Richard Presley's Meandering Missives

Occasional thoughts on learning, training, and the business of both


July 2015

The Persistence of Trivia

The Persistence of Memory ~Salvador Dali
The Persistence of Memory ~Salvador Dali

Last week I said that it was much easier to remember complex information that is part of an immersive experience that triggers an emotional response than it is to recall disconnected info bits.

And none of you said I was wrong.

Shame on you.

I’m thinking that I should get a job as a Consultant because my blathering went uncontested. Oh, wait. I am. Never mind.

Since none of you were kind enough to challenge me, let me propose a contrarian viewpoint. So here I am fighting with myself….

If we supposedly have a difficult time recalling facts and data, why is it that we can memorize a prodigious amount of trivial information with almost no effort? For example, did you know the Komodo dragon is the world’s largest living lizard? How is it that I happen to know that unusual and possibly useless fact? In part, it’s because I was once a biology teacher and had an arsenal of curious factoids at my disposal. In actuality, I knew this fact long before I became a biology major. When I was a youngster I heard this Bob and Ray skit. For obvious reasons every time I think of Komodo dragons, the fact that they are the world’s largest living lizard pops into my head. My guess is that it will stick with you now that you have heard Bob and Ray.

Komodo Dragon From

One explanation for why we remember random bits of trivia relates to Piaget’s stages of development. When we are younger we respond very well to rote memory and are able to compile a staggering amount of information and keep it in our heads. This includes things like the multiplication tables, spelling rules, the names of the 50 states and their capitals, and lyrics to countless songs. Our young minds are like sponges soaking up prodigious amounts of information, but somewhere during our later elementary years, our minds begin to change and we lose the ability to quickly assimilate knowledge through rote memory. Which is why you no longer effortlessly memorize lyrics to songs in the 2010’s – not because the music really stinks compared to the 80’s.

However, this does not account for information that sticks in our head quickly and easily after we become older. Why is it that fantasy football fanatics can memorize page after page of current player statistics with seemingly miniscule effort? And for those of us with no interest in fantasy football or baseball statistics, we feel like dunderheads because we don’t know even the most basic information. Nor does there seem to be any way for us to duplicate their feats, even if we had access to the same information sources. Are these people naturally smarter than we are? Of course not. They’re playing fantasy football, after all.

Clearly, there is more to memorization than just access to information and “natural ability.” We have already seen that it is much easier to recall information that is linked to already existing information. If a person knows the engine size and horsepower output for every Corvette model year since 1966, it is a relatively easy thing to add the stats for the 2016 model because it fits neatly within the context of already existing information. But this begs the question of why is there 50 years of Corvette engine history inside someone’s head in the first place? That’s the hard question with the easy answer – they have an interest in it. So why is that such a hard question if it has such an easy answer? Because the hard part of the question is, “Why do they have an interest in it?”

Why do I remember the fact that the Komodo dragon is the world’s largest living lizard? Was it because I’ve always been interested in animal facts, leading to my eventual college major of biology? Perhaps. Was it because I like Bob & Ray and listened to them whenever I got a chance? Maybe. Was it because I laughed myself silly listening to their spoof of clueless newscasters (which has contributed to my view of press pundits ever since)? Could be.  Undoubtedly, there are even more reasons not immediately apparent even to me. Simply put, there were multiple interconnected threads that linked a bit of trivial information through an emotional experience that permanently etched itself into my brain. It is almost impossible to understand why any particular info bit is of interest to us.

I discovered that this pattern holds across almost everything I know. When playing Trivial Pursuit I noticed that every time I got an answer correct and people asked, “How could you possibly know that?” I was able to tell a story of how that particular info bit got lodged in my brain. It was sort of like a real-life Slumdog Millionaire experience – but without the cash winnings, of course. I discovered that information doesn’t exist on its own in our brains; it is connected and interconnected to experiences that we may or may not remember, all of which contribute to its meaning and significance.

To summarize so far:

  • We routinely memorize vast quantities of trivial information
  • We tend to easily learn information that is of interest to us
  • The reason the information is of interest to us is not readily apparent
  • And I still forget why I walked into the room sometimes – oh, wait. That was last week.

