Tuesday, February 7

Honesty, Oprah, and the Formal Learning Industries

The Oprah/James Frey conversation, the Enron trials, even a recent post here got me thinking.

The Formal Learning Industries absolutely requires honesty, for Big Skills and technical ones.
  • Honesty in the end-learner.
  • Honesty in the subject matter expert.
  • Honesty in the creation and delivery of Formal Learning material.
  • Honesty in the conversation between program manager and sponsor.
Honesty is more than just not technically telling a lie, although that is a good place to start. Some common recent public dishonesty:

  • Stating something that one thinks and hopes to be true as definitely true.
  • Not saying something that is highly relevant because the question wasn't asked the right way.

For getting the truth from a SME:

  • Zooming in, getting more detail.
  • Asking surprising or novel questions.
  • Interviewing multiple people, and at multiple times.
  • Building a model, like a simulation or even a time line.
  • Doing anonymous interviews.
  • We love a good story. But if a story sounds too good, too neat, to be true, it probably is.

For getting the truth from end-learners:

  • Doing 360s and sharing results before a program.
  • Interviewing customers and co-workers.

We are at a time when the truth seems to be constantly under attack, from spammers to advertisers to writers to leaders.

Lack of honesty hurts all industries, but it devastates ours.


Peter Isackson said...

The only problem I see -- as you yourself suggested -- is defining what honesty is. Concerning the techniques for getting at the truth, 20 years ago I discovered what I still think is the best technique and which links with my comments on the previous posting (by Don Clark) concerning identity.

I was developing an interactive video program for helicopter maintenance and began working with the training team. They started off by explaining to me what they usually taught. As it was a foreign language to me (try "clinometer", "collective pitch", "geometrical precession"), I stopped them in their tracks and looked for another angle of approach. I simply asked "who are the learners?" After the usual superficial description (work experience, educational background, social class, etc.) I said, "and who will they be after the training, on the Monday following the final Friday of a five week certification course?" They had to think long and hard. I refined the questioning. "Why did they enrol in the course? What did they feel about themselves and who they were when they made the decision?" They began reviewing the hundreds cases they knew but had never thought about. That enabled them to create a typology of learner profiles that turned out to be extremely varied.

I then continued by asking "how will they feel about themselves when apply for a job with their new qualification and confront a prospective employer?" But it didn't stop there: "how will they talk and think about themselves at a cocktail party or a dinner with friends? What will have changed in their idea of themselves?"

The trainers had never considered any of these questions because their job started on the first Monday and ended on the last Friday. That's all they were paid for. Asking these questions and listening to the replies of the trainers enabled us to build contents that addressed the issue of how the learner's identity could be constructed. One of the key decisions I made was to include a character played by a mime, representing both a learner (he was discovering a new world) and a mechanic (he quickly transformed knowledge into physical gesture).

I'm not sure about the long term effects of this project on the learners, but I can say it was perhaps the greatest learning experience I've ever had!

Clark Aldrich said...


I defer to your superior thoughtfulness in this issue!


Peter Isackson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Peter Isackson said...

The deference is mutual. I wasn't suggesting that one technique can do the whole job. Your suggestions were excellent and necessary. I believe the two approaches are complementary. I've actually published a more detailed version of my message in an article on my own blog in which I call your approach "objective" and mine "subjective". The two go hand in hand of course.

I still have a problem with "honesty", which is, par excellence, a culturally loaded term, especially in U.S. culture (the tradition goes back to George Washington and the cherry tree, which of course was a lie... er, rather a legend). Call it the old Polonius problem, "this above all to your own self be true" offered with aplomb as advice to his son by a man who had manifestly stopped grappling with the truth (in contrast to Hamlet) probably from his earliest age in order to dedicate himself to the art of manipulating other people. Stressing honesty is risky: when you "teach" them to be honest, what people learn is rarely to be honest, but how to appear honest while being something else.

Clark Aldrich said...

For here, the question is what honesty is necessary for formal learning to work, what are the challenges to that (i.e. if not, why aren't end-learners honest), and how can you create as honest an experience as possible?

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