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3 Benefits of Ignorance for Instructional Designers

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I was looking over one of my many digest emails yesterday when a headline from 99U caught my eye: The Creative Benefit of Complete Ignorance. As I advance in my career, it seems that more and more people seem to expect a certain amount of content expertise from instructional designers. I often find myself conflicted on this expectation. There are certain benefits to knowing the content, such as being able to converse intelligently with SMEs and other experts and being knowledgeable enough to know when content is missing or needs to be better explained. And I can understand an organization thinking that it would be best to have someone in an instructional design role that knows the content. But on the other hand, knowing content too well can often make a person blind to the needs of the uninitiated. It’s easy to forget what it was like to be a complete beginner. To that end, here are 3 benefits of ignorance as an instructional designer:

1. You Don’t Know “The Process”

When I first entered my current instructional design position, I didn’t know anything about the process that the organization used. I didn’t know how things had always been done. It turns out, that was an excellent place to be! Instead of creating more of the same product (think templated page-turner courses) I was drawn to inspiration from folks like Allen Interactions, Sponge Learning, and web development. My ignorance of the way things had always been done allowed me to create a completely different elearning experience, one with an engaging graphical context and a performance-centered approach. Because of that I’ve been able to push for improvement for myself and my team in creating better and more effective designs

2. You Don’t Know How It’s “Supposed to be Taught”

If you talk to an SME who’s been around long enough and taught enough, they often have a particular way that they organize and teach their content. They may have lost their initial reasoning for organizing their content that way, or including all of that content, but gosh darn it, they’ve been doing it that way for years. Coming into a kickoff meeting with such a person can feel daunting but, once again, ignorance is an asset here.

I’ll take my recent Fingerprint Comparison course as an example. The SME in this case was extremely knowledgeable. He was also extremely receptive to the instructional design process I tried out on him, which was amazing. But still, as we started, there was a certain content expectation based on a certification test and the “gold standard” of fingerprint examiner curriculum. Being ignorant, I pushed him to give the end performance goal, identify the activities that would help a user to practice that performance, and then give me only the content needed to help a user complete those activities. The result was a lean, mean learning experience. I can just imagine what might have happened if I, too, was a fingerprint examiner. We would have undoubtedly thought through all of the things a person would need to know to be a great print examiner. We would have discussed all of the little minutiae that make up a print and all of the history of print examination and, in short, we would have created a bloated, glorified ebook with all text and no practice in our concern to help students know. As an ignorant person, I dared to ask him to help a student do.

This applies to other arenas as well. I can remember vividly a meetup that my former employer Region 13 hosted. One of our new science specialists gave a presentation on the new education plan and suggested that, given the actual standards, physics (physics mind you) should be taught in a way that even a freshman could take physics as his or her first high school science course. This flies in the face of the way science is “supposed to be taught.” It’s biology, then chemistry, and physics last, right? But by challenging this conventional wisdom, just think of how much more approachable and accessible science in general and physics in particular can be made for students who may not think of themselves as “good” at science.

3. Ignorance Emboldens

In his famous TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson tells the story of his son in a Christmas play, where he played the part of one of the wise men. He was meant to deliver his frankincense on stage. However, when it came time for his line, what he actually said was “Frank sent this.” And it was fine. Kids don’t get embarrassed about trying things out until adults tell them they should be because they did it wrong.

I totally love user experience (or in the case of our industry learner experience) design so much so that I’ve changed my about page and my LinkedIn profile! The crux of those disciplines is getting data on how users will use the thing you’ve created and using that research in designing and redesigning to make that usage easier, smoother, better. Research is key. But think about all of the other things that research does as it informs your decisions. It puts up big Don’t Do This signs for certain things and, overtime, builds a schema for your work that some would call “best practices” but others might just as easily label “preconceived notions.” With all of your research, you can eliminate prospective design options before you’ve ever explored them. While this often saves time, it can also cut you off at the knees, limiting your ability to come up with a creative solution to a design problem.

What do You Think?

What do you think about the expectation that instructional designers will also be subject matter experts? Has ignorance of the subject at hand even benefited your design process? Let me know in the comments.

2 Comments

  1. August 27, 2015 - Reply

    […] I wrote previously, there are many benefits to ignorance. By admittedly not knowing what I’m doing, I’m open to discovery, to different ways of […]

  2. September 13, 2016 - Reply

    […] designers who haven’t worked in their industry. In fact, people who don’t know “how it’s always been done” can be a breath of fresh air for a design problem, able to synthesize their experience from […]

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