Focus on What’s Important for Learning

When my daughter was in kindergarten, it was so much fun to watch her process of learning to read and write. During their unit about animals, my daughter wrote some facts about fish.

Colored pencil and construction paper art of a fish in a tank with sentences below.
A fish moves with its tail and fin.
Its covering is called scales.
Fish do not have eyebrows.

How fish move, what kind of covering they have…and their lack of eyebrows?!? Now, if you’ve ever spent much time talking to any five-year-olds, you can probably imagine a conversation involving fish eyebrows. They ask questions and make connections that adults wouldn’t expect. And of course, it is true: fish don’t have eyebrows. But is that really a critical piece of information?

SMEs Love All the Information

Sometimes working with SMEs is a bit like talking to my daughter about fish eyebrows. They love ALL the information. They are passionate about all the nitty gritty details and all the nuance. After all, they’re SMEs–this is their specialty.

The problem comes when the SMEs insist on including every bit of that information in a course. They want everyone else to love it as much as they do, and they often want to share the equivalent of “fish eyebrows.” They want a long explanation of the history of changes to a regulation, or the biography of the person who developed the theory, or descriptions of a bunch of rare situations that are outside of the scope of the current project.

Seductive Details

If that extra information is interesting, you might think there’s no harm in including it. However, this can actually depress learning. Ruth Clark calls these “seductive details” that distract learners away from the critical content. Learners pay attention to the irrelevant, seductive details and connect those details to their own prior knowledge. They make the wrong mental connections rather than the ones we’re trying to encourage.

This is called the “coherence principle” in the article linked above and in eLearning and the Science of Instruction.

The coherence principle: using gratuitous visuals, text, and sounds can hurt learning.

Ruth Clark, Six Principles of Effective e-Learning: What Works and Why, p. 6

Determine What’s Important

How do we decide what’s important and what’s extraneous?
I like Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping method. The core of that process is:

  1. Figure out what people need to DO (not just know).
  2. Develop ways to practice skills that require training.
  3. Only include the content people need to complete those activities.

By starting with the goal (what people need to do or what behavior needs to change), you keep everything focused on what’s essential.

What If You Really Need to Include the Other Stuff?

In the real world, sometimes we do need to include some less-essential content. We can reduce a lot of it, but sometimes the politics of a situation dictate which battles we should fight.

If you’re in that situation, at least shift the supplemental information out of the core training. Move it to a resources section, downloadable workbook, or reference to consult during or after the training.

This is Tactic #28 in Patti Shank’s Write and Organize for Deeper Learning: Move Less-Essential Content to Non-Prime Space. However, this can become an easy crutch to rely on.

Don’t use this tactic as an excuse to add non-valuable content. Ask yourself, “Who needs this?”

Patti Shank, Write and Organize for Deeper Learning, p. 117

That’s an excellent question to ask your SMEs when you need to push back against their desire to include “fish eyebrows.” You can use some follow up questions too.

  • Who needs this?
  • What is a situation where learners will need that information to do their jobs?
  • How will that information affect how they make decisions?

If your SMEs can’t answer those questions, that content doesn’t belong in the training.

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