This naturally leads us to question how this can be of any use to us as instructional designers, but I suspect you already know the answer. Before we get to it, though, let’s look at a contrary example – stuff I wish people didn’t know.

As a teacher, I had to work hard to teach students the phases of mitosis and the chemical formula for photosynthesis, but it was nothing compared to how hard I had to work every year to convince people that blood in veins is not blue. For whatever reason, the vast majority of kids would come into class and tell me that they “knew” venous blood was blue because that’s what they’ve always been taught. They would argue vehemently that this was true – even though they have never seen blue blood. When I quizzed them about this, they said that once the blood was exposed to oxygen it turned red and that’s why we never see the blue blood. So naturally, I was intrigued by how quickly and pervasively these things spread when truth appeared to travel at a glacial pace. Why is it that I struggled so hard to impart easily recalled information when there were so many false facts they were able to recall quickly and easily?

I concluded that the reason false facts were so persistent is because they invoked an emotional response that provided a lasting experience which stimulated recall. When students are confronted with diagrams of the human circulatory system that show arteries as red and veins as blue, this creates a cognitive disconnect, because intuition leads them to assume all blood vessels are red. Their teacher points out that if they look at veins under their skin, they appear blue. Suddenly, what was originally counterintuitive now makes complete sense and they have an “Ah, ha!” moment. The emotional epiphany makes a lasting impression. And thus a non-existent fact is permanently etched in their brains.

My training strategy from then on was to create emotional epiphanies every day in hopes that some of it might stick. As a biology teacher, this was fairly easy since the entire field is full of fun facts and freaky creatures. To this day, my students remember facts about the loa loa worm and Komodo dragon, among others.

Since I no longer teach biology professionally, I have translated this approach to instructional design by including as many shocking stories or astounding facts as I can. We call them case studies and scenario based learning, but the pedagogical model is the same – create an engaging experience that evokes an emotional response and recall will be enhanced. We have a number of options at our disposal to accomplish this:

And plenty more. Let’s do our best to shock, surprise, and engage in order to inform.


Hollering for Toilet Paper

Last week I brought up this FastCompany article on 3 Simple Steps to Boost Your Memory. Since then, they’ve added this article. Kind of makes me wonder what they’ve forgotten and what they are trying so hard to remember. But (as always), I digress.

As you recall, the article summarized Dr. Gary Small’s book, 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain, which highlighted these three steps to improve your memory:

  • Meditate
  • Focus and Frame
  • Prospective Review Time

I concentrated on the Focus and Frame segment last week. As promised, I’ll take a look at Prospective Review Time and how we can use that to enhance retention. Here is what the article says:

“A major problem people have is with what we call prospective memory,” says Dr. Small. Prospective memory is the ability to recall that you need to do something in the future. “You leave the house and you forget your phone or the file you need for a meeting.”

“This has to do with teaching memory habits,” says Dr. Small. “We all tend to do this to some extent—we have memory places that remind us to do things. For example, next to the dinette table, I have my vitamins in the drawer, and that reminds me to take my vitamins in the morning.”

I have been teaching prospective memory techniques for years and never knew that’s what it was called. My children have been unwilling victims of repeated attempts to imbue them with flawless prospective memory skills. The most common venue for this lesson is to inform them that I should never hear a plaintive request from an occupied restroom for someone to bring them a roll of toilet paper.


I am of the opinion that anyone who enters a restroom knows what they want to accomplish and what tools they need to get the job done before they ever get started. I believe restroom users should have a such a deep-seated habit of making sure all required supplies and equipment are on hand before committing to a course of action, that a request for someone to bring them toilet paper could never possibly happen. Thanks to the power of negative stimuli and operant conditioning (in this case a long-winded lecture to a captive learner on “The Need To Plan Ahead” delivered free charge  with the accompanying delivery of a fresh roll of toilet paper), I haven’t heard this request in years. From a training effectiveness evaluation standpoint, I consider this a win.

