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

12 August 2015

Designing Learning Like Professionals

Clark @ 8:31 AM

I’m increasingly realizing that the ways we design and develop content are part of the reason why we’re not getting the respect we deserve.  Our brains are arguably the most complex things in the known universe, yet we don’t treat our discipline as the science it is.  We need to start combining experience design with learning engineering to really start delivering solutions.

To truly design learning, we need to understand learning science.  And this does not mean paying attention to so-called ‘brain science’. There is legitimate brain science (c.f. Medina, Willingham), and then there’s a lot of smoke.

For instance, there’re sound cognitive reasons why information dump and knowledge test won’t lead to learning.  Information that’s not applied doesn’t stick, and application that’s not sufficient doesn’t stick. And it won’t transfer well if you don’t have appropriate contexts across examples and practice.  The list goes on.

What it takes is understanding our brains: the different components, the processes, how learning proceeds, and what interferes.  And we need to look at the right levels; lots of neuroscience is not relevant at the higher level where our thinking happens.  And much about that is still under debate (just google ‘consciousness‘ :).

What we do have are robust theories about learning that pretty comprehensively integrate the empirical data.  More importantly, we have lots of ‘take home’ lessons about what does, and doesn’t work.  But just following a template isn’t sufficient.  There are gaps where have to use our best inferences based upon models to fill in.

The point I’m trying to make is that we have to stop treating designing learning as something anyone can do.  The notion that we can have tools that make it so anyone can design learning has to be squelched. We need to go back to taking pride in our work, and designing learning that matches how our brains work. Otherwise, we are guilty of malpractice. So please, please, start designing in coherence with what we know about how people learn.

If you’re interested in learning more, I’ll be running a learning science for design workshop at DevLearn, and would love to see you there.


  1. Clark – You touch on a topic that truly needs addressing. However, allow me to take a slightly different approach. My belief is that designing learning, needs to be treated as two areas – Designing & Learning. One critical to other, but treated on different levels. Learning creation without the proper foundation of the psychological learning process (not to be confused with brain science) but has a good user interface is as doomed to failure just as a solid learning element put into a poor design creation will fail. Both pieces of the puzzle must fit to produce a picture. As we have said many times before, it’s not the tool – it’s the human behind the tool. As is evidenced with Articulate Hero’s. There is wonderful content there which is both thoughtful toward the learning process and design elements all the while using a rapid authoring tool.

    The issue with L&D is that we fail to partner with the right people. We fail to recognize we have gaps, and subsequently we fail to address those gaps. So I’m less concerned about the less experienced among us who are trying to put into place an instructional design process within their organziations, rapid or not, than those who feel convinced that instructional design will singularly win the day – this is malpratice. When we build bridges to bring about both components of the art (and psychology) of design and the science of learning, is when we will create strong learning connections and any more there is no reason to work alone, even when we are one person departments. .

    Comment by Shannon — 12 August 2015 @ 8:34 PM

  2. Shannon, we have science of design too, and it too is based upon our cognitive abilities. Take brainstorming, for instance: https://www.td.org/Publications/Blogs/Science-of-Learning-Blog/2015/07/How-to-Brainstorm So we should be professional and evidence based in our design processes as well as our design outputs. And I actually have more faith in people’s ability to get decent design than good learning, as we’ve seen much more examples. Also c.f. http://thenewid.com/2015/05/27/missing-the-point.html

    And yes, the tool can be used for good, but if it’s designed to support doing bad stuff (c.f. powerpoint bullets), it takes extra work to do good.

    I see a huge gap in science. The aesthetics not so much; the tools make it easy to get the look and feel reasonably right, but when you’ve got a multiple choice tool that only has one feedback response for all the wrong answers, you’re fighting an uphill battle.

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Comment by Clark — 13 August 2015 @ 8:49 AM

  3. You touched on a fascinating and deep subject, Clark, I’m really glad this topic gets some recognition.

    I am always surprised just how quick can people learn, especially when they don’t do it consciously. In my opinion the most important point you have made is applying the knowledge. When you actually use your knowledge, you get intimate with the concepts behind and everything becomes a second nature.

    I would even say that after spending sufficent time applying a piece of knowledge, a conscious effort is needed to forget it – would you agree?

    Comment by John Laskaris @ Talent LMS — 20 August 2015 @ 2:06 AM

  4. John, as we practice, our knowledge is compiled away, inaccessible. And we don’t ‘unlearn’, we have to learn ‘over’ or on top of our existing learning if we want to change. We either need to change triggers for application, or if we have the same trigger it really requires a painful overlearning process.

    Comment by Clark — 20 August 2015 @ 6:49 AM

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