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Our Job Is to Find and Fix Problems

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

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Although there have been extensive studies on how people learn, much is still unknown. ATD is dedicated to finding the latest research and evidence-based practices on adult learning and performance. As part of our series with experts to mark ATD’s 75th year, we spoke to Patti Shank, an internationally recognized learning designer and analyst, about trends in the science of learning.

Patti has spent years uncovering the science behind why some popular teaching methods and learning strategies work—and why others fail. She works with organizations to analyze and find solutions for organizational performance needs and is regularly asked to speak at conferences and train trainers, instructors, designers, and experts.

What are the must-have skills for instructional designers today? What skills do you predict will be more important in the future?

The most critical skill for any instructional designer is mapping work tasks to the needed outcomes. This requires skills in understanding organizational needs at a deep level and how specific work tasks specifically contribute to meeting those needs. In addition, we must be able to figure out what gets in the way of getting these outcomes and designing both training and other performance solutions to fix those issues.

When talent development professionals don't have these skills or don't use them, they are at great risk of designing solutions that don't meet the need, have little hope of solving important problems, or waste time and money.

Our primary job is not to design content, although we may do so. Rather, our primary job is to analyze problems, create solutions that meet the real need, and monitor how well these solutions are doing so we can tweak or change them.

What are some of the common pitfalls designers face? Do you have any advice or strategies on how to overcome these stumbling blocks?

I see a few critical problems with instructional design. First, many professionals are missing the skills they need to solve real and often difficult organizational problems. And this leads to the second problem: There is a tendency to default to content-building rather than solution-building.

Finally, we rely on fads and folklore rather than well-tested and understood evidence-based solutions to difficult problems.

To be fair, stakeholders often ask for specific training solutions. And we comply . . . to their detriment. But we can't expect stakeholders to know what we (need to) know. Just as a home builder must coach homeowners to understand what works best and what cannot be done without causing damage, we need to coach stakeholders.


What role do you see science playing in talent development today and in the future?

The science of learning (as well as some other important sciences: training, information design, usability, comprehension, and so forth) provides actionable answers to getting the best training outcomes. When we don't apply these answers, our outcomes suffer greatly.

Luckily, we now have a number of training science translators—such as Will Thalheimer, Mirjam Neelen, myself, and others—who are decoding learning and other sciences into practical and actionable advice that training practitioners can easily adopt and apply.

For instance, I describe very specific tactics in my research-to-practice books Write and Organize for Deeper Learning, Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning, and Manage Memory for Deeper Learning. Case in point: We know that the different types of memory (sensory, working, and long-term) have specific attributes and challenges. When we don't design according to these attributes and challenges, it makes it harder to learn, remember, and apply. We don't want to do this!

You have a lot of experience with learning technology. How do you see the science of learning and technology intersecting?

Here's a specific example: When writing instructional content, we must write with readability in mind. And the good thing is that it's easy to measure how readable content is and make adjustments to improve it.

Fortunately, we have good research about how to get the best outcomes from technology-based training. Various studies tell us that technology adds complexity, on top of understanding the content. We must, therefore, make sure that the content is as easy to understand as possible and design screens, microcopy, and interfaces to be easy to understand and use.

I think I'll probably write my next book in the Deeper Learning series on this topic because we're using far more technology for training and need to apply these sciences so that we don't make it harder to learn with technology. It's important to realize that while technology can help learning, it can also get in the way. Like I said earlier, it's our job to provide solutions to these problems. Science provides clear and actionable solutions.


Are you noticing any other trends or developments that may shake up our industry now or in the next five years?

One trend I see taking shape is that although we talk more and more about technology, the average person designing workplace learning doesn't use new technologies. In other words, although we may talk about using virtual reality at conferences, many people are still using basic online authoring tools. Here's what I hope this means: We are taking the time to learn how to do what we are doing better.

What advice do you have to people coming up in the ranks? What advice for practitioners who have been in the field for some time? How can they stay relevant?

My best advice to anyone in our field (new or less new) is to get to know your organization really well (what they do, what helps them do it). You'll need this information when analyzing how to help employees meet their goals. Spend time shadowing people in different departments to understand their work. Ideally, spend enough time with different people so you begin to understand how one person's work connects with others' work.

New people also need to find other people who are really good at what they do. In other words, they need to seek out people who know how to find and fix problems, are able to find needed resources inside and outside of the company, and are committed to delivering the necessary outcomes. Then, just be easy to work with.

More experienced professionals can stay relevant by keeping up with the day-to-day challenges of their organizations and their industry or type of business. This way you can tailor your solutions to the company’s needs. Training is never generic, and research proves that we learn best (and remember more) when there is context. Plus, context provides relevance. Relevance is the real engagement.

How has ATD supported your work and career? What value do you think ATD adds to the industry?

Our industry needs trade organizations to help practitioners stay relevant and push us to do better and make more of a difference in our organizations. ATD is the most well-known talent development association, providing content and opportunities to share ideas with others in our field.

Personally, ATD helped me and my career by giving me a platform to write and share ideas. By writing blog posts for the ATD website and working with ATD Content Manager Justin Brusino, I felt like the Science of Learning community has gained a lot of traction in the industry. Doing this gave me the confidence to see that my Deeper Learning books were needed and were worth the considerable effort to research and write.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected] 

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Thanks for posting this valuable interview. I found many of my own ID instincts match what Patti Shank had to say. Simplify complex content and use contextual references for quicker absorption. VR/AR are the next big technology, but when will it become easier to build? Make sure you really understand the business and its goals. Don't spend a lot of time on new fad concepts.
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Great interview, Ryann. It seems likely that few stakeholders will know the specific science driving the learning they wish to impart. This makes coaching of the stakeholder by the ID a crucial first step in the process.
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Thank you, Josh! I absolutely love the work I get to do!
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