Experience has shown, however, that this skill doesn’t necessarily transfer well. I may have successfully prepared them to never find themselves in a public restroom at a loss for necessary tools and equipment, but that doesn’t mean my learners have extended this lesson to other areas of their lives. However, due to repeated early-stage training events, I have a shorthand way of promoting the virtue of prospective memory when cross-discipline training situations arise  by simply asking the aphoristic question, “You’re not hollering for toilet paper, are you?” Even in non-restroom situations, the lesson is clearly understood that one doesn’t start something unless one has checked to make sure they have sufficient tools and equipment on hand to finish the task.

So how do we instill this “check for toilet paper” skill in other areas of life? For me, the key is mental rehearsal and practice. We all know the phrase (rendered approximately as), “Prior planning prevents …poor performance.” As important as the planning is, I’ve found it insufficient on its own to boost prospective memory. This is where preparation and practice come to the rescue.

One of the things I’ve learned from my days working the lab bench is that you never begin an experiment until you have done two very important things:

  1. Read the procedure
  2. Assemble the ingredients & equipment

Reading the procedure is more than passing one’s eyes over the instructions. It involves an evaluation of all the steps that need to take place, an estimation of the amount of time that will elapse, and a consideration of all the ancillary steps that need to accompany the procedure. For me, this was a mental rehearsal of all the tasks I needed to complete in order to have a successful experiment. As I read the procedure, I visualized myself performing the steps before I even made a move. The next step was to assemble all the ingredients, line them up on the bench in the order in which I was going to use them, (yes, I’m OCD that way) and put the equipment together. In effect, this was a second rehearsal of the experiment. By the time I actually performed the experiment, I had already “done” it twice in my head.

This mental rehearsal has stood me in good stead outside of the lab as well. I don’t start cooking anything at home unless I’ve read the recipe and assembled all the ingredients and equipment. On a side note, I’ve also found that it isn’t considered helpful by other people who don’t use this technique and they ask you to run to the store for a needed ingredient, to be quizzed on whether or not they checked to see if they had everything they needed to finish the job before they started cooking. Not every opportunity represents a “teachable moment” I’m afraid.

Getting back to the subject at hand – toilet paper. If I put the last roll of toilet paper on the spindle, how do I remember to get toilet paper on the way home from work? I use the same review and rehearsal techniques. I visualize myself driving by the store on my way home from work and mentally going through the actions of finding aisle, getting the toilet paper, and paying for it. This creates a mental trigger that reminds me when I drive by the store that I need to stop. Sometimes I don’t immediately remember why I need to stop, but on a few moment’s reflection it usually comes to me. This is because I “remember” already doing what it is that I need to do. Instead of trying to recall a piece of data – “Get toilet paper” – I recall the imagined experience of stopping at the store, going down the aisle, loading my cart, and checking out. For some reason, it is easier to recall the elaborate imagined experience than the simple datum. I believe this is tied to the fact that I’ve created a simulated experience that creates an emotional connection that helps lodge it in the memory. This is in contrast to the demonstrably ineffective momentary passing thought, “I’ll need to remember to get toilet paper on the way home from work today.”

At this point, the question pops up as to how this relates to what we do for a living as instructional designers. I am convinced that we rarely remember facts and data very well, but we are capable of remembering experiences and emotions with astonishing clarity. I do not believe this is a function concentrated in people who are “kinesthetic learners,” because I don’t believe there is such a thing. I believe that we all have a capacity and a propensity to learn kinesthetically. Maybe not to the same degree or intensity for every experience, but there is definitely a human prejudice to remember actions and emotions over information and data.

Examples are abundant. We say of easily remembered skills that, “It is just like riding a bike,” meaning that once learned, it is never forgotten. Everyone who learns to ride a bike appears to exercise kinesthetic learning with a high degree of permanence. When we learn the alphabet, we usually learn it though exposure to the ABC song. Music is an emotional hook that provides structure to an otherwise random set of symbols arranged in no particular order making them memorable to even pre-literate children.

This leads me to conclude that training should not be designed around a series of facts or data sets or bullet points. Training should be designed around experiences. Imagine immersing a learner or set of learners in an experience – it doesn’t even need to be real. It can be an imaginary one. Then, following the experience, have them highlight some of the key points through the use of guided questions that causes them to reflect on the experience, make sense of it, and draw insights for future behavior from it. Embed emotional content in the form of music, art, visuals, stories, humorous anecdotes, etc. and we have a recipe for training that sticks. We’ve all been to a number of training events and the ones that are most memorable are the ones where we’ve been deeply involved, either through an immersive activity or a compelling story that had a strong emotional hook, or both.

