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How might we make this worse?
The explosion of the cane toad population in Australia is a classic example of unintended consequences.
In the 1930s, the Australian Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations had a problem. The country’s ability to generate revenue from sugarcane was being hampered by the cane beetle. These tiny insects would gobble up profits, feeding on the sugarcane leaves while larvae fed on the roots.
The country needed a hero, and turned to the humble cane toad for help.
A vanguard of 102 cane toads was shipped from Hawaii in 1935, bred in captivity for a couple of years, and then released as a 62,000 strong invasion force in 1937.
Their objective was simple: to eat the cane beetles and protect the lucrative Australian crops.
But the toads immediately had trouble. They couldn’t reach the beetles living high up in the sugarcane leaves so, instead, they ate the ants that had until then been feeding on the cane toad larvae. It was a coup for the cane beetles: the enemy of my enemy, and all that.
Lizards and goannas who ate the cane toads were poisoned. Rats, who were immune to the cane toad toxin, thrived.
The cane toads quickly spread, leaving the dry sugarcane fields for more plentiful areas - eventually growing in number to over 200 million while the cane beetle population remained unchanged.
Such was the scale of the problem that, in 2005, a debate began in Australia over whether to legalize the killing of cane toads with golf clubs and cricket bats, or to pursue more humane extermination methods like freezing them.
The cane toad story is the classic example of unintended consequences. Like helmets in American football (which increase injuries) or Barbra Streisand’s attempt to prevent the spread of a photograph of her house (which led to increased interest and the term ‘Streisand Effect’), our solutions can sometimes make things worse.
This story came to mind this week while we were scoping a project with Training and Development Consultant Lois Ratcliffe. Lois has been working with stakeholders to define a learning solution and concluded with this question: ‘How might we make it worse?’
We’ve written before in this newsletter about our enthusiasm for doing nothing. It is easy, faced with any kind of problem, to rush to solutioneering. We always ask the question ‘What if we did nothing?’ as a moment to pause and reflect before we commit resources. Is this a problem that’s actually worth tackling? Is the effort required to fix the issue greater than any potential benefit it will bring?
But what I liked about Lois’ question is that it makes explicit the other possible outcome of any learning solution: making the situation worse.
For example, a diversity and inclusion initiative might generate anger and frustration if it doesn’t reflect the reality of an organization. A sales training programme might draw focus away from higher value activities.
By asking this question, we can factor the possibility of unintended consequences into our design and, hopefully, avoid a metaphorical explosion of cane toads.
Thanks to Lois Ratcliffe for sparking this week’s newsletter topic. Lois was keen to credit this idea to EDII’s Digital Minds course that she attended last year. Check out their website for details.
I first heard about cane toads in the delightful documentary Cane Toads: The Conquest.
If you’re looking for help scoping your learning projects, contact email@example.com or reply to this newsletter from your inbox.
🎧 On the podcast
Scenario-based learning takes learners beyond a short-term memory check, instead challenging them to respond to real-life situations. But how do we make sure that scenarios are effective?
In last week’s episode of The Mind Tools L&D Podcast, Gemma and I were joined by instructional design superstar Christy Tucker to discuss.
‘I think for great scenarios, [we should think about] having something where it is relevant to the work; where people are making the type of decisions that they would be making on the job; where there is some emotional connection to the characters in the story.’
Listen to the full episode here:
📖 Deep dive
There has been a degree of brouhaha to the role of ChatGPT in education, but a new paper does a nice job of summarizing some of the opportunities it creates.
Yong Zheng of DePaul University points out that ChatGPT and its competitors can help personalize the learning experience, offer tutoring and assistance, make suggestions to improve writing, support group learning and offer problem-solving assistance (Zheng, 2023).
This last opportunity comes with some caveats:
'On one hand, students can read the answers from ChatGPT, compare them with the answers in their own mind, thus they can improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills. On the other hand, students may directly acquire answers from ChatGPT without learning from these answers.’
In many ways, this is not so different to previous issues in education. We cannot actually make people learn. Students have different orientations, based for instance on personal interest, skill development or career progression (Beaty, Gibbs and Morgan, 1997). Some will spend their energy on ‘gaming the system’.
But, where the motivation is there, ChatGPT offers a range of potential uses.
Zheng, Y. (2023). ChatGPT for Teaching and Learning: An Experience from Data Science Education. arXiv preprint arXiv:2307.16650.
Beaty, L., Gibbs, G., & Morgan, A. (1997). Learning orientations and study contracts. The experience of learning, 2, 72-88.
👹 Missing links
Most UX and UI folks spend a lot of their time making the use of digital applications as easy as possible for users. But where’s the fun in that? These examples of terrible UI designs on Reddit offer a far broader spectrum of interface opportunities. My personal favorite asks you to compete with a high-speed fan to click an unsubscribe button. If only Substack offered this for our unsubscribers!
Maybe it’s just me, but I haven’t heard the word ‘agile’ in workplace conversations in a while. It used to be all agile development, then agile learning and agile working. Perhaps the difficulty of explaining what these things actually are has finally caught up with the term. Nonetheless, I found this (very sweary) post hilarious and I’ll offer a short sample here:
‘If I had a euro for every mug who has told me that they are doing Agile, when in fact what they are referring to are fire-fighting bodges, inattention to reality and ‘making it up as you go along’, I could have bought a villa in Cannes on the proceeds.’
In a world of fake news and misinformation, there is a tendency to fight back with ‘truth’ and ‘fact’. In this post, however, Professor Rob Briner points out that few things fall neatly into these categories. Instead, we should become comfortable with the notion that some things are true in a particular context, or are true some of the time.
👋 And finally…
Normally we like to end with something fun, but this week I’ve opted for something moving. We haven’t discussed VR in a while, but I loved this use case from TED: giving patients in hospital an opportunity to exercise and visit other environments.
Thanks Stephen Hodge for sharing this.
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