A lesson in instructional design from a two-year-old

A lesson in instructional design from a two-year-oldBeing a Mum is one of the most challenging and rewarding learning journeys I have undertaken in my life so far, particularly at the moment because about two weeks ago my son learned the word “why?”.

I knew this time would come and it is exactly as I imagined it would be; creative, frustrating, mentally exhausting, but also enlightening.  You see, we take so much of our world for granted, when you have a little someone question everything you do – and I mean everything! – it does make you stop and think a bit more.  It’s my job to educate this tiny person, so my responses are considered, concise and sometimes I even surprise myself with what I know!

And it got me thinking.  Do we ask “why?” often enough in the process of designing learning?  I know in my business we have learned to ask lots and lots of questions at every stage in a project to make sure we’re not missing anything and that we’re on the right track, but the “why?” question can often be the key to unlocking the secret of how to create a piece of learning that really makes a difference.

So here are some suggestions for the effective use of “why?” you can try out when designing your next solution:

  • When you next get tasked with creating a new learning program, ask “why?”.  Get the business thinking about what problem the learning is solving and how it is contributing to the achievement of strategic business goals.
  • When a stakeholder tells you that this piece of learning you are designing must be 30 minutes duration, ask them “why?” because you may find it could be shorter.
  • When you are getting information from SMEs ask “why are things done that way?” or “why would they push this button rather than that button?” or “why is it essential to cover that topic in so much detail?”
  • When you are asked to make amendments to a deliverable following a review, ask “why is it important to make those changes?” because sometimes you may find they are not required after all or relate to something else you weren’t aware of.
  • When you evaluate learning, don’t just ask if learners enjoyed the program ask “why?” they enjoyed it.  Don’t just ask them to tell you the top three things they learned, ask “why those three things?” to find out what it was that made those points stick.

Thank you to my Little Bean for being the inspiration for this post.  And as for the rest of you, get out there, start asking “why?” and if you find out anything interesting please share it with us below!


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  1. Rod Peadon 04/03/2013 at 10:19 pm

    Instead of asking why like a two yr old, may I suggest a mature Socratic approach of asking what or how. To ask why leads to a reaction response of because. Bbeter to ask what do want to achieve as opposed to why do you need the cse. Etc

    • Karen Moloney 05/03/2013 at 8:02 am

      Hi Rod – thanks for your response. I’ve focused on “why?” here because it’s my belief that all too often we get entrenched in the what or the how without really understanding its purpose. I think most people are familiar with the story about the lady who chopped of the ends of a roast joint before putting it in the oven because that’s what her mother taught her. If she’d asked why rather than just accepting that was how you cooked a roast she would have discovered it was because her mother’s roasting dish was too small. While that’s a very basic example, we have found on many occasions that asking “why?” has got our clients thinking about what they do and how they do it which ultimately leads to more efficient and streamlined ways of working. As I have found with my son, when someone asks “why?” and someone else responds with “because…” that isn’t the end of the conversation! There are usually more whys, some whats and some hows before we reach a point of total understanding. It’s our job as designers to challenge and question in order to establish purpose and then decide how best to design learning to meet the needs of both the organisation and learner and for me that starts with “why?”.

  2. Craig Hadden – Remote Possibilities 29/08/2013 at 11:21 pm

    Thanks Karen – great ideas here.

    To me, “why?” is often the most important question there is. All the same, sometimes the person being asked can start to feel like they’re being confronted or judged, especially if “why” begins to pepper the conversation.

    For instance, if you’re given the task of creating a new learning program, asking “Why?” can be interpreted as meaning “Why SHOULD I?” I’d say it’s better to use wording similar to other phrases you used, like “What specific issue does the learning need to solve?”

    In other cases (such as asking about learners’ preferences), “why?” is less confrontational. For instance, I really like your idea of asking learners why they liked a program – or why they didn’t!

    Likewise, asking learners why they chose the top 3 takeaways tells you so much more than people just listing the takeaway items alone. (That’s why I reckon open-ended questions are a must-have in any survey.)

    Anyway, thanks for prompting careful thought and dialog on this!

    • Karen Moloney 04/09/2013 at 1:07 pm

      Thanks for your comments Craig. It’s interesting how different people perceive a certain type of question isn’t it?! I love the top 3 takeaways idea and have found that to work really well in both face-to-face and elearning solutions.

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