So what would that training look like? Here’s an example of an immersive learning experience that triggers an emotional response and hopefully promotes recall:  TED Talks are marked by compelling stories that create an emotional hook. Here are some of the best:  Our training needs to provide experiences that immerse learners in situations that trigger emotional connections to the training. It may not guarantee that they remember everything, but it will guarantee that they will forget less of it.

And for those of you who want to argue with this, let me drop this little gem on you: So, if we remember experiences and emotions better than facts and data, why is it that we remember so many bits of trivia so well and for so long? Aren’t they just random data bits and factoids? We’ll find an answer to this question next time.

It may even be correct!

How Much Does it Cost to Pay Attention?

FastCompany had an article on how to boost memory:

It begins with this premise:

If we ever meet and then we meet a second time, and I greet you by saying, “Hey man,” it’s not because I’m an ultra casual kind of guy, it’s because I’ve forgotten your name.

But please, don’t feel bad. It’s not because you’re boring or unimportant or uninteresting. It’s not because of you at all. It’s me. Or more specifically, it’s this thing I have (this thing we all have, actually), called continuous partial attention (CPA). The term was first coined in the late 1990s to describe how we started to deal with the increasing influx of “never-ending” information. Back in the 1990s, this was basically our cell phone and the Internet (whenever we were at our desk, that is). We began giving a lot of information all a little bit of attention. We were adapting—and it was manageable.

Jump forward almost 20 years and our desk-bound Internet has become our everywhere Internet, and our cell phones have become smartphones with more pings and notifications than we ever thought possible. Combine that with social media, our laptops, our smart watches, and our CPA is in overdrive. Our brains can’t keep up with all the stimulation, so it begins to push things we should remember—simple things like names—out of our minds to make room for a very broad overview of our social media mentions and push notifications.

I don’t know how old Michael Grothaus is, but I can assure him that back in the 60’s and 70’s (and likely for years and years before that) people were still not remembering simple things like people’s names or the telephone number they just dialed. Here’s a bit of an experiment to prove that people generally don’t pay attention. The next time you see someone check the time on their watch (or more likely, their cell phone) immediately ask them what time it is. Odds are they couldn’t tell you without looking again, even though that information should still be in short-term memory.

I was doing this experiment in the 1980’s and continuous partial attention (CPA) was alive and well long ages before the internet came into being. Linda Stone had a blog post on CPA and she treats it as a new phenomenon too. As I recall from my elementary school days, CPA was a coping mechanism for surviving the dull boring lectures that made up the school day. I believe they called it “daydreaming” back then. I’m not really sure what solution these authors are proffering other than the one Mrs. Putney, my English teacher, was constantly directing at me – PAY ATTENTION! In retrospect, I don’t think that is really a helpful admonition that directs us to productive activity. Sure, I needed to pay attention, but there was no instruction in how to pay attention. We tacitly assume that everyone knows that already. Research suggests that’s not the case.

FastCompany recommends Dr. Gary Small’s book, 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain, and summarizes some of his findings with these three steps to improve memory:

  • Meditate
  • Focus and Frame
  •  Prospective Review Time

Many of the techniques mentioned in the “Focus and Frame” section are reminiscent of the mnemonic exercises offered by Jerry Lucas, the famed memory coach. The key to most memory techniques is that a person has to be deliberate and disciplined about making the effort to attend to stimuli in order to succeed in these endeavors. In other words, people need to pay attention. Once again, Captain Obvious delivers.

