How do you fight inert knowledge? Develop quality instruction…

It was brought up in the AECT/UGA ITForum  recently that it’s not how many facts anyone has in their long term memory that is important, instead it is the ability to [recall] them when needed.  Last week, I mentioned when discussing “dual coding” that…

By providing the learner instruction through separate channels, the brain is able to create and store separate representations of information. The more representations the faster and more likely it can be retrieved for use than being left to fall inert.

Consider Wikipedia’s definition of Inert Knowledgeinformation which one can express but not use. Use being… to solve problems. Information Processing Theory discusses that everyone stores up useless facts and concepts in their long term memory (LTM), but often cannot recall it when needed. The capacity of the LTM is infinite and the duration of retention is permanent (see chart below).

So, how are these “facts” or bodies of knowledge recalled when needed from the LTM? What makes practitioners like fire ground commanders, emergency room nurses, and oil platform managers, airplane pilots, etc. expert is their ability to recall in unexpected situations? Learn, practice, apply… USE.

I loved reading Geoffrey Colvin’s What It Takes To Be Great (Fortune Magazine, 2006) especially when he states your lack of a natural gift is irrelevant – talent has little or nothing to do with greatness. For example, do you remember the Hero of the Hudson (see Hero of the Hudson: Pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 saved every passenger with miracle landing)? Well I believe that Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully ditching his US Airways flight into the Hudson River because he was able to quickly recall from his LTM what needed to be done to solve the problem… and not some natural talent.

Colvin goes on to state that scientific experts are producing remarkably consistent findings across a wide array of fields. Understand that talent doesn’t mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits. It’s an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well. He goes on to explain that there is no substitute for hard work and that practice makes perfect which is what we have all been hearing since we have been young. This may be nothing new but deep down we all at times believe the lie that some are presupposed for expertise. Someone like Michael Jordan must have been afforded some sort of natural talent and not hours and hours of practice. Consider the image below:

As a designer, it is up to me to design content in such a way that the learner doesn’t just store up facts in LTM. Content needs to be used and retrieved rather than being left to fall inert. Take the example of inert knowledge on Wikipedia: A learner learns the vocabulary of a foreign language to be used during an exam but, it falls inert during a real situation of communication. Notice the criteria of “real situation.” What if Sully only knew how to handle a faulty landing gear when in a flight simulation?

In Anders Ericsson’s The Making Of An Expert (Harvard Business Review, 2007) he discusses the work of Benjamin Bloom whom we all know and love for his taxonomy of educational objectives. Ericsson discusses that Bloom’s 1985 book, Developing Talent in Young People which looks at 120 childhoods of elite performers, e.g., music, arts, mathematics, etc. Here is a sippet from the article:

Surprisingly, Bloom’s work found no early indicators that could have predicted the virtuosos’ success. Subsequent research indicating that there is no correlation between IQ and expert performance in fields such as chess, music, sports, and medicine has borne out his findings. The only innate differences that turn out to be significant—and they matter primarily in sports—are height and body size. So what does correlate with success? One thing emerges very clearly from Bloom’s work. All the superb performers he investigated had:

  • Practiced intensively
  • studied with devoted teachers
  • supported enthusiastically by their families throughout their developing years

Later research building on Bloom’s pioneering study revealed that the amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise people achieved.

So where does this leave designers who design instruction for professionals who often have little opportunity to actually practice? I say, focus on the quality.

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About DaveHallmon

With experience in web, graphic, and instructional design, Dave maintains a balance between what is efficient and effective in every message. He always focuses on the why and how rather than "just doing it" to get the job done. By day he works at a leading university designing online courses that support 9,000 students in 64 countries. He works directly with faculty to brainstorm, design, and develop their online instruction utilizing the Adobe suite. He also teaches for the university as an adjunct faculty member in the area of web design. By night he is a devoted husband, father, freelancer, and adventurer of the outdoors. His other interests include LifeHacker, Science Fiction and Hayao Miyazaki movies, Settlers of Catan, and coffee with friends. He currently lives in St. Louis and has an M.S. in Instructional Design and aspires to pursue a professional degree in content marketing and strategy. Visit the links below for more information about his interests and design work.
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