Learning: Playing the Blame Game

When did shaming the learner become okay?

Lately, in this writer’s humble opinion, L&D (Learning and Development) professionals have been taking a ride on the Bully Bus, looking to create havoc for both their end users and professionals within their own industry.

I suppose the possibility had always been there, I recently wrote a post “Putting the Human Back into Learning”. In essence, the post was about breaking out of L&D silo’s and stop the creation of learning programs built for an audience of one (you), and start remembering we have an end-user. We have a customer, and the customer is the end-user, whoever is on the receiving end of your creation.

bad trainer_BW

Things have taken an ugly turn.

Not only are we not creating learning for people, we act as if our poor learning design and lack of innovative thought is the learners fault.

“I can’t help it if they are too lazy to read.”

“If they can’t figure out how to maneuver within the course, that’s not my fault.”

“Participants don’t get it unless the information is spoon-fed.”  

“They just have to understand that ‘this’ is the best way, if they don’t like it…tough.”

“I’m tired of dealing with people who are too hard-headed to understand what I am trying to say.”

These are common statements. Recently, I was with a group of L&D people, who desperately wanted to blame the user for their poor design work. “We have to “dumb it down”, otherwise ‘they’ won’t understand the (insert topic here).” or my favorite, “We have to spoon-feed the audience, they all have short attention spans – if we don’t tell them what to learn they don’t learn.”

Here’s my question back:

“If you create a course where everyone passes, yet 99% of the people still perform in the way prior to the course – who’s to blame?” It’s not a trick question. Most likely the answer lies with us.  We failed somewhere in the design process.  We are failing to produce learning that improves performance.

If a tree falls in the woods when no one is around, does it still make noise?

Why are we blaming the end-user for our failures as Learning Professionals?

Why are we calling them names and questioning their education level? Why are we using terms like lazy, unmotivated or stupid when describing our customer? Any other business or department would be run out of town if they used those adjectives to describe their customers – as well they should be. This is especially when at the core, it’s because we can’t tell good design from bad design, or worse, because we may not care.  This may sound harsh, but it is a harsh reality. We need to seriously wake up, and shake out the Zombie’s that have taken root in our brains. We need to do more to make information more accessible, easier to use, easier to find, easier on the eyes and easier on the brain.

I know, sometimes it’s just easier to blame the victim.  Believe me, people who are participating in poorly designed learning are, indeed, victims.  And before we all start pointing fingeres at rapid elearning, allow me to clarify – poorly designed learning does not discriminate, it is all-encompassing, from classroom to eLearning to webinars to workbooks. It is all around us, everytime we read an instruction manual that is unintelligible we have poor design (and the human designing it) to blame.  Let’s not blame the tool, blame the person.

ManyHats_BW Being a Learning Professional in the 21st century is hard work. 

In the past we may have been able to put together a workshop, slap a few slides together and call it a day.  Today, people know their options. They know they can go to YouTube and learn how to correctly and successfully install a plumbing feature.  Our customers wonder why we don’t use the same techniques. Perhaps it’s because we are busy blaming them for not understanding materials designed by CAL Tech Engineers.  Perhaps it’s because we are busy blaming Baby Boomers for our lack of design imagination – because, you know, Baby Boomers don’t like all that technical stuff.

So the next time you reach for your deck of excuses as to why a learning initiative isn’t working, before you blame your customer for your product failure – I ask you take a long moment and reflect on the real reason for failure.  You may find the answer in the mirror.

Are we moving from “Sage on the Stage” to “Bully on the Bus”?

I am sorry to say the “Bully Bus” has seemed to have extended from our customers to our own family of Learning Professionals. I see it on twitter and I read it in blogs.  We claim to want divergent opinions and deep questioning, but when expressing those opinions and asking those questions, the troll under the bridge makes an appearance and it’s concerning.

Example: jump on an L&D or education-based twitter chat and ask, “What’s so bad about classroom style learning? I happen to love it.” The responses will be startling, you will receive a string of answers practically questioning your intelligence and sanity, you can almost see the cool kids laughing and pointing at you.  Sure we’re all grown up adults, but a lot of L&D people are new to the game, remember “Accidental Trainers? What happened to support and respect? It’s just as easy to send someone a helpful link to some research or a book as it is to call them mindless corporate zombies.  Looking for a new education based chat? Try #NT2T on Saturday mornings (New Teachers 2 Twitter) – now there’s a supportive group, I’m also recently liking #PKMChat (Personal Knowledge Management Chat on Wednesday afternoons 1pm central (USA).