Let me provide a more helpful example. A person who doesn’t ever want to be caught not knowing what time it is seconds after looking at a watch, must first of all determine that every time they look at a watch, clock, or timepiece, they will make a mental note of what time it is. Simply put, they attend to the time at every opportunity through conscious effort. The next step is that they have to put this attentive awareness in a context that gives the stimulus meaning. If they look at the clock and note it is 3:25, one of the things they could do to contextualize this number is to think, “I’ll be going home in an hour and 35 minutes.” If they do something similar every time they look at the time, anchoring what they just saw in the context of what they are doing or about to do, within a few weeks, they will begin to develop an almost uncanny sense of what time it is. People will be able to ask them if they have the time and, without looking at a watch, they could tell the person the correct time within five minutes. The chances are pretty good that they had seen a clock of some sort within the last hour and because they were attentive to it, they know about how long ago it was that they had noted the time, did the mental math, and were able to estimate what the time is now. This is the definition of paying attention – attending to a phenomenon.

We saw last week that paying attention comes with some costs. In some cases, concentration focuses our attention so tightly that we are oblivious to other stimuli, even when it is glaringly obvious. The act of concentrating on one thing prevents us from attending to something else. Stage magicians do this deliberately with misdirection while eLearning Instructional Designers often do this unintentionally with spelling mistakes, grammar errors, or needless complications in training. These are things that break people’s information flow and interrupt their concentration.

At the same time, a lack of stimulus often hinders attention. I just saw this from eLearning Brothers and it points to the fact that we are hard-wired to receive certain stimulus cues that actually improve, focus, and direct attention. Relating this to my last post, I believe such hard wiring is linked to our innate need to recognize patterns and even to create patterns where they do not exist. This is why it is incredibly difficult to duplicate four musical tones played in a random order, but it is childishly simple to play the same four tones in an order that makes a tune. As long as additional stimuli fit into and reinforce an easily understood pattern, they do not add to the cognitive load and may actually help reduce it.

And this brings us to a final aspect of paying attention – habituation. Skilled basketball players do not pay attention to their dribbling, nor do skilled musicians pay attention to what fingerings they use when playing notes. These actions are so deeply habituated that if these professionals were asked to concentrate on their actions, it might actually hinder their performance. Knowing what time it is can become so habituated that it is done without conscious effort. Want to know how I know that? In summary, paying attention can be practiced to such a degree and become so deeply ingrained that we no longer have to pay attention to notice things. If you have any doubts, just watch a kid manipulate a Nintendo or PS3 controller with all its knobs and buttons and try to duplicate those moves yourself.

We need to be alert to attention and habituated behavior or the lack of it when designing our training. We most often run into these issues as user interface (UI) or user experience (UX) issues. The most obvious eLearning faux pas in my opinion is to use underlining for text emphasis instead of bold or italics. This is especially egregious if you make your text blue with an underline like this. See? Isn’t that aggravating? How many times did you click the non-link before giving up? Just to make you feel better about all that fruitless clicking, I’ll give you a link to learn more about how habituation affects cognition here.

In a word, effective engagement leading to appropriate attention occurs when we provide sufficient stimulation to create interest but not so much that it becomes distracting or confusing. The stimulus that we provide needs to fit within the context or pattern of the training we’re developing in order to make sense. We need to keep in mind that trying to find the balance between too much and too little stimulation is sometimes subtle and sometimes not. More about attention and the learning space in future missives. For now, “eliminating distractions” may or may not be a good thing depending on the context, so don’t be surprised if some of your efforts backfire. Paying attention is not as simple as Mrs. Putney made it out to be.

Information Processing

processI’ve been doing some reading on information processing and it has got me to thinking….

…processing information, as it were.

Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

Recently a client was sharing some of their post-implementation findings of their current training delivery system and they determined that it had some inefficiencies. Most notably, the information wasn’t “sticky.” Since the current system consisted of intensive off-site two-day training marathons that end with a pat on the back and a “Go forth and do as you have been taught” send-off, it’s not surprising that the info dump didn’t result in behavior change. We are replacing this model with a series of shorter training events over a two- to six-week regimen (depending on the core content) delivered in short bursts with lots of opportunities for practice in between.

I think things will improve, but it does make me wonder what makes training stick. We know that the human brain, when presented with random bits of information has a very limited capacity to recall it. But we also know that complex information presented in a meaningful way can be retained indefinitely. Here’s an example I’ve used before:

Anyone remember this game? OK, how many times did you try it? And how far did you get?

