by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist
Old habits die hard. After swearing earlier this spring that she was finally done gardening, my 89-year-old mother enlisted my help, after my fruitless protest, to plant a too-large plot of lima beans in her back yard garden. You see, I’d made the mistake of roto-tilling the old garden plot at my parents’ house in town just to keep the weeds down, but my mother found the possibilities suggested by an empty plot too great to resist, so plant we did. “But why lima beans?” you well may ask. Well, the garden soil in my parents’ yard is the worst, least fertile hard clay soil imaginable, and according to my Mom’s testimony, “Lima beans like poor soil.” She’s made this claim for years with great confidence.
We planted the beans, but later I started thinking about the absurdity of her statement. Was it possible that these beans actually preferred to grow in nutrient-depleted soils that lacked organic matter? After half an hour of Google searching, the best approximation to this factoid that I came across was a description that suggested that, though lima beans prefer rich, neutral soils, they will tolerate poorer soils better than some other varieties of beans.
It’s just a change of a single word, but what a difference in meaning between “lima beans tolerate poor soil” and “lima beans prefer poor soil.” And it completely changed our behavior—into justifying poor gardening. If I believe the first statement, I might still plant the beans, but I would still strive to amend the soil through composting and other additions; if I believe the second, it almost becomes a virtue to intentionally preserve the poor soil as is (and indeed let it get worse) and absolve myself of any duty to do more.
Just last week, in discussing the design of interactions within an e-learning module, as I was proposing context-based, scenario-driven exploration as an essential model for designing interactions, a client countered with the claim: “I can see how that kind of design would make a difference in some situations, but our learners prefer to just be told what they need to know.” I’ve also encountered other similar statements in the past, like “Our learners don’t like humor,” or “Our students don’t care for graphics on the screen.”
I can’t help but think that the same thing is happening here as with my Mom and the lima beans—making a virtue out of a poor situation, we don’t have the power, the ability, or the initiative to change. The “they don’t like interactivity” claim is usually made with advanced learners in mind—doctors, engineers, professionals. The unifying factor there is that these learners have often survived rigorous advanced academic programs that are almost always bound by extensive reading of textbooks. So somewhere along the line these learners developed the ability to glean information from extensive reading. So yes, they may have tolerated it. But to say they preferred that style of learning can only be justified by ignoring the struggle, frustration, and ineffectiveness they suffered in the typical college program. There are better ways to communicate, to encourage useful practice, and to support individual development that would result in improved performance, but college courses taught by professors who have never even studied how people learn or teaching methods is not the place where those are likely to be found. But the “they prefer to read” claim excuses us from even attempting anything better. As long as the learners tolerate it, then we can feel justified in perpetuating a teaching approach that we simply don’t want to take the trouble or risk to change.
Those preferences we attribute to our learners are attitudes we have taught them in self-sustaining cycle:
- Learners resist e-learning
- We don’t want to have to rock the boat by introducing something new so we recreate the same thing we’ve done before
- Learners resign themselves to the fact that e-learning is a burden to be endured rather than a tool to help them grow
- We gather data that shows learners completing our training year after year without complaint and assume that learners like it
- The cycle continues on and on without chance for improvement and we convince ourselves that our learners prefer what we give them.
To return to the gardening metaphor, we do indeed keep getting lima beans out of the same poor ground every year, but also every year, the yield reduces imperceptibly. At some point we will cross the boundary where the result no longer justifies the work invested.
We all have these little lies we’ve come to accept (and indeed, nurture) as fact. They have far reaching consequences into the choices we make in designing learning programs. I challenge you to listen for those statements that we take too easily as fact and reconsider what responsibility we have to push our learners into new territory, inspire their exploratory spirit, engage their imaginations, and discover improved insights instead of settling for perpetuating ineffective methods simply because they are tolerated.
And don’t forget to eat your lima beans.