Designing Learning Like Professionals

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.

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