I’ll be the first to admit my frustration, within the archives of this Learning Rebels blog, one would find all sorts of snark and sarcasm.  I will admit to the massive eye-roll when debates occurs about a piece of research and it’s clear the person on the other end of the debate hasn’t fully read the material.  I fully admit to wanting to type “Dumbass, please read before you comment!” Fortunately, I have an inner pause button, that prevents me from doing so.  So I just attached the research link (again) to support my position. Samrt, deliberate, debate requires patience and pausing. Not knee-jerk reaction, which is what I am seeing more and more. We’re supposed to be the “fun group”, the “supportive & helpful group” – what happened?

Learning Quote_BW Moving from the Bully Bus to the Love Bug

The challenge, is to guide and offer solutions (we are learning professionals after all) – not to punch, jab and dance away, hidden behind 140 characters or a blog post.  I’ve been sitting on this article for a long time now, hoping my observations of meanness was just me. I have started, discarded and started again countless times.  There have been a couple of people who have beaten me to the punch, namely Patti Shank.  Here is her point of view about workplace conflict. After reading her post, and after having some confidential discussions with new twitter users, I knew it wasn’t just me. The “Bully Bus” was real.

When we all look back into our histories, we all started somewhere.  I can guarantee the “somewhere” didn’t come with an orientation manual on “How to be a progressive thinking L&D professional”. We had mentors, we read books, and some felt the need to take their curiosity to new levels. We got to where we are, and formulated the thoughts we have, because someone was kind and generous with their knowledge.  If we allude that there are stupid questions, people will stop questioning.  Is this what we want? Is this our intent? We shouldn’t be treating fellow L&D professionals like a game of “Whac-A-Mole”.

I suggest we all sit back, take a breath, and do a bit of reflection.

Reflection about learners.  Are we blaming end users for our mistakes? Call your customers and talk to them.  Ask them to review your material and then ask how they feel.  Yes, how they feel. You’ll get to the “What did you learn?” part eventually, but make sure your customers are feeling good about the experience.  Bullies don’t care about the hearts and minds of those around them, they only care about their own results and we all want to be better – don’t we?

Reflection about how we are treating fellow L&D professionals: Read your tweets, your Facebook posts, and your blog (or blog comments) what are your words really saying? Are they encouraging divergent thoughts, or are they dismissive, rude, and mean?  Are you offering coaching, guidance and advice or are you playing “Whac-A-Mole”?  What is exciting about learning today is there are so many good options, you may agree with some and have questions about others – and that’s okay. I’ll leave you with this post from Kandy Woodfield who is asking about “The Ethics of Social Learning and Working Out loud”.  Great question, and really worth discussing.  Are you one of many who have had a predictable knee jerk reaction or are you really considering her question?

Time to step off the Bully Bus. Let’s begin to support each other, and advocate for, rather than against, our people.  No one else will.

Time to share – how are you influencing change in learning today? Tell us your story on how you are doing things differently.

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Shannon Tipton

Shannon Tipton

As Owner of Learning Rebels, Shannon Tipton is a skilled learning strategist, content developer and International speaker. Shannon has over 20 years of leadership experience developing successful learning strategies and infrastructures for training departments within organizations in North America, Europe and Korea.

Shannon works with people and organizations to develop learning solutions that brings actual business results. Recognized as bringing real-world expertise into the learning field, Shannon integrates technologies and social learning tools to strengthen workplace alignment, enhance collaboration and increase learning connectivity.

As author of “Disruptive Learning” Shannon frequently speaking at conferences across North America and Europe and ranks as one of the top 100 L&D influencers on Twitter (@stipton).

2 thoughts on “Learning: Playing the Blame Game”

  1. WAY past time to reimagine what “learning and development” means within the corporate setting. I also think we’d help ourselves by stopping the use of the word “learner.” After all, doesn’t it impose a type of ownership on the PERSON as related to our work? Just because you call them a learner, doesn’t mean they’re learning! 🙂

    • Great point JD and to a certain extent I agree, although I haven’t settled on a term which “feels” right. Student, to me, conjures up a formal learning situation with recess and detention. Employee doesn’t quite do it either. I’ve always like learner because to me it describes the person involved, it’s true the person participating isn’t necessarily learning but I like the mental image, their “job” at the moment is “to learn”. On the flip side, calling a VP a “learner” goes the way of gamification, UGH … so I’m stumped. I’m open – What is your suggestion?


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