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Monkey see, monkey do and the theory of bottom up learning design

This post was written by Raoul Dewhurst and first appeared on the Epic blog on 21st May 2013.

monkey see, monkey do learning designWhy are one-year-olds obsessed with mobile phones? Who are they going to phone? Well if you haven’t spent much time with a one-year-old recently, I can tell you that this obsession is a common trait. No toy they have is as interesting as the phone you are using.

As I am not a child psychologist, I can only give you my humble opinion on this – it’s the way they (and therefore we) are hard-wired to learn [1]. That is, they learn by seeing and copying, and when you’re a one-year-old, ‘learning’ is what we’re programmed to do. On a basic level, we are all visual learners [2]. That’s why seeing and copying is such an effective method of learning. Keep that in mind for the moment – but let’s get back to your mobile phone for now.

Imagine that you are getting a new phone: it arrives and you tear it out the box with much alacrity, comparable to that of the one-year-old storming across the living room in an attempt to alleviate you of your new toy. The manufacturers have promised you great things, wonderful things – your life will be all the richer for having this phone (somehow the one-year-old seems to know this instinctively). It turns out, to your frustration, that your new toy isn’t as easy to set up as you may have hoped.

The phone’s instruction book has been duly tossed aside by now – who has the time to leaf through all those colourless images and lists of instructions? Where do you turn to now to learn how to set up your new phone? I’m going to make an assumption here but I reckon ‘the internet’ is the most likely answer to that question. After a quick search, you are immediately confronted with a list of search options. Another assumption here – but among the top search results is a YouTube video addressing your very question. The great thing about this is you get to see the solution in glorious technicolour! You get to watch someone solving your problem.

OK (I hope you’re seeing where I’m going with this now) it is not only the preference of a one-year-old to learn by watching [3], it’s the preference for most of us to learn by watching [4] (especially if the alternative is tackling the soulless pages of an instructional manual). In fact, I would venture that YouTube is the largest source of instructional content out there. Online videos also give you a lot of control: you can watch, pause, try what they are showing you and, if needs be, replay the video and re-try. So this is far from a passive form of learning. Not only can you watch the video on YouTube, you can comment on it or read others’ comments on it – letting other users know how it worked for you.

If there is no video on YouTube, you’ll probably find someone has raised the same issue in a forum – and even better, people have probably given them an answer! (bless those people who answer blog questions – where would we be without them?) Either way the top results you see in your search engine are the questions or videos that have had the most interest and have been pushed to the top by the people who need the knowledge. They have voted with their comments, views and ‘likes’ and added to the learning with their experiences. It is organic, social and visual learning.

If this works for your everyday learning needs and questions, why shouldn’t it work on an industry level? Why should learning be prescribed from the top down rather than be based on the day-to-day needs of the learners? This idea of flipping the classroom on its head is not a new one. It has been discussed in L&D circles quite a bit in the past few years. It is a theory that Ben Betts, CEO of HT2, has embraced in the design of his new social learning platform Curatr [5].  I am inclined to agree with this theory, and I think the only reason more learning isn’t structured this way is because it isn’t what most people are used to when it comes to ‘training’. It is, however, possible to capture this organic, social model in business. Here’s how.

Most of us have an HD camera in our pockets or plonked on top of our screens, and there are various programmes out there that will record what you are doing on screen – it’s not hard to make a video these days. So if people keep bending your ear about the software you seem to know so much more about than anyone else, why not make a short instructional video and upload it to the intranet? This way the whole organisation can tap into your expertise. The more they watch it and ‘like’ it, the better ranking it gets.

It may be that you have an epiphany one day and discover something really useful, a handy shortcut or process that makes your life easier. You could make a video there and then, capture your ‘golden’ learning moment while it is fresh in your mind and distribute it immediately. Of course this sounds great, but I’ll bet you’re thinking ‘what is going to stop people uploading any old rubbish and cluttering up the system?’ This is a valid question, and if the internet is anything to go by the system would soon be full of cats doing silly things. So there is a level of control required, and someone is may be needed to look over the videos and suggest ways to improve and or edit the content. The important thing is to embed a culture where people see the value in self training and want to make the best instructional videos they can.

This system would have another advantage – when it comes to reviewing training needs. Simply take a look at what people are searching for and what they are watching. It may be that you decide to formalise these videos into training, but  at least those training needs have been identified and searched for by the people who need them.

Do you think your organisation would be open to this type of learning culture? Are your colleagues ready for bottom up learning design? Let us know in the comments below.

References
[1] Bandura, 1977
[2] Sensory Stimulation Theory, Laid 1985
[3] Piaget, 1951
[4] Sensory Stimulation Theory, Laid 1985