Why what i think you want is not what you really want. Defying the transactional view of learning.

I’ve often tried to anticipate what kind of response i’ll get from a particular article or Tweet. I like to feel that i can guess what sort of reaction a piece of learning will have when it hits the end user. But after many attempts, the one thing i’ve discovered that can be almost guaranteed is that the results will defy expectations because, it turns out, people are complex.

The transactional view of learning is common. It holds that we pull a particular lever and a specific thing will occur. It takes the reductionist view that if we study behaviour closely enough, break down learning into small enough constituent chunks and carefully tailor our solution to tweak the right sensors, then we will get a predictable response and outcome. And sometimes this works. But usually it doesn’t.

People are driven by complex sets of needs and desires, much like myself. And yourself. Because people are pretty much all the same, in a very different kind of way. Understanding that people are different, and highly discerning and agile learners in many cases, helps us to shift our view of how we build learning. I always say that we should aim for it to be magnetic, for people to want to engage with it because it’s worth getting engaged to, not because we tell them that they have to.

This is one area where learning design can benefit from the hard commercial realities of advertising and commerce. Nobody is going to force you to shop at Tesco’s or buy a new Mini. You’re only going to do it because it’s either something that fit’s your view of the world or because the convenience outweighs the difference. In other words, i like shopping in Waitrose, but it’s fifteen minutes further away than Tesco’s, so i shop at Tesco. I like the idea of Waitrose, but i don’t like it fifteen minutes worth. They can pull as many levers as they like, but my reality is that i don’t like the drive, so i won’t do it.

Within learning, we often spend a lot of time contextualising what we want the learner to do. This is good, it’s the first step of the learning methodology, but like many things, you can have too much of it. Just because i think you will respond to my well written reasoning why this learning experience will be good for you, doesn’t mean that you will respond well. In fact, the evidence is against it. The only evidence i have suggests that the chance of me pulling the right levers and expecting a specific response is very low indeed.

Far better to just produce a good, concise, clear and engaging piece of learning and let people make their own decisions. No amount of advertising is going to make me go to Waitrose, because it’s just inconvenient, and no amount of me telling you that something is great is going to make you believe it. Unless you see for yourself that it’s great.

And what does ‘great’ mean in this context? Well, it might mean good quality and interesting, but it might mean short. Or well signposted. Or highly relevant to my job role. Or something that relates to my pay rise. The definition of ‘great’ is also context sensitive: what i think is great for you may not be what you think it great at all.

So maybe we should stop trying to pull quite so many levers and focus instead on the internal coherence of our narratives. Instead of pleading and imploring learners to engage, perhaps we should just focus on making the learning engaging. It we get it right, we move from a transactional view of learning to a more relationship based one, where there is something in it for everyone.

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About Julian Stodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Context, Design, Learning, Relationship, Transactional and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why what i think you want is not what you really want. Defying the transactional view of learning.

  1. maturestudenthanginginthere says:

    Because people are pretty much all the same, in a very different kind of way….. I like this. Interesting thoughts on engaging people in learning – thank you.

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