ATD Blog

How Working Out Loud Helps Us Learn

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

One lesson from my grad school days: the qualitative researcher needs to allow room for new information to emerge. When I was researching Show Your Work: The Payoffs And How-Tos of Working Out Loud (2014: Wiley/ATD), I saw examples falling into several categories: “how I learned…,” “why I learned…,” and “what I learned the hard way…,” and so forth. 

One category that emerged was “why I did it this way….”  For example, in this blog post, Mig Reyes explains why he chose particular fonts for the redesigned Signals vs Noise site. Reyes sums up the decision with: “I want you to read articles, not text rendered on a screen.”  It’s a fascinating look into an area that most of us take for granted.   

Case in Point 

The 2007 article, “Learning from Explaining: Does It Matter If Mom If Listening,” in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology describes a Vanderbilt study that divided 54 4- and 5-year-old children into three smaller groups. They were given a pattern-matching test involving colored plastic bugs.  The test asked the children to predict the next bug that would appear. The children in Group 1 were asked to simply state their answers. The Group 2 children were asked to explain their answers to themselves. The final group was asked to explain their predictions to their mothers. 


Do I even need to say which group did better on subsequent tests?  Articulating our decisions helps us learn. Articulating them to others helps more. The researchers noted:  “Learning in a social context emerges partially from the act of explaining with another person in mind…The social context of explaining to others may encourage greater motivation on the task and/or promote better explanations even when the partners do not provide any input.” 

Application to Adult Learning 


For the L&D practitioners’ own development, learning to better work out loud and articulate our practice could prove invaluable in dealing with stakeholders. I’d wager a guess that nearly everyone has felt the frustration of trying to explain why: 

  • the organization shouldn’t offer 25 multiple-choice quiz items to prove employees people learned something
  • a training solution shouldn’t force learners to spend four  minutes on each screen of an e-learning module
  • facilitators shouldn’t just read slides aloud to satisfy compliance training requirements. 

In other words, being able to articulate our rationales helps us learn to better articulate our rationales. 
Now, consider how you can apply this concept to leadership development, customer service training, and basic communication skill-building initiatives. Encourage learners to move beyond the simple response of “What would you say?” Instead, have learners respond to such questions as: “Why? What result do you think that approach would have on-the-job? How is the co-worker/client/customer likely to respond to your actions?” 

Beyond talent development endeavors, how could this concept help with project management or process improvement work? You can start by simply asking co-workers: “Why did you do it that way? How did you decide on that path?”   

It’s always a challenge for practitioners of any stripe to find the time to reflect on their work, a critical element of learning. Working out loud takes us off autopilot and forces us to confront assumptions, bad habits, and prejudices. Helping others better articulate decisions helps them learn—and if we’re paying attention, we might learn something, too. 

About the Author

Jane Bozarth, EdD, holds an M.Ed. in training and development/technology in training and a doctorate in training and development, both from North Carolina State University. Her master’s thesis was revised and published as eLearning Solutions on a Shoestring (Pfeiffer, 2005); her doctorate focused on social learning within a community of practice. Bozarth has published several other books, including From Analysis to Evaluation and Social Media for Trainers, and was the principal writer/designer for the Challenge Continues leadership training workshop package. She is also the author of Learning Solutions magazine’s popular monthly “Nuts & Bolts” column. In addition, Bozarth is a working practitioner and in her 20-year career has evolved from classroom trainer to instructional designer to e-learning coordinator for the North Carolina state government. Her newest book, Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-Tos of Working Out Loud, will be co-published by John Wiley & Sons and ASTD Press in May 2014. There is a Show Your Work Pinterest Board available now.

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