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

8 October 2012

Focus on ‘do’

Clark @ 5:49 AM

I’ve been working on a project where we’re reviewing the curriculum before we design the learning outcome.  The level of detail is admirable: courses are defined by objectives, which then drive learning objectives, from which are extracted key concepts to present.  And I’m finding one approach that’s making this go really well.

There are problems with the existing content.  Some of the learning objectives are too specific, leading to an interpretation that won’t lead to transfer beyond the classroom.  Some of the coverage in objectives or concepts is biased, so some topics are not covered enough, and others too much.  Some of the learning objectives are focused on tasks that were clearly designed to incite learner interest, but not in an intrinsic way.  And I’m not a domain expert, but I can still apply enough real world knowledge to make this determination (and we’ll review with SMEs).

What’s providing a very useful lever in identifying these gaps, even prior to remedying them, is a rabid focus on ‘do‘. That is: “what will the learner be able to do with this after the class”. Implied are two things: 1) that the learner will care about , and 2) that will let them have an impact somewhere.

This focus is letting me see that some things are so specific that they won’t generalize anywhere interesting; to identify that some of the goals are not really relevant anywhere else (e.g. a focus on ‘celebrity’ examples).  That the coverage is spotty and some topics that have applicability have been skipped.

Such a focus will, I think, help in the discussions with the SMEs, and provide a way to work with them to get good outcomes for the learning and the learners.  It’s a learning-centered approach (I think that’s a better phrase than learner-centric) that helps us meet the client’s goals in ways they understand.

What do you think?


  1. Agree with you on “do”. I do think, however, that your wording of “what the learner will be able to do” still does not imply your core/crucial assumption that they will *care*. I have seen far too many objective shifts from knowledge/understanding-driven to performance-do based, but with no significant change in post-learning actual behavior. It (focus on do vs. know) gets us closer, though, and at least gives us a fighting chance. But without a massive change in responsibility from WILL BE ABLE to WILL ACTUALLY DO, we’re still wasting everyone’s time.

    Taking responsibility for post-learning results in terms of actual doing not just capability of doing is– as always– challenging when we lack the capability to push on the systems that inhibit the action in practice. But until we embrace that all the enabling in the world means nothing if they still do not DO the now-enabled thing, we won’t make the necessary shifts in what we actually deliver.

    Even if we cannot change the systems that inhibit behavior, we can still (at least sometimes) raise the likelihood it will happen, but if anything has changed for me personally over the last decade, it has been a slow steady shift in balance AWAY from “what to do” moving through “how to do” then moving to “why to do” then all the way to “will ACTUALLY do”. Which ends up being all about motivation and less and less about learning. We all know, both intuitively and in practice for ourselves, that when the motivation is strong enough, the mechanics are almost trivial. Not necessarily trivial for the learner to master, but they become simply details, and more importantly — the behavior becomes much more robust. In other words, we want people to be willing and able to do the thing even in the face of incomplete, sketchy, missing chunks of knowledge and understanding.

    Guess this is my rambling way of saying that there is still a massive gap between ABLE and WILLING, so I would add “willing” in your “what the learner will be able to do” description. It is not what I have *enabled* that matters (though that may be a key prerequisite), it is what *actually happens* later. I know this is your intent, which is why you made “care about it” as one of your two key assumptions/implications. It’s just that I do not feel that “care about it” really IS implied by a focus on “able to do”, whereas if our objective becomes WILL ACTUALLY DO, then it makes your assumptions more likely.

    Comment by Kathy Sierra — 8 October 2012 @ 9:21 AM

  2. Kathy, absolutely, agree that while we have to focus on ‘do’ from the point of view of our objectives, we need to find contexts in which it’s obvious why ‘do’ is important, and secondly (and just as importantly) that learners care about when we’re exposing them (via examples) and having them practice. Of course, if we don’t get the ‘do’ right first, the rest isn’t going to help (and I see too much of that).

    Comment by Clark — 9 October 2012 @ 4:15 AM

  3. “what will the learner be able to do with this after the class”
    Your question is a variation on the eternal “When will I ever use this?” question.

    One key to addressing this question is to embed “after class” performance
    right into the initial learning.

    I find framing learner performance outcomes this way helpful:
    “Given what, you will do what, how well?”
    This is much more of an “on demand” statement than a hypothetical “will be able to”.

    When the conditions (Given what) include not just physical tools and materials
    but an authentic context and schema that requires the performance to reflect
    adaptation to and application within an authentic world-of-work situation,
    the motivational value of “why to do” as well as “when to do” become more apparent.

    It’s important that learner’s learning engagements with the new content and
    assessment of the new performances (both formative and summative)
    be couched in authentic contexts. This holds for both directed & self-directed learning.

    When the performance outcomes and their supporting content(s) are driven by standards
    for licensure or compliance, related situational contexts are usually more apparent.

    An unexpected benefit of the framework often shows up in the “how well” element.
    Context raises our awareness of the demands of not just accuracy, but also fluency.
    How efficiently can you make the best decision, get a process, project or procedure underway,
    or piece of equipment operating?

    As for what can be done to increase the likelihood that the new learning will be transferred,
    I recommend The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results by Wick, Pollack & Jefferson. This book and the company’s resources address matters of transfer within the context of workplace factors.

    Comment by Mark Joyce — 9 October 2012 @ 8:15 AM

  4. Mark, for all that I’m a cognitivist (constructivist, embedded cognitionist, …), I don’t have a problem with Mager-style behavioral objectives (“do this, to this level, in this context”), which strikes me as what you’re talking about. So, as I commented re: Kathy, I’m just starting with meaningful objectives, but obviously there’re more relevancies we can bring to bear to make it even more powerful. Thanks for the feedback!

    Comment by Clark — 9 October 2012 @ 11:19 AM

  5. Clark, you say you’re a cognitivist. I often tell people I’m a Reform Behaviorist. I certainly think it’s valuable for people to WANT to do whatever it is — I’m just pretty skeptical about my own ability to get them to want.

    Kathy Sierra’s a great model for caring whether they want to. That attitude helps inform the choices that the designer / developer makes, as the approach you are describing is trying to do.

    I’m not preaching, but if I were, I’d be preaching to the choir to say that there’s a strong tendency for us designers and developers to want the learners (whatever we call them) to care the same way we do about the same things we do. This, I’m convinced, is what enables the cult of overexplanation, the fetishization of will-be-able-tos, and any number of well-intended instructional rituals.

    Some of those rituals are attempts to concretize ideas that can have value: get people to write down their personal goals for whatever, for example, with the idea that that helps them connect what they’re going to learn with what they want or need to accomplish.

    If I care enough about gaining that ability, I wonder how much I really need to write down goals. And if at the moment I don’t care, I’m not sure that writing is going to do all that much for me.

    (I don’t have any answer to this; your post and the comments are just a good late-afternoon boost for me.)

    Comment by Dave Ferguson — 12 October 2012 @ 1:04 PM

  6. There is a final level of assessment that no one seems to be very cognizant of, but that I find really helps move from “know how ought to do” to “want to do.” Invention. If assessment includes an opportunity for the learner to invent something the instructional designer didn’t think to ask for, then they learner becomes the real owner of the learning he or she took pains to acquire. Prompt the learner to show you some application of the material that wasn’t suggested in the learning experience.

    Comment by tahiya — 16 October 2012 @ 9:42 AM

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress