What Is Worth Learning?

What Is Worth Learning?
Summary: What is worth learning? Spring this question in your next meeting and watch the sparks fly! There are several traps (opportunities?) hidden inside this question. We’ll unpack some of them here, so you can use them as opportunities instead of watching them hijack your next meeting or project.

A Discussion On What Is Worth Learning

I want my work as a learning professional to be more meaningful than slapping a cover sheet on my next TPS report—and I bet you do, too.

1. Who Gets To Decide What’s Worth Learning?

This is a question of power, control, and perspective. Will it be decided by corporate or the field? Are "valid" answers crowdsourced or available only from sources "blessed" by company higher-ups?

  • The Trap
    You do not want to be caught in the middle of a tug of war! You don’t want to be caught on one side or the other, either.
  • The Opportunity
    Build your relationships, like an honest dealer does, with all your stakeholders. Look for learning objectives, case studies, and reinforcement activities that explicitly tie in multiple stakeholders’ goals and priorities.

2. Is The Content "Life Worthy"?

David Perkins, Harvard professor and author of Future Wise, famously asked "What is worth learning?" in public education. His answer was another question: "What will matter in students’ lives?".

It’s a profound challenge to public education. It can feel like a profound challenge in a corporate training organization, too.

If you’re updating an existing course and you find content that doesn’t have a direct impact, if you can’t make a connection between the content and what learners will need back on the job—it probably shouldn’t take up space in the course.

  • The Trap
    The experts you rely on to supply and validate content can sometimes become entrenched in the value of "what we’ve always taught". If you don’t reframe this successfully for them as an opportunity for impactful change, you could alienate a crucial team member.
  • The Opportunity
    Learners are hungry for relevant content. Nothing builds credibility like hitting that target for them. Give them content they can use immediately, and they will spread the word. You can help make your SME and whole team look like genuine smarty pants.

3. Who Is The Learner—Novices, Experts, Aliens?

It’s not about the content! It’s about the learner. Okay, okay. Content is important. But to understand when and how best to convey content, you need to understand the learner first.

The age-old wisdom of Beginner’s Mind pairs well with the learning commandment to "know thy audience". Both are more challenging than we might wish.

A novice needs to learn basic concepts and skills first; these are the foundation and context and even viewpoint needed to understand everything else.

But by the time someone becomes expert in a field, those basics are often so ingrained they have become almost unconscious. Unconscious mastery lets an expert focus on nuance and the complexity of branching possibilities, which makes them wizards…and often leads SMEs to feel everything is worth teaching. "I can’t cut that!"

  • The Trap
    More is not better for novices. More is just overwhelming—until a conceptual framework and foundational skills are in place to allow novices to incorporate more nuance and complexity. Even experts learning a new area need context before they dive into lots of details. And aliens (visitors from other disciplines) need conceptual bridges most of all. Focusing first on the content instead of on the learner results in detail-heavy, hard-to-absorb material.
  • The Opportunity
    To help learners walk away with a clear understanding of the most important things, focus on the core concepts and skills first. Then add only as much detail as the learner truly needs. In other words, put up the conceptual Christmas tree before you start unpacking ornaments. And when the branches are full, stop throwing ornaments at it.

4. Story Vs. Information

One way of putting up the conceptual Christmas tree is to tell a story [link to Tom’s blog post]. The human mind maps to stories better than to isolated facts, and stories have the capacity to open our minds to ways facts alone do not. A well-chosen story contextualizes information and adds engagement and even emotional investment. If your goal is to change learner behavior, a story can open that door.

I’m not talking about an odd cartoon stuck into a PowerPoint slide pack. (Although who doesn’t like cat photos? And Office Space references?)

No, I’m talking about stories that tie in people or situations learners can personally relate to, that are relevant to the content. A personal experience related to someone like the learner can be a gold mine. If you don’t have one of those handy, you can use what David Perkins calls "opportunity stories". These are explanations about how the topic might come up in the learners' lives or work—how often, enabling what actions, relating to what things they care about or feel responsible for. These nuggets are not full-blown stories, but they provide enough tie-ins for the learners’ imagination to fill in the blanks.

  • The Trap
    Information presented without a story can be dry and forgettable. That kind of learning checks the box of getting a training class out the door, but it leaves a lot of learning on the table. That’s not good for learners, for your organization, or for your credibility.
  • The Opportunity
    When you’re trying to fit more content into less time, remember that a story makes everything else work better. If you’ve got a good story, cut it last, not first.

5. Is The Learners’ Environment Changing?

Are your learners working in a stable environment? (Is anyone these days?) For stable environments where the same challenges arise repeatedly, learners need to know where to find proven answers they can rely on. For chaotic, new, or fast-changing situations, learners need to learn how to evaluate a situation and devise their own answers on the fly or in consultation with peers or experts. The learning objectives will be very different, so the content must be different, too.

  • The Trap
    Cookie cutter course making—making this course just like the last course instead of looking at what learners need now—can be efficient in terms of churning out training courses. But that’s not worth much to learners or to your organization if you miss the mark helping them do their jobs better.
  • The Opportunity
    Design for what learners need now and in the coming year, not what that other groups needed last year. This is another big, genuine smarty pants opportunity for you and your team.


  1. From Game of Thrones to Adult Learning
  2. David Perkins
  3. Future Wise by David Perkins, 2014.
  4. What's Worth Learning in School?
  5. The Global Search for Education: What’s Really Worth Learning?