Superstitions, urban legends, and misconceptions exist in every field, including learning. Industry pundit Clark Quinn addresses these controversies in his latest book, Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions: Debunking Learning Myths and Superstitions (ATD Press, 2018). Quinn sets the record straight for instructional designers and learning professionals by concisely deconstructing and debunking persistent learning myths.
Quinn brings an academic mindset to the task. A respected consultant and scholar with a solid background in cognitive psychology and learning science, he has held positions at University of New South Wales, University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center, and San Diego State University’s Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education. Quinn has authored four other books on learning.
His slim new volume tackles more than 30 longtime learning assumptions that persist, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. These include the commonly-held notions that humans only use 10 percent of their brains; people have shorter attention spans than goldfish; and individuals can be categorized by their learning styles. Although many of these beliefs were disproven more than a decade ago, Quinn is surprised that they stubbornly continue to circulate in L&D environments.
“It probably has to do with intuitive appeal,” Quinn says. “Look at the persistence of the interest in astrology despite the lack of scientific backing; there’s still a horoscope published daily in the newspaper. We want simple answers that reflect our observations. And until shown otherwise, we’re likely to want to use these frameworks to not have to think so hard.”
Quinn notes that there is a lot of research explaining why people believe things in the face of contrary evidence. “Recent books such as Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and the works on behavioral economics document how our cognitive architecture—wonderful and powerful as it is— has systematic flaws,” he says.
Structure of the book
Quinn is a long-time proponent of applying science to learning. The stylistic format of Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions differs from his other works.
“The book didn’t lend itself to a linear narrative,” Quinn explains. “I created a template that I felt would represent the necessary rigor for evaluating every claim.”
Learning beliefs are divided into three categories:
Learning myths, which Quinn defines as stories or beliefs that are prevalent despite repeated evidence that they’re wrong;
Learning superstitions, which he classifies as potentially unconscious practices that have no justification or validity and can lead to bad learning design; and
Learning misconceptions, which he notes aren’t necessarily positive or negative, but can be contentious.
Although Quinn’s template varies between myths, superstitions, and misconceptions, beliefs are generally broken down into:
- The Claim
- The Appeal
- The Potential Upside
- The Potential Downside
- How to Evaluate
- What the Evidence Says
- What to Do (alternative approaches to get the best learning outcome)
“The goal of the template was to make sure that each belief received a fair presentation,” Quinn says. “The structure made it easier to ensure thoroughness, and drove me to do more research in some instances.”
Whimsical illustrations by graphic designer Fran Fernandez complement the easy-to-understand text.
How to use the book
According to Quinn, the book was designed to be a reference and is not intended to be read from front to back. The Quick Guides section at the end succinctly summarizes each learning issue, providing readers with ammunition to rebut common learning misconceptions.
Quinn notes that his intention for each entry was to give learning professionals a positive path forward. “The goal is to move to better practices, not just to stop bad ones,” he says. “It’s really intended to be an optimistic and helpful guide, not merely a collection of snark.”
In Quinn’s opinion, the most persistent myth over the years has been Learning Styles. “Like Dale’s Cone, it’s been around for decades and is like a zombie that you just can’t kill,” he marvels. “It’s had the most rigorous debunking, yet still persists.”
He hesitates when asked to name the most dangerous myth. “I don’t think any actually are likely to lead to death, but I reckon there are several that have cost people lots of unnecessary money for things that don’t have an impact,” he says.
“I suppose the one that has the most potential for harm is the superstition that Presentation (knowledge dump) = Acquisition (behavior change.) We likely have not prevented outcomes like sexual harassment and discrimination because compliance training courses are all ‘about,’ not ‘do,’” he adds.
Industry reaction to the book
Industry professionals have expressed high praise for the book. “Before you make your next instructional design decision, check out Clark Quinn’s fascinating look at learning and training misconceptions,” writes Connie Melamed on her blog. “There is no judgement here. You will never feel silly for admitting to your misconceptions and misunderstandings.”
"Quinn takes on one popular myth after another and breaks them down in a straightforward, no-nonsense format,” writes Jane Bozarth. “This book is great for the new practitioner trying to separate wheat from chaff or the experienced practitioner seeking to win challenges with well-meaning stakeholders and SMEs—or bar fights."
Will Thalheimer, who penned the eloquent foreword, hopes Quinn’s work will help modern organizations steer clear of learning fads. “Blindly going along with today’s workplace learning fads costs the industry billions of dollars in wasted effort, misspent resources, and ill-advised decisions,” Thalheimer writes.
According to Quinn, the fads and mistaken beliefs he addresses undermine the credibility and legitimacy of learning professionals and interfere with their ability to deliver top-notch learning experiences. Hopefully, his new book will help set the record straight by dispelling and debunking persistent learning myths.
Although Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions is aimed at instructional designers, the book will also be of great interest to executives responsible for corporate learning policies and procedures, as well as managers tasked with determining how learning is delivered.