A common litany in learning and development is the claim that learners want to be spoon-fed, when, in fact, it is often the trainers and instructional designers who won't let them hold the spoon. In training — both traditional and online — I see lots of missed opportunities to let learners learn.

This seems to come partly from PowerPoint or other tool "default thinking": Insert image, insert text, and keep the autobullets. And it happens even without PowerPoint: we list "guidelines" for learners, or we outline "key ideas" for them.

Often, though, the learners could do this very well on their own — if only we would let them. It may be a matter of helping them to resurface old knowledge; it could be nudging them to extend existing knowledge; it might be providing platforms for them to learn from one another. In any case, we can help them arrive at answers that will be more useful and memorable than the ones we just deliver unto them. 

Let go of the spoon!

Figure 1 is an example that crossed my path recently. It's from a course for Social Workers on maximizing their safety during visits to client's homes.


Home Visit Safety: Don't *Wear heels *Talk on cell phone *Carry purse/bag (picture of a woman is shown carrying a purse and talking on a mobile phone, repeated in all the following images))

Figure 1. Spoon-feeding something the learner probably already knows


In this first example the learner gets facts. She or he doesn't have to think, and probably won't, and probably won't remember either (if he or she pays attention at all). The information is common sense but likely floating somewhere below the learner's everyday awareness. Here are three quick ways of presenting this screen differently, either in a standalone eLearning program or as a discussion-starter in a virtual classroom session.


Home Visit Safety: This woman's safety is compromised in 3 ways. Can you spot them?

Figure 2. An alternative to spoon-feeding. What’s the weakness of this alternative?


Home Visit Safety: What are 3 things this woman could do to make herself safer

Figure 3. Another alternative to spoon-feeding. Do you see the weakness in this alternative?

Note that in figures 2 and 3 the screens telegraph that there are “3 things.” You might promote further thinking by just asking the learner to engage with the photo.


Home Visit Safety: Click on possible trouble spots:

Figure 4. This approach gets beyond spoon-feeding and actually engages the learner.


Go back now and look at some of your own past work. Are there places where you could do more than just present content or list facts or rules?

In general, posing a question will prompt more thinking — and be more memorable — than presenting a list of facts or “right” answers. As Stolovitch (see reference below) says: “Telling ain’t teaching.” In designing eLearning it is awfully easy to fall into the “content loading” trap, assuming that reading slides means learners will magically absorb new learning. Maybe it isn’t that learners want to be spoon-fed. Maybe it’s that we won’t let them hold the spoon.

Want more?

“How Questions can be used in Training” http://www.fastrak-consulting.co.uk/tactix/features/questions/quest02.htm

Mazur has interesting ideas on peer instruction: http://mazur-www.harvard.edu/research/detailspage.php?rowid=8

Stolovich, H. (2002). Telling Ain’t Training. Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press.