Naming the thing: the importance of sharing understanding and checking it

It was a metallic ping that caught my attention: loud and clear, slightly worrying. I pulled over, but it took me a few minutes to spot the problem. Herman was built in 1964, a vintage Land Rover built in the days when there were few engineering problems that couldn’t be solved with a bigger bolt or a heaver girder welded to the front. Herman is reliable, in the sense that he is still on the road and still running, but not in the sense that he offers a relaxing motoring experience.

The electrics are erratic at best. I counted recently and, of the seventeen artefacts on the dashboard that are in some way powered or supposed to be functional, four work reliably, six occasionally and seven not at all. Indeed, i have no idea what three of them are supposed to do anyway. Which all just goes to show how over engineered he was in the first place as clearly none of them are essential.

When it rains outside, it rains inside too, odd jets of water permeating the many seals and cracks because, like all Land Rovers, Herman is bolted together in such a way that you can undo all the body panels and remove roof, doors, bonnet and bodywork with ease. All very convenient when new, but now, after nearly fifty years of hard work, the whole thing creaks and flexes like a distressed arthritic whale.

The problem, it turns out, was a bolt holding the windscreen on. The windscreen is hinged at the bottom so that, when on safari, you can drop it down. Very handy in southern England. Whilst i had no particular need to ride safari, i do have a need for the windscreen to remain in situ, which meant buying a new bolt, something i assumed would be easy. But, as it turns out, there’s a lot to learn about bolts.

The challenge came as i tried to search online: various permutations of ‘series two land rover windscreen bolt’ failed to deliver what i wanted. In the end, in desperation, i had to ring up an actual person, a real human being, who was able to immediately provide the answer (the answer, naturally, being that they could provide one, but that it would cost me about a hundred times as much as a normal bolt).

All of this made me think, not about engineering, but about why it was so much easier to communicate directly with a person. On a technical level, i guess it’s because whoever sells Land Rover bolts online just chose to use different technical descriptions from me, so i couldn’t meet the search criteria. It’s probably called an M12 coach bolt or something similar for those in the know. It’s so easy to assume that we are using common language, that we are sharing ideas and understanding, but in fact, it’s so easy to be talking at odds without even realising it.

It it was this hard for me to find the right language to buy a bolt, how often is the language or description wrong when designing learning? It’s so easy to write half a page of text that we think is a great description of something, but which may, in fact, be using a language that eludes people. The challenge with e-learning has always been how to bridge the gap between having someone next to you explaining things or writing an explanation that can be shared with a thousand people, but which is unresponsive to their feedback or lack of understanding.

As ever, i guess the way to ensure our language is clear is to include opportunities for proofing, for review and pilot, but also taking time out to read things through and change our perspective. What makes sense to someone with ten years experience in a field may not make sense to me with none.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Clarity, Communication, E-Learning, Knowledge, Language, Learning, Learning Design and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Naming the thing: the importance of sharing understanding and checking it

  1. Pingback: Consensual Leadership | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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