Becoming A Learning Myth Debunker

Learning Myths: Confessions Of A Myth Debunker
Summary: In 2018, ATD Press released my "Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions: Debunking Learning Myths and Superstitions." And it’s done pretty well for a non-fiction special market book. The existence of the book at all, however, raises some obvious, and not so obvious, questions.

Learn Why You Should Become A Learning Myth Debunker

Why did I write a book on learning myths? There are a lot of facets to that question. Why should you care? Similarly, there are some strong answers. And how do you protect yourself going forward? Let’s address that too.

So, Why Me?

The short answer is, I was asked. Justin Brusino of ATD inquired if I’d write it. At the time, he was in charge of both the learning technologies community, which is how he knew of me, and the learning science community. The latter is one he’s tried to build within the organization. I didn’t think I was the obvious first choice, given that a few others have been more fervent standard-bearers against myths than I have. But, I have been one of them, and I have written a few tomes before, and I have the background.

What is it about my background that makes me a plausible candidate? I think it’s partly because I’ve been pretty rigorous about exploring learning. I saw the connection between computers and learning as an undergraduate (designed my own major), and I’ve continued to pursue the latest info on both ever since.

My first job out of college was designing and programming educational computer games, and I realized we didn’t know enough about how to design them. I read an article calling for "cognitive engineering," and recognized that this was a meaningful path. I talked to the author and ended up getting a Ph.D. at UC San Diego with him in what was, effectively, applied cognitive science.

In addition to pursuing tech (e.g., following Artificial Intelligence and personal computers), I was quite broad in my learning explorations. I not only looked at cognitive approaches but also behaviorist, social, even machine learning! I also looked at applications of learning science, including Instructional Design, intelligent tutoring systems, etc. Not surprisingly, I was quite keen on learning software. I subsequently did a post-doctoral fellowship at the Learning Research & Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

One of the aspects of doing a graduate degree in a top school in experimental psychology is required rigor in the scientific method. I studied research methods and statistics and, of course, read and wrote journal articles and submitted them to conferences. I’ve been fortunate to meet many of the top minds in learning science as well as educational technology!

One of the aspects that drove me to start campaigning for better science in design was when I stepped away from the academic world and joined a learning technology startup. I was all excited. We could take the best learning science research and meet real-world needs with people who had a budget. And then reality hit. The state of learning in organizations is, by and large, abysmal! Such that I was a co-instigator of the Serious eLearning Manifesto.

The final piece is that not only do I have the grounding in the rigor (I can read research articles in the original academese), but I’ve demonstrated an ability to communicate relatively clearly. My early work on games remained a recurrent theme, and I ended up writing a book about how to design educational computer games. Then I got involved in mobile learning, which led to two more books. And one on the sorry state of L&D, both when it comes to looking "beyond the course" and even just doing courses!

Why Myths?

So that’s why me, but why the book? Is there really a persistent set of myths plaguing our industry? The sad answer is "yes." And is this a problem, beyond undermining our credibility? Again, the answer is "yes." These myths cause real problems!

And it’s not just myths. In the book, I posit three categories of problematic beliefs. The first is myths; concepts that people tout despite there being flawed reasons to believe them or even contradictory evidence. I tried to address why people could believe them, but also why they’re wrong. Most importantly, I give an alternate, viable approach. The second category is superstitions. These are beliefs that people don’t knowingly claim but yet emerge in their practices. I think it’s important to make them explicit, point out the problems, and again give a better path. Finally, I address misconceptions. There are concepts people tend to either love or hate. There has to be a reason for each, so for these, I tried to make the concept clear and address when and why it might make sense for you.

As practitioners of a discipline, in this case, eLearning design, there has to be a level of professionalism for it to be a discipline. For us, it’s about learning, technology, and design. Technology continues to evolve, and there are bad, and better, design paths but our brains aren’t evolving so quickly. What’s known about learning is steadily advancing, but there are things we know don’t work.

And, it’s our responsibility to stick to reputable approaches. Just as you wouldn't want your doctor guilty of malpractice and you wouldn’t want your accountant charged with malfeasance, we should similarly be based upon what is demonstrably acceptable. It’s our responsibility to our learners and our organizations as well as to ourselves.

Yet, we still see advertisements and marketing touting mythical approaches. Under a blanket umbrella of "brain-based" or "neuro," or even claiming an understanding of learning science, we see outdated ideas, fads, and, of course, actual myths. Unlike the medical field, which has to meet the government guidelines from the FDA, and the financial professions requirement to not engage in unethical practices via the SEC, we don’t have quite the same level of scrutiny. So, it’s incumbent on us to call it out ourselves.

What’s the problem? Let’s say that we need to account for differences in our audience. If we develop different versions for supposed differences that aren’t valid, we’ve wasted money on redundant content. If we even characterize people in particular invalid ways, that can cause them to limit themselves into that particular definition instead of recognizing that we differ under a wide variety of situations. Worst, we could ineffectively train someone for an important task that, done poorly, ends up costing money or lives. This isn’t trivial, it’s real damage!

What Can I Do?

So, you can read the book, and you’ll be equipped for now, but there are still problems. How do you stay current? How do you protect yourself? And how do you deal with people who still believe?

Often, the task of examining any new claim can involve reading journal articles. And that’s not something I lightly recommend. The nuances of appropriate research methods, sample sizes, statistical tests, etc. are an esoteric job. I invite you to learn it, but it’s not for everyone. Fortunately, there are people who have demonstrated a reliable history of interpreting research for practitioners. There’s a list of myth-busters on the resources page of the book site.

Second, you have to be a skeptical consumer; caveat emptor! When someone’s touting an approach, you need to ask some serious questions. For one, who’s saying this? Is it someone with a vested interest? Is there anyone else saying anything else? Double-check and look for triangulation from independent sources, not just customers or employees. Ideally, you should track it back and see if the results are being published in peer-reviewed journals. What you can often see is that they say that it’s proprietary (particularly if they want you to pay for it), and they have "results." To me, that’s a warning sign. See if those results are truly valid. Is it with customers? Were there any tricks? Anecdotes generally aren’t data! Recognize that customers have a vested interest in believing their investment has paid off.

Finally, have a basic background in cognitive and learning science. If you understand memory, from sensory to working memory and into long-term memory, and the properties of those stores, you’re going to be more resistant to humbuggery. Similarly, if you know the processes that transfer information between stores—attention, elaboration, retrieval—you’re similarly better equipped. And then there are the nuances: spacing, deliberate and varied practice, context, etc. With these, you can get it right.

As to dealing with those who persist in myths, well, I already wrote about that.

Look, myths are a bane of our industry. They’re persistent, but we have to be diligent in expunging them. So, please, learn what the myths are, become a debunker, and develop the ability to question new claims. For our industry and your own professionalism.