What is worth learning in the eyes of your learners?

Take out the 'IR' from irrelevant

This might sound like a strange question, but is it not the most important and fundamental question that all learning professionals should be asking? How much time are we wasting on ‘unworthy learning’. In this article I will unpick this question in a desire to help learning professionals apply the right due diligence in deciding on their priority learning agendas for their organisation.


I often find myself expressing the statement ‘learning is not the goal but is a means to the goal of performance improvement’ to learning professionals. When it comes to deciding on organisational learning priorities this will need to involve discussion and agreement with business sponsors and leadership teams as they are the bastions of organisational performance. Learning professionals need to build trusted advisor relationships with their key stakeholders and seek to identify opportunities to tie in multiple stakeholders’ goals and priorities. Conversation needs to focus on business outcomes and performance improvement goals and how learning can underpin and support these needs.


The important question is ‘Will the learning matter in learners’ lives?’. This was a key point raised by David Perkins, a Harvard Professor, in his essay on the subject. ‘Life’ is an emotive term and that’s relevant and important here. You need to ensure that your learning agendas will touch the ‘hearts and minds’ of your audience and will make a material difference to their lives at work. Remember that the world of work is changing very rapidly and so every opportunity should be taken to re-assess the current relevance of learning agendas.


The learning objectives and your approach needs to be designed around the audience current level of knowledge or competence in the field of study. A novice needs to learn basic concepts and skills first – these are the necessary foundation and context that enables them to comprehend what needs to follow. More is not better for novices and it is all too easy to overload them with detail upon detail.

Perhaps you are familiar with the three stages of competence? Firstly, people are consciously unable, then consciously able, and finally they are unconsciously able. Unconscious mastery lets an expert focus on nuance and the complexity of branching possibilities. Experienced learners will want more of the details and the tips and techniques ‘nuggets’ that they can immediately recognise are of value due to their foundational knowledge.

A challenge for learning professionals is that their subject matter experts that feed into their learning development and design process are just that, experts, and they will often misunderstand the needs of novices and push you to include too much content for a novice programme.


Weaving your learning points and objectives into a story will do a great deal in terms of improving learner retention levels and understanding of key concepts. Story telling helps in two important ways. Firstly, it aids the memory process; and secondly, it creates greater meaning and context to the facts and information. The human mind maps to stories better than to isolated facts, and stories have the capacity to open our minds to ways facts alone do not. A well-chosen story contextualizes information and adds engagement and even emotional investment. If your goal is to change learner behaviour, a story can open that door.