But if I play those same four tones in this order, suddenly you are not only able to play all of them in the correct order with no mistakes, but you likely already know them from memory. And even if you can’t duplicate them flawlessly, you know exactly when you’ve made a mistake the moment you made it.

Why the difference?

I believe it relates to our inherent ability to recognize and create patterns. We do not deal well with randomness, even in small doses, but are able to handle complex order very well. That being said, here are some of my “random” thoughts on information processing theory.

We are already aware of this categorical breakdown of the types of memory:


I believe these categories are, at best, moderately helpful. First of all, I believe that selective attention limits what is in our “sensory memory.” Here’s evidence that even when we are looking directly at something, there are sensory stimuli that never register. By contrast, in talking with athletes about games they have played, they are often able to remember, weeks later, the exact moves they made during a game. Somehow, they stored a complex, rich body of information in long-term memory without a lot of expended effort. This means that when people are attending to something with a great deal of concentration, there are stimuli that never cross the awareness threshold and enter sensory memory. Meanwhile other stimuli pass directly through sensory and working memory and go straight to long-term memory, often effortlessly and without concentration at all.

Why the difference? I believe it relates to pattern and structure. The visual stimuli in the first experiment did not fit the pattern of events that we were attending to, so we never even saw it in the first place. This is similar to those trips in the car where we knew we were driving, but can’t recall anything of the journey on arrival. By the same token, athletic performance fits within a pattern and even complex interactions in a game can be recalled flawlessly, often with little effort because they exist within an easily understandable framework.

This leads to a question of how memory works. Memory is often explained in terms of the most recent developments in information technology. For hundreds of years, memory was compared to a book or a library of books where memories were “written” and then “stored” in some fashion. It was thought that there was something akin to a card catalog that provided guidance as to how to access these memories and we would dig them out of the recesses of our minds and bring them out to view. With the coming computer age, memory is now compared to a hard drive full of bits and bytes where memories are coded for rapid retrieval on recall when needed. The information was thought to be stored in much the same way a computer writes files to a disk.

More recent findings have brought many of these assumptions into question. I’ve not been able to keep up with all the findings, but it appears to me that the distinction between memory and imagination is beginning to blur. In other words, we don’t recall memories so much as we construct them out of various constituents that reside throughout our minds. Resurrecting a memory is not too far removed from imagining something we’ve never seen or done before. This is one of the reasons our memories are subject to persuasion and alteration and possibly why they are so unreliable on one hand and remarkably dependable on the other.

What this means for us in the training and performance world is that maybe we are wasting our time on helping people recall information or even expecting them to recall information. Maybe what we should be doing is helping them to construct information based on what they’ve learned in class. Instead of trying to get them to memorize what to think, maybe we should be training them how to think. And how do we do that?

Most of the training I’m developing right now is scenario-based that allows learners to make decisions and learn from their mistakes. We provide them with some basic information that they need to use and send them on their way through the course where mistakes happen as a result of not knowing or recalling the information presented in the first part of the class. These mistakes provide “teachable moments” or, more accurately, “learnable moments” where learners teach themselves the things they need to know to get through the scenarios successfully. This is one area where instead of presenting people with facts and figures and testing their working memory capacity, we put them in situations to see if they can figure things out for themselves. In addition to making the learning events a much more pleasant experience, we are also seeing a reduction in time spent in training events while managing to retain training over a longer period of time.

Here’s an example of a quick scenario for restaurant workers based on information about food allergens. The correct behaviors are to refer the customer to information sources where they can make their own decisions and if the customer has a concern, to comply with their requests. This tool, Branch Track, is one I’ve promoted before and would recommend checking out. These scenarios are easy to build, look decent, and are SCORM compliant. I could have added scoring to go with them, but just wanted to throw something together to show you an alternative to an info-dump/recall quiz. Start with the quiz (or activity) first and then people have a reason to attend the training as well as developing for themselves a narrative that makes the training a lot more sticky.

“If only they would just LISTEN!”

Facepalm 01

How many times have we heard this from our clients looking for a training solution? Even more likely, how often have we thought it regarding our clients, learners, close friends, and family members?

