Selling snake oil. Why sometimes a little bit of common sense is worth any number of weak theories.

At the Learning Technology Conference this week and struck by the mix of glorious innovation and plain old fashioned nonsense.

It’s incredible the credibility that people attach to something if it’s written on a wall, stuck in a glossy brochure or spouted by a guy in a suit.

“People have been learning the old fashioned way for 5,000 years, but with social media, that’s all changed” proclaimed one chap, to loud applause. What? What does this even mean? Seriously, are you telling me that Facebook and YouTube have changed the world?

“In 1920 it was demonstrated that people forget 90% of everything they learn within two hours of learning it. This is terribly inefficient.” Seriously? The ten percent got me through three degrees and left me with the ability to pay the gas bill on time.

Had he stopped to think about what he was saying, and, more importantly, what this actually meant? If you ask me, it would be terribly inefficient to remember the other 90%. We don’t learn through remembering everything we see or do. We learn by developing wonderfully intricate spiderwebs of concepts and patterns, concepts and patterns that we subsequently recall and string together into composite patterns and activities. And why don’t we don’t remember the rest? Maybe because a lot of it is ‘filler’, its the fluff between the core information that we just don’t need to remember. If i can remember the key features of a recipe, i don’t need the explanation of how to break the eggs or turn the oven on. I’m familiar with that from every other recipe.

When i walk, i don’t have to stop to think how to do it. Once i did. But i don’t any more. I’ve learnt. It’s internalised. My brain just thinks vaguely ‘i’d like a cup of tea’ and my legs take me over to the kettle. Our brains are wonderfully good at sifting out the valuable bits and discarding the rest. Indeed, that’s why they’re wired up the way they are. You’ve got short term memory to hold onto the fluff whilst you work out what to keep.

Of course, i’m being cynical. Sure, Facebook and YouTube have changed the world, but not in some paradigm shift of activity and thought. Rather they are latest step in the confluence of enabling technology, innovative software solutions and social patterns of activity that we all engage in. We’re not changing how we learn: the technology and software have just adapted to come closer to exactly how we have learnt for the last 5,000 years (and probably quite a few before that as well).

I’m not bothered by people trying to sell things, but rather by the perceived need to position everything as ‘the best thing ever, the answer to all your problems’ and predicated upon one or two very flimsy pieces of ‘evidence’ that barely stand up to the scrutiny of eyesight.

It’s like Learning Styles. Sure, we all learn in different ways and, sure, there can be benefit in understanding people’s preferred learning styles. But this is a reductionist approach. Observing behaviours to categorise how people learn is academically interesting, but the challenge comes when you flip the essentially diagnostic tool around and use it as a gun to point at learning design. I can’t bear it when people try to take this reductionist approach to everything, demonstrating their grasp of the simple concept, but then perpetually showing slides saying ‘activists’ and insisting that we need to have drag and drop exercises all over the screen.

It’s fundamentally missing the point that people flex their styles at will, on demand, or in a crisis. Sure, we have a PREFERRED style, just as we have a preferred influencing style or conflict resolution style, but there’s a world of difference between understanding these simple concepts and producing high quality learning, and i’m pretty sure that the answer does not lie in trying to be all things to all people. The answer lies in simple things like reading back what we’ve written, proof reading, good editing and a willingness to carry out proper pilot and feedback studies. It comes in telling great stories, well written and well presented.

There will surely be great innovations in learning theory and learning technology and we will do well to embrace and act upon them, but this is a world away from spouting some poorly observed and logically weak research from 1920, complete with a graph showing that 525 minutes after viewing the slide, i’ll have forgotten what it was about.

Chance would be a fine thing.

About Julian Stodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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One Response to Selling snake oil. Why sometimes a little bit of common sense is worth any number of weak theories.

  1. Iain says:

    Hi Julian.

    Interesting commentary re LT conf and think you are right that too many seem to be on the bandwagon about how technology will change the world.

    The interesting thing is uncovering where it adds value and works.

    Enjoying the blogs!!

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