Rules are made to be broken. Why conforming is not always a good thing.

In learning, as with all things, it’s sometimes good to challenge authority. Just because things have always been done one way, doesn’t mean that that’s the best way to do them. Convention is just how things have come to be done, by common agreement.

Sometimes you should try to do things within an expected framework, so that the learner knows what to expect. Whenever you have a channel of communication, like television or published books, you see the emergence of standardised formats. On television, you have a ‘news’ format, a ‘film’ format and so on. If you’re aiming to produce content within one of these channels, it’s usually accepted that you will will adhere to the format; a documentary film will follow a story, setting a position, introducing ‘experts’, developing an argument and trying to introduce something new into the story.

There are lots of advantages to sticking within these conventions. It allows you to take shortcuts, to achieve economies within the plot. It’s like when you see an episode of Star Trek (original series, of course), where you see the party about to beam down to the surface. Against all tactical wisdom, the Captain and First Officer beam down in the first party, along with two or three other crew members. You don’t know their names and you don’t expect to, because we all know that they’re not coming back. Beaming with Kirk is a surefire bad move. Everyone knows it. It’s convention.

Sometimes you should do the odd thing outside the expected framework, so that everyone who thinks they know what to expect sits up and takes notice. It doesn’t have to be a huge change, you don’t need to start a revolution, you just need to defy expectations and grab the advantage back.

For example, many pieces of e-learning are started with a ‘sponsor’ video, or a welcome message, that instructs the learner that what they are about to see is worthy, that it’s official, that it’s validated and sits within an expected framework. But you don’t have to do this. You could publish a comic book instead, or get someone from the shop floor to present it, or even craft your message as a challenge, asking people to work out what they want to learn from something, rather than telling them. Or you could change the ‘tone of voice’, away from formal corporate to informal vernacular.

Think about the ‘voices’ that people listen to in everyday life; the radio channels, the films, the television, the conversation in the pub. Think about how the language changes, think about how we change our own conversation patterns, word usage and style to different situations and then think about what voice we’re using in the learning. Try a different voice.

Sometimes you can garner power and authority by working within conventions, whilst at other times, you can do the same by challenging them.

Think of something you do a lot. Now think how you can challenge it do it differently.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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