As you all know, I have a fascination with the process of human cognition and naturally gravitate to discussions on the topic. Last week on NPR there was a story about the disparity between how well established the theory of evolution is and the resistance in certain populations to accept it as true. I’m not interested in discussing evolution, but I do find it interesting that someone looked at the idea of why people are resistant to certain ideas.

The conclusion of the article intimated that individuals with a stronger intuitive response than others “are likely to experience a stronger pull toward purposive thinking, a greater aversion to uncertainty and other cognitive preferences at odds with evolution. If their intuitive responses are generally stronger, they’re also less likely to succeed in overriding them by engaging in analytic or reflective thought.”  The article favors sociological factors as a strong influence on this aversion to reflective thought.

The part that caught my eye was the discussion on cognitive styles, particularly those who need to live in a world that makes sense versus those who are able to be comfortable with ambiguity and chaos. From my anecdotal observations, people who gravitate to various religious persuasions seem to have common cognitive styles. My mom has always been a “fish out of water” type in the Baptist denomination but is much happier now as a Presbyterian. We’ve discussed this at length, and I’m sure she would be in agreement that a good bit of her current comfort level is that she is surrounded by people who may or may not agree with her, but they tend to approach things from a common starting point and deal with it using common methods.

I have seen a phenomenon repeated in venues outside of religious thought such as the chemistry lab where an individual will enter the environment with a set of beliefs based on their upbringing, tradition, and education. They encounter a set of beliefs that contradicts their understanding and they are fiercely resistant to it. At this point, there are a number of options:

  • They can walk away and not deal with the difference
  • They can maintain their personal belief and “suffer in silence”
  • They can attempt to persuade the others how wrong they are and convince them of the truth.
  • The fourth option – blandly accepting the alternative explanation without the blink of an eye – never seems to happen.

Most often arguments ensue. Passionate arguments. Heated. And then an amazing thing happens. Most often, the person will have an “Ah ha!” moment and assent to the new truth, abandoning the old understanding and suddenly becoming a vocal proponent of the new system. I have seen this happen too many times to count. This phenomenon of sudden insight continues to fascinate me. It’s like a switch turns on or a sudden sharpening of focus and “everything makes sense.” It happened to me when I was struggling in physics class. After one particularly harrowing all-nighter preparing for a quiz, something “clicked” and from then on the class was easy. The cognitive psychologist in me attributed it to forming a cognitive structure where I was finally able to make sense of the class in a way that was meaningful for me.

If I were to summarize this, I would suggest that an inherent barrier to learning is our inability to “make sense” of the information we are presented with. It doesn’t fit our current cognitive structure or deeply ingrained belief system or whatever we want to call it, so we either reject it outright, suffer in silence, or try to argue it away. Occasionally, although I’ve never seen it happen, we nod semi-passively, and say, “Sure. Whatever you say,” accepting something that seems to contradict our fundamental understanding of the world. The solution, it would seem according to the NPR article, is more information and more analytic thought. So how do we get people to think analytically? And this is where the arguments come in. They are a process that forces promoters of opposing ideas to engage in considered thought, reflection, and analysis in order to convince the other person of what’s right.

As instructional designers, we should be prepared to face resistance to new ideas, particularly if they contradict established ways of doing or understanding things. I think one of the things we can do to foster reflective thought is to create activities that encourage healthy debate. In formal debate, the competitors have to know the arguments for both sides because they are not told which side they are arguing for until they arrive. We can create activities similar to this where participants have to:

  • Find objections and counters to the new idea – the objections for them are probably easy, but getting them to brainstorm the counters might engage them in some analytical thinking.
  • Five Whys – Have participants brainstorm the reason why someone would support the new idea. Then ask why would that reason be so important. And continue on until the basis for the change is discovered. This can be followed up with “Five Why Nots?” in which they evaluate the objections to each of the whys.
  • What if? Scenarios – One of my favorite Monty Python lines is at the end of this sketch where the city slicker asks “Why not get rid of Harold?” The farmer objects to this by considering, “…the enormous commercial possibilities should he succeed.” Maybe the best thing we could do with our learners who are resistant to analytical and reflective thinking due to deeply held cognitive patterns is to invite them to consider the possibilities if the problem idea succeeds.

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