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Turn Left at That Former Gas Station

By Edmond ManningSenior Instructional Strategist


When driving, I happen to get lost a lot, and I absolutely hate asking people for directions.

I would argue this is not the stereotypical male thing of being too stubborn, too testosterone-driven to break down and ask. Actually, the opposite is true: I want good advice from someone who knows the terrain.

The problem is that most people are awful about giving directions. Just because you drive—or needed directions at some time in your life—you’re not necessarily skilled in giving directions.

I find a strong correlation between designing e-learning events and giving directions. In fact, everyone in the world thinks think they’re pretty good at designing learning events.

They’re not.

Having attended grade school, high school, college, and even graduate school does not make an expert. Having had a bad professor and recognizing her/his awfulness doesn’t mean those learners can design well. These situations may help them recognize bad instruction, but that’s a far cry from being able to design well.

As a befuddled driver frustrated with a lifetime of bad directions, I’ll now identify a few common types of direction-givers to avoid. These bad-direction-givers may help identify bad learning and how to avoid it.

The over-explainer

This person is delighted you asked for directions because he or she knows exactly where you’re going. In fact, this is a perfect opportunity to show off smarts, so this individual provides a level of detail that is mind-bogglingly impossible to remember.


“Once you pass the second stoplight by the convenience store, you’re going to see a red house, kind of Colonial but cottagey. Drive past that. You’re on the right block now, but you want the opposite side of the street, maybe two or three houses from the corner, but not the place with the lilacs in front. The house you’re looking for has a green roof if I’m remembering correctly.”

Yer killin’ me.

As the person hopelessly lost, I have a single goal: get unlost. Get myself to the destination. Anything you give me that’s extraneous (lilac bushes, a red house that doesn’t matter, and so on) is all maddening garbage impeding my success.

I think learners feel the same way. We give them a goal, like “improve your sales,” and then instead of letting them practice making a sale, we say, “But first, go through three modules on our product lines.” The over-explainer is convinced that “they need to know everything,” so they can attempt the goal. The learner is thinking, “This garbage is impeding my success.”

The “It’s simple” navigator

This person says, “You’re trying to get to the Crosstown Mall? Easy. Get on 694 headed east and take it to 35W headed south, but only for a half mile, where you merge with 10W almost immediately and exit on Fourth Avenue. That’s the easiest way to cross downtown, probably faster than 10E during rush hour. So take it to Lake Street, and then make the next four rights, and wham, you’re there.”

No, no, no, no, no. It’s not easy. Quit pretending that it is. When encountering this direction-giver, I nod and say, “Thanks.” I walk away quickly.

Don’t look back. For God’s sakes, never look back.

There’s no point in asking clarifying questions for two reasons:

1. By calling it easy, “It’s simple” navigators assume your ability level is equal to theirs. If I were to admit, “I get lost easily,” this makes them talk to me like I’m ten. That’s humiliating.

2. If I do make the mistake of asking a question, they either reply in a glib way or morph into the over-explainer.

I meet this type all the time in clients. They say, “We need them to sell more. The problem is they don’t know the products. If they did, they’d sell because selling is easy.”

No, it’s not.

It’s a skill. Skills require practice. When you demean the importance of mastering a skill, you no longer see practice as useful. Heck, real, meaningful feedback isn’t useful because it’s so simple. From that vantage, those who don’t know the skill are not only unskilled, they are stupid. Imagine how hard it is to design learner-centric training while you’re busy thinking, “These people are idiots.”

We might tell a client, “The learner has to practice this skill until they master it.” The client is shocked that the mastering of a skill may take more than two scenarios. Clients don’t like hearing that a skill they personally mastered years ago is difficult for others. It’s hard to design good learning when this type of person is in charge of the project.

The “Let-me-draw-that-for-you” helper

This person relies on his or her sketching abilities to solve my directionally-challenged problem. The problem is that this individual’s abilities are…sketchy. (Pun intended.) The “Let-me-draw-that-for-you” helper scratches out two vaguely parallel lines (something I think looks very much like a highway), and then says, “This is downtown.” This person then scribbles illegible words, drag arrows, and circle landmarks. Pretty soon, I hold an impossible-to-read map while the “helper” basks with pride in his or her achievement.

eLearningDirectionsThis map literally represents how the drawer thinks, not what I need to know or what might be useful for me.

Sometimes, subject matter experts insist on designing learning. They like making the map because they once-upon-a-time needed a map like this and nobody provided it. I understand their intentions are good. I do not mean to dismiss the admirable quality of wanting to help others. But they’re not the ones who should draw the map.

