this is how we go beyond intervention to augmentation.  Clive Thompson, in a recent Wired column, draws from a recent “man+computer” chess competition to conclude “serious cognitive advantages accrue to those who are best at thinking alongside machines”.  We can accessorize our brains, but I’m wanting to look at the other side, how can we systematically support people to be effectively supported by machines?  That’s a different twist on technology support for performance, and one that requires thinking about what the technology can do, but also how we develop people to be able to take advantage.  A mutual accommodation will happen, but just as with learning to learn, we shouldn’t assume ‘ability to perform with technology augmentation’.  We need to design the technology/human system to work together, and develop both so that the overall system is equipped to work in an uncertain world.

I realize I’ve gone quite beyond just instructional design.  At this point, I don’t even have a label for what I’m talking about, but I do think that the argument that has emerged (admittedly, flowing out from somewhere that wasn’t consciously accessible until it appeared on the page!) is food for thought.  I welcome your reactions, as I contemplate mine.


  1. I think you’re on the right track here, in that we must look toward a more dynamic and comprehensive approach to designing in a larger context and that we can’t rely on one formal and static model for the diverse complexities we face. In reality, instructional designers and developers stray from the typical models in real-world situations anyway. I find that following the conversations around Design Thinking, Agile Software Development and User Experience Design are helpful. I’m sure there are many other fields from which we can learn. I feel pretty certain that we’ll need multiple evolving paradigms.

    Comment by Connie Malamed — 18 April 2010 @ 12:58 PM

  2. Clark, This is great stuff, and I have some points of agreement, but first a tweak: Yes, there is much uncertainty, but we don’t even do good training when we know the workplace contexts, SO let’s do this right first.

    Then, let’s build for flexibility.

    One proven way is providing variety, especially variable contextual backgrounds–this enables flexibility. For example, did you know that if you teach someone something in four rooms, they are better able to retrieve what they learned in a new context than if you taught them the same stuff in one room?

    Also, we need to design to create intrinsic motivation and other techniques to enable people to persevere over time. The training to remembering pathway to performance is NOT the only pathway…

    Location or context-based prompting mechanisms will be big in the future.

    Helping people work and learn from each other enables flexibility by providing multiple human cognitive processors available…


    Keep us thinking!!! Keep us thinking flexibly!! Thanks Clark…

    Comment by Will Thalheimer — 28 April 2010 @ 11:12 AM

  3. “It’s a bad idea to have people do rote things, because they don’t, can’t do them well. ”

    I disagree. First because the fact that people don’t or can’t do them well, is not a reason to not do them. Second, there there are a vast many knowledge domains that require an individual to commit to memory processes, facts, procedures, concepts, principles, or fragments of them in order for them to be able to do things. One observation of our work-a-day-world is that quite a lot of us have jobs that involve repetition of simple and complex procedures. I realize we aspire to having a society of “highly sophisticated knowledge workers” but it’s an aspiration. Finally, anyone who knows how to play a musical instrument, speak a foreign language, or apply mathematical formulas to solve engineering problems, to name a few, has had to employ rote learning and doing strategies.

    Comment by Suzanne Aurilio — 28 April 2010 @ 11:22 AM

  4. Your question – “how can we systematically support people to be effectively supported by machines?” brings to mind the conversations around “affective computing” or machines that emote. If machines had better emotional responses to humans, perhaps we’d have better relationships with them. I’m not sure it’s where you are going — but there’s something in your question about how we build relationships with the objects around us. How we support people, perhaps, has do to with the nature of those relationships. Just a thought.

    Comment by rani — 28 April 2010 @ 2:11 PM

  5. What great feedback! Rani, you are right that affective computing wasn’t where I was going, but it’s certainly part of the equation. Good call! Similarly, Connie, your pointers to agile development, user experience, and design thinking are very much aligned to my thinking.

    Suzanne, don’t get me wrong, there’s certainly a place for automatization: e.g. the complex vocabulary of medicine, the emergency responses of pilots, and your own example of performances. The latter, however, I see not as the end, but as enabling for artistic riffs on top of a body of knowledge. Similarly, the knowledge work includes both compiled performance and more conscious ill-structured problem solving (cf Van Merrienboer when talking about the knowledge we need combined with the complex problems we apply it to). As Jonassen points out, the problems we provide kids in classrooms bear little resemblance to the problems they face in the world, sadly.

    Will, as you know, I couldn’t agree more that our existing training could have the game lifted significantly (see my Broken ID series of posts, where I address things like engagement and contextualized practice for de-contextualization). You’re a master of evidence-based practice, and we’re of a like mind on the value of that.

    Comment by Clark — 28 April 2010 @ 7:28 PM

  6. @Suzanne – IMHO, I would hesitate to agree that the great musicians of our time and other times are a product of rote learning. There is also significant research that speaks to engineering education and the inadequacies of producing technicians (rote learners via traditional lecture-based, teacher-focused approaches) as opposed to creative, flexible, and innovative engineering professionals. For this reason, engineering education is undergoing significant (and painful, dare I say) reform. Great conversation – thanks.

    Comment by Angela — 29 April 2010 @ 9:56 AM

  7. […] was thinking about all of this as I read Clark Quinn’s excellent post on Designing for an uncertain world. In it, he talks about “a pedagogy that looks at slow development over […]

    Pingback by Do People Learn Like Buildings Do? « The Usable Learning Blog — 3 May 2010 @ 6:54 AM

  8. Clark, I think you’ll like this post by Tim Maly: http://quietbabylon.com/2010/intelligence-with-a-data-plan/

    It’s difficult to work with models based on training people when, more and more, they’re functioning as cyborgs. I think the previous sentence would have looked, to my own eyes, absurdly portentous even a few months ago.

    @Will Thalheimer is right about the opportunities we have open to us if we want to make training more effective. But I wonder (worry?) about cost. At some point, it’s going to be cheaper to focus on multiple redundant sources of augmentation/support than it is to work with trainers. I just can’t see all these outboards minds and mental prostheses not leading to some kind of hybrid of the Baldwin and Flynn Effects. Systems Thinkers often seem to come close to making this claim already – training as ‘failure demand’.

    Comment by Simon Bostock — 19 May 2010 @ 3:22 PM

  9. […] and understandable, so that we can capture the ‘right’ behavior and train it. …”   (Clark Quinn) This “flawed premise” is what we could name “reductionism”. […]

    Pingback by Rhizomes and education. What would my ideal learning situation be? #change11 « connectiv — 5 December 2011 @ 7:05 AM

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress