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No learning intervention should ever 'fail'
How an iterative approach to learning design shifts us away from 'success' vs 'failure'.
A couple weeks back, Ross Dickie and I had the privilege of being invited onto The eLearn Podcast by Stephen Ladek. The conversation was a lot of fun, Ladek was an excellent host, and all involved had a nice time.
But I’ve been dwelling on it ever since because, after the recording, Ross D said to me:
‘I thought it was funny when you said that no project should ever fail.’
I wasn’t trying to be funny, or even particularly controversial, but hidden inside RD’s statement is a sneaky accusation: that I might have been talking bullsh*t.
The accusation is fair enough. Do a quick Google search for ‘How often do projects fail?’ and you’ll get figures somewhere between 60% and 90%. That sure sounds like projects fail all the time, so maybe I’m some sort of project management master OR - more likely - I was answering a different question.
For a bit of context, we’d been discussing our approach to creating digital learning experiences: which starts with us identifying clearly defined project outcomes, then working backwards from there to determine the behaviors we want learners to demonstrate.
We use surveys, focus groups, interviews and observations to measure those behaviors, and we factor the results of those insights into both our design and iteration.
In other words: we define a problem, try to solve it, and then (depending on how satisfied we are with our outcome) we either leave it there or we keep iterating on the solution until we are satisfied.
And that’s when Ladek asked this curveball:
‘What would be an example of going through this design process, looking at evaluation, looking at outcomes first, looking at how we’re going to measure this… that ultimately doesn’t work? Why do learning intiatives fail?’
And for the record, here’s my response:
‘So… I’ll make a bold claim. It should never not work. If it’s not working, you’re not doing it right… That’s why the agile methodology exists: you do stuff, then you test it, then you iterate on it.’
If you watch the clip (23:08), you can see Ross D smirking as I make this claim:
But here’s what I really mean: if we’re taking an iterative approach to learning design, where we keep adapting our approach based on feedback and measurement, then it’s not a question of ‘success’ or ‘failure’.
It’s more a question of: How much time and resources are we willing to put into this, before we decide that the problem isn’t worth further investment?
To be fair to Ladek and Ross D, there are bound to be stakeholders who start to think that this smells of failure. We typically don’t have an endless timeline or infinite budget. But consider the alternative: we come up with a solution, launch it, and it achieves nothing.
If we leave it there, then the project has failed.
But if we shift our approach from: ‘We tried this and it didn’t work’, to an ongoing: ‘We tried this, and now we have more information to try something else’ - then, on a long enough timeline, no project should ever fail.
For more on this, check out Dan Kalafus’s post ‘Is Agile just a bunch of BS?’
If you want to chat about applying an iterative approach to your workplace learning challenges, you can get in touch by contacting: firstname.lastname@example.org (or hit reply if you’re reading this in your inbox!)
🎧 On the podcast
We’ve been working with the lovely chaps at creative agency Bearded Fellows for years, so it was our pleasure to welcome Creative Director Samson Owolabi onto the podcast this week.
On a practical level, Samson and his team help us out with video production, animation and graphic design. But what I appreciate most is their shared ethos: they always put the end user first, and keep us focused on doing the same.
‘Sometimes the client isn’t necessarily the customer. They’re not the ones who are going to engage with that learning content. So sometimes you’ve got to understand both sides: what the client wants but also… what’s the best way for [the learners] to receive it?’
You can listen to the full episode here:
Check out Bearded Fellows’s portfolio page for examples of their work.
📖 Deep dive
If you’ve studied education in any formal setting, you’re probably (vaguely) familiar with the work of Piaget (schemas, assimilation and accommodation, 1896-1980), Vygotsky (Zone of Proximal Development, 1896-1934) and Bruner (Scaffolding, 1915-2016). I wrote about these social constructivists during my own Masters degree, and you may use some of their concepts in your work.
Now try this fun game: Write a definition of ‘social constructivism’ (Warning: this may take longer than you think).
Now, ask your colleagues in education to do the same and compare your responses.
How did you find it? Incredibly tough?
We had the same issue last year at Mind Tools. We were working on a project about social constructivism, which seemed to be going fine until we actually had to agree on a definition.
Now a new podcast episode from Donald Clark and John Helmer has absolved me of the lingering angst I felt about this issue.
Clark is a fan of the bold claim and goes so far as to say that the problem with social constructivism is:
'It's just not true... It's not true in its strong sense (when people over-egg the idea that "everything is socially constructed") but even the Vygotskyian idea that "language is the force behind social constructivism" I think is wrong as well.'
That's not to say that social constructivism offers no value. In the podcast, Clark highlights various ways that each theorist contributes to the world of education. But perhaps better to say that social constructivism is a grubby lens through which to think about learning: 'grubby' in so far as it's really not clearly defined, even by the leading social constructivists.
Helmer, J. and Clark, D. (2023). GMoLS4E22 Social Constructivists with Donald Clark. Great Minds on Learning.
👹 Missing links
We thought the internet would give us infinite options, but our experience of the past few years is that AI algorithms have diminished choice by funneling us toward a small subset of content. That's the view of tech guru Jaron Lanier, who offers a more optimistic take on AI than many that we've heard lately. Here's the line that jumped out at me:
'This idea of surpassing human ability is silly because [AI is] made of human abilities. It’s like saying a car can go faster than a human runner. Of course it can, and yet we don’t say that the car has become a better runner.'
Fake news started as nonsense stories that people believed, then morphed into real stories that people doubted. In a world of Deep-Fakes and AI-generated content, the issue is likely to get worse. But I believe that children are the future: teach them well and let them lead the way. And I’m not the only one. Argues Undercover Economist Tim Harford: ‘Children may not have the reflexive cynicism of many adults, but that’s a strength, not a weakness.’
How close are you to your email contacts? And what does your greeting say about how you answer that question? This post from the funky ‘Paint’ fan at WaitButWhy tackles this and other email etiquette problems in this post from 2013. Still relevant today! Thanks Matt Pfleger for introducing me to this newsletter.
While writing this newsletter, I was listening to the soundtrack to Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Composed, of course, by the legendary John Williams (in his second L&D Dispatch appearance).
Imagine the brief this man was given back in the late 90s, when The Phantom Menace was in production: For 22 years, your original Star Wars score has been iconic. Now we need you to do it again.
Williams’ response was this banger:
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