Well, after last week’s big announcement, the GoodPractice Book Club is now well and truly under way – our first meeting took place last Friday (incidentally, the day before National Reading Group Day) and we spent a really productive and enjoyable hour discussing the first two chapters of Julie Dirsken’s Design for How People Learn. Here are the highlights:

What have been our best and worst learning experiences?

We kicked things off by sharing our own learning experiences and reflecting on how our ‘best’ and ‘worst’ encounters with learning design relate to the first two chapters of the book. In chapter one, Julie points out that there are a range of reasons why people might need to learn, and that these different learning gaps demand different approaches to learning design. It transpired that we’d all experienced interventions that had simply failed to address our learning gaps, from ‘death by Powerpoint’ to poorly planned inductions and uninspiring telephone seminars. By contrast, our positive stories were all of interventions – role plays, buddying, well-designed online courses – that had bridged our learning gaps perfectly, providing us with valuable and memorable learning experiences.

We also agreed that these more positive encounters had all occurred when we were intrinsically, rather than extrinsically, motivated to learn (i.e. we were learning because we wanted to, rather than because we had to). In the book Julie looks at the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and what this means for learning design. While she acknowledges that having intrinsically motivated learners makes life ‘much easier’ for the learning designer, she provides some interesting strategies for designing learning for people who are extrinsically motivated.

What were the most interesting things we learned from the first two chapters?

We could have discussed this point for hours, as the book is full of interesting insights and ideas. However, to keep the conversation on track, we focused our discussion on three key points that captured everyone’s interest:

The challenge to learning styles

The value of learning styles is the subject of perennial debate in the Learning and Development community. Most L&D professionals have a strong opinion on the topic: some love learning styles, some hate them. Julie herself seems unconvinced of their value and makes a compelling case for challenging, if not completely abandoning the practice of labelling learners with a particular ‘style’. While Julie is not alone in this viewpoint, what caught our attention was the respectful, intelligent way she makes her argument. While many L&D professionals can get quite hot under the collar in their attack or defence of learning styles, Julie remains clear and measured throughout her critique.

Some learners need a ‘fast forward’ lane

We all found ourselves nodding in agreement with Julie as she observed that learners have different levels of experience. As simple as this sounds, it poses a real challenge to learning designers: how can they make a learning experience equally effective for learners with different knowledge/skill/competence levels? In chapter two, Julie suggests some very elegant solutions to this conundrum.

Information is not a dirty word!

The ‘I’ word has developed some fairly negative connotations in recent years, and L&D professionals often urge designers not to turn their learning solutions into an ‘information dump’. Julie however, maintains that information remains an extremely important currency in the world of learning design. While she makes it clear that information is by no means the be all and end all of learning, we were glad that she recognised its value. Sometimes it’s exactly what we need!

Which elements of the first two chapters surprised us?

It might sound odd, but the biggest surprise for us was that there weren’t really any surprises – everything Julie says in the book makes perfect sense, but it’s the kind of stuff that isn’t always said out loud. By laying everything out clearly, using engaging language, and making no assumptions about her readers’ existing knowledge, Julie provides us with a shared language and understanding of the key principles of learning design.

Did we disagree with any aspects of the first two chapters?

As I’ve mentioned before, here at GP Towers we like a good debate every now and then, so it’s no surprise that some aspects of the book provoked more in depth, ‘lively’ discussion than others! The first such point was the focus in chapter two on what learners want. Julie encourages designers to think about ‘why [the learners] are there, what they want to get out of the experience, what they don’t want and what they like’. This got us thinking about the difference between what learners want and like, and what they need. One member of our group who has recently started wearing contact lenses recalled how he didn’t want or like the optician’s rather forceful, directive instructions when he was getting to grips with the lenses, but they were exactly what he needed at the time. Should learning designers be thinking about what learners need, as well as what they want and like?

Another talking point was the illustration on page 44 (reproduced with Julie’s kind permission), which is used to depict how an expert’s understanding of a subject differs from a novice learner’s:

Image of novice and expert learner from page 44 of 'Design for How People Learn'
We wondered how true to life this image is; in our experience experts don’t often think in a linear way but instead jump intuitively to the end point or add superfluous details that make sense to someone skilled, but create traffic for a novice. An expert might say that they ‘just know’ the solution to a problem, and may find it difficult to unpack how they arrived at it, whereas the novice is likely to want to learn the material step by step, starting with the simple stuff.

We wrapped things up by reflecting on how the first two chapters of Design for How People Learn might help us in our work at GoodPractice: what additional insights have we gained about our learners and how our solutions can best support them? I won’t bore you with the details, but needless to say, this certainly got us talking!

So, that was our first GoodPractice Book Club meeting – now, over to you! What did you think of the first two chapters of Design for How People Learn? Do you agree with our comments, or do you have a different point of view? Let us know by leaving a comment below or joining in the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #gpbookclub. Next week we’ll be discussing Chapters 3 and 4, ‘What’s the Goal?’ and ‘How Do We Remember?’, so until next time, happy reading!

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