When it comes to direction-giving, you know who should draw the map? Me! The person who intends to read that map. Let me write down the landmarks I would find relevant. Let me write street names in my own handwriting.

The corollary is that learners would do well to take a greater stake in defining what they need for learning rather than wait for subject matter experts to draw the map. You could argue that learners can’t possibly draw a full map: they don’t know what they don’t know. True. But when I draw a map, I don’t work alone. I create the map listening to someone else’s words and I discern what is relevant and true.

This is not the traditional role we assign learners, so they may need guidance. I’d love to be part of designing a class where the learners assembled what they thought they needed, and then the facilitator/expert gave them feedback on what was missing.

Learners actually know more about what they need than training managers believe.

The “We-can-figure-this-out…together” helper

If you encounter this type of direction-giver, fake a heart attack and while they’re calling 911, sneak away. This person is about to waste a lot of your time, and in the end, rather than confess the uselessness of his or her advice, the “We-can-figure-this-out…together” helper will turn to you and say, “I guess it all depends on how you want to get there, really.”

Two words: hot mess.

This type wants the adventure of figuring it out. This person doesn’t mind inconveniencing you. This individual also won’t admit that he or she has no clue. This type of “helper” figures that he or she will ask others, draw maps, and speculate until this person achieves direction-giving success, and then look at you triumphantly, expecting your heartfelt gratitude.

When it comes to designing learning, these folks refuse to define the performance gap. They refuse to nail down performance statements or objectives because in the end, they don’t know if they’re really confronting a training problem. They won’t admit they have no clue, which means they won’t approach their stakeholders to say, “It’s not clear what we’re trying to accomplish.” No, they’d rather waste learners’ time rather than admit they have no clue.

Huge timewaster.  

The Former Landmark navigator

This person wants to tell you how things used to be. “You want to get to the town of Fridley? You should take Old Highway 12 past that Pizza Hut that closed down.”

GasStationNever mind the fact that signs for Highway 12 no longer exist. Never mind the fact that the former Pizza Hut was demolished three years ago and is now a Target parking lot. While not intending harm, these people get me more lost than anyone else. They don’t over-explain; they aren’t invested in drawing me maps; they fool me with their easy confidence. Based on their experience, I want to believe them to be a valid source.

They’re not.

Anyone who has been around your organization long enough can be a Former Landmark navigator. This role doesn’t require skill, just experience to recognize what this training was before it became what it is today. Former Landmark navigators will relate the training to old initiatives. They have trouble solving today’s performance problems because they’re focused on events long over. If they’re cynical, they’re confident your training will fail because others tried in the past…and everything (the training initiatives and designers themselves) are all gone. They shrug off your latest efforts with a “do what you want, I guess.”

Wow. After reading the previous pages complaining about direction-givers, I’ve come to an important conclusion: I’m kind of a whiner, aren’t I?

Most everyone reading this is probably thinking, “Just use your smartphone.” Good point. And I do. I get lost a lot less these days. You know what makes a smartphone app so much better than asking any of the types described above? It’s learner-centric. I get to control the type of information, the level of detail, even which landmarks I use as guideposts. If I don’t like the way I’m viewing the mapped information, I change it. I make it work for me.

A smart developer of training will read my words and argue, “Your directions metaphor isn’t the same as a learning experience. Learning experiences are more complex and more subtle, and they require more context than a learner can understand. You can’t just hand over the controls.”

I agree.

But learner-centric is not the same as “completely designed by learners.” Learner-centric training doesn’t guess what the learners want or need to achieve a performance goal. Learner-centric training ASKS learners. OBSERVES learners. TESTS training with user. When I discuss learner-centric training with new clients, they look at me warily, as if I’m proposing we let the learners go home early with a promise to “read a book about the topic.” Nope.

In the end, the behavioral goal will be achieved, but the learners have a better chance of achieving that destination if their unique perspectives and starting points are considered. In the end, it’s all about making sure the learners don’t get lost.

Because speaking from experience, it really does suck to feel lost.


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About Author

Edmond Manning
Edmond Manning

Edmond Manning, senior instructional designer for Allen Interactions, has more than 20 years designing interactive e-learning experiences on instructional topics including: software simulation, medical ethics, supervisory skills, and selling/presentation skills, and gosh, a whole bunch of others. He has helped mentor and grow e-learning departments, worked as a business consultant, independent contractor, and instructed the ATD e-Learning Instructional Design Certificate Program for more than a decade. Edmond has a master's degree from Northern Illinois University in instructional technology.

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