Clark N. Quinn, whose columns and articles appeared in Learning Solutions magazine for many years, has published a new book, to be published April 7, 2021: Learning Science for Instructional Designers, From Cognition to Application. The content in the magazine over the years was a ramble through a lot of topics, but the new book is a very fast, 144-page overview at a medium- to high-level of the big ideas, big topics, and big names in learning science and instructional design. Every professional who develops learning materials for or manages learning in organizations should know and be able to apply these foundations. In spite of the concise treatment and high level, Quinn’s book is not superficial, and I recommend giving it a good read and a place on your bookshelf.

Learning science is the key

The first full chapter of the book explores why we need learning science—it is the basis of learning design. Clark reviews the major developments in our understanding of learning, beginning with the Ebbinghaus studies of memory in the 1800s. The discussion that follows this includes the movements in psychology that are related to learning science: behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. Philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics, anthropology, and sociology also receive attention: learning science is an interdisciplinary field and draws from all of these. This informs the theory, technology, and research covered in the rest of the book. Chapter 1 goes through basic cognitive architecture and the learning phenomena (cognitive artifacts and mental models) that arise from the architecture. He also goes on to cognitive and emotional aspects and how they affect specific design elements.

The result is that the reader will understand that learning science is not learning dogma. Learning science grows, tests, and changes. The challenge for practitioners, as Clark points out, is knowing how to test understanding of new discoveries and ideas, and how to know how much these affect design. He offers sound advice on “how does one ‘learning science’?” Reading, keeping up with journals and other publications, and communication with other designers (including attending conferences) are essential.

The rest of the story

The first chapter is the shortest in the book, but it is the most significant because it is the key to better use of the practices covered in the following seven, which show how to apply neuroscience and research to design work.

Chapter 8 ("How it All Fits Together") and the Appendix ("Collected Learnings") are the peak, but if you are using Quinn’s book to improve your practice from a more fundamental level, you really should not skip ahead. Work your way through, test the ideas by applying them and measuring (or at least evaluating) the outcomes, and adopt what works for you in your particular situation. Don’t try to make one size fit all. Sales is different from leadership, and front-line employees have different skill needs from knowledge workers. Business objectives in retail are not the same as business objectives in construction. Each set of outcomes needs its own tailored approach, and study of this book will help you find it.

If you are more experienced (and as you gain experience), even if you are very experienced, Clark Quinn’s book becomes more of a reference, a trusted advisor on your bookshelf. If you are lucky enough to have a team working with you, selected sections of Learning Science for Instructional Designers can provide guidance for their development as well.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book for all three purposes addressed in this review: advancement of personal skill and understanding, reference when you need advice on dealing with a new set of outcomes, and development of your team members.