Sunday, July 24, 2011

Learning to exist in the world (as an instructional designer)

When I enrolled in a program to get an MS in Instructional Design, a friend told me something. She was my predecessor in my current job, and she left our office to pursue her own graduate studies--in instructional design. Thanks to distance learning, I can keep my job and study at the same time. Anyway.

She told me, "Watch out--it's going to ruin training for you." What she meant was that, when you start learning to design effective instruction, you become attuned to the things that make learning work. More to the point, you start to notice when those things are conspicuously absent in training programs, textbooks, instruction manuals, menus, websites, memoranda, ... you get the idea.

There's a corollary that's probably familiar to anyone who has gotten really excited about some new thing, whether it's religion, a new baby, dieting, exercise, World of Warcraft, a new kitten, whatever: other people may not share your excitement. They may not wish to receive the benefit of your new-found knowledge, however obsessively researched it may be. They may not want it. And so there's a time-honored tradition of not pointing out all the flaws we see, so as to exist in the world without being strung up by our thumbs.

And yet we're supposed to be making the world a better place. There's stuff in our codes of ethics about using our powers for good, and it seems unreasonable to withhold useful knowledge from people who clearly need it. I imagine that doctors struggle with this all the time, seeing people socially whose health problems will soon get much worse--and choosing to remain silent. But where's the dividing line?

Now that I'm studying performance improvement in addition to instructional design, the quandary is worse. When a friend's business is in danger from (what seem to be) fairly clear performance issues, should you speak up? If you live by the creed of "first, do no harm", what do you do when it's no longer clear which choice harms people more? This is the kind of situation ethics my grandfather studied at Oxford, and I wish he were still alive to talk about it.

For myself, I mostly stay quiet. But I'm not happy with that, because I feel that I've been given this knowledge and these skills... almost in trust, I guess you could say. It doesn't seem right to hoard them. But how to share appropriately? That's a skill my textbooks don't cover, and I'm still working on learning.

If any of these questions resonate for you, how do you answer them in your own life?


  1. Hello Hollis,

    I look forward to blogging this semester.


  2. Ok, Hollis, I'm back!


    I like your emphasis on ethics... I agree with you, I have tended to stay quiet about training issues, especially since our last course. Truth be told I am trying to apply them to my own life and my classroom. This has meant that I am more focused on how I communicate with the children, whether or not my feedback to them is timely and something they can use immediately.

    I suppose it's "Trainer, heal thyself!" It's interesting to be the SME, the stakeholder and the trainer all at once. I have several other venues in which to practice, but, ethically speaking, it starts with me. We can always do better.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking blog-discussion.