BUSTING LEARNING MYTHS – AN L&D PROBLEM?

Oftentimes on social media, we come across posts perpetuating some learning myth or the other, followed by a fiery debate around people pointing it out as a myth, the original poster arguing for their position, and so on. But how can we, the L&D cohort, do better at convincing those people (such as the original poster) that what they believe in has been debunked? Read on to find out…

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Every once in a while, you see someone posting about Dale’s Cone, digital natives, attention spans, or even learning styles on LinkedIn. Next thing you see an entire village descending on the post, and a heated debate ensues. Here’s how the argument typically goes:

  1. The myth-perpetuator: You should see the way my kid takes to the tablet!
  2. The myth-buster: Hey look, that “a particular generation is better with technology” is a myth.
  3. The myth-perpetuator: … and my dad doesn’t even know where the browser is on his phone!

This exchange goes on for a while and then eventually dies down, until the next post comes along, and the entire drama plays out all over again.

The myth-buster is a well-intentioned individual whose aim is to help the perpetuator as well as the overall community understand science, and to stop the myth from spreading further. However, we need to examine the methods employed by the myth-buster for said intention. Here are a few.

  • Accusatory: This is a highly confrontational approach. The myth-buster feels strongly about this topic, and hence they resort to strong opposition to anyone who comes up with an opinion that is not based on science.
  • Fact-flinging: Here, the myth-buster goes something like “According to xyz-report, you know they’ve proven that generational differences…”. This person is likely an expert who has spent time with the research and can cite study after study that clearly illustrates their point.
  • Explainer: Here, the myth-buster is more likely to be kind and empathetic. They have probably ‘been there’ recently, and are trying their best to elucidate the point so they can help the myth-perpetuator out of the trap, so they take on a more compassionate tone.

These are all natural responses to what we think are an assault on the integrity of our profession. At the same time, science teaches us that information and logic do not change people’s minds. Neither does pointing fingers and becoming confrontational. In fact, this approach has quite the opposite effect… the person (myth-perpetuator in this case) doubles down on their thinking and holds on a bit more tightly to their argument.

So, what if we turned our attention towards what we know best – designing effective learning solutions? Can we put our L&D caps on, and come up with evidence-informed ways to win the perpetuators over? How would we convert the myth-perpetuators into believers of science?

But first, let’s outline the problem statement, shall we?

Challenge: There is a widespread belief in myths that have been clearly debunked by scientific studies; these beliefs then get perpetuated in social media posts

Audience: Industry professionals at large; predominantly social media users

Here are a few ideas. I realize that not all of these are possible in a social media setting, and many conversations happen across a table, or while thrashing out the solution to a problem, so here goes:

  1. Acknowledgement: Recognition of their existing belief, by simply saying something like “I see you. I understand why you would believe this way.” can go a long way in opening up the person to other ideas.
  2. Storytelling and emotional hooks: The myth-perpetuators, it would seem, are heavily sold on anecdotes, which they tend to value over empirical studies. Stories are believed to evoke emotions, which helps in forming a connection between the message and the receiver. Therefore, sharing stories supporting the idea could have more value compared to simple presentation of facts.
  3. Social proofing: We are all social creatures, and knowing that others in my peer group hold a different viewpoint might open my mind up to hearing their ideas.
  4. Repetition: Indeed, repeating a message in different ways and via different means can get it across in a subtle manner. When combined effectively with other approaches, this can even help in winning the person over. Much of traditional advertising relies on repetition to get the product or service into, and keep it on top of, consumers’ minds.
  5. Visually appealing numbers: Not all facts and numbers are ineffective in changing an individual’s mind; only those that are abstract and devoid of context. The same facts, when presented in context and in an appealing manner, can possibly grab attention and help the receiver see the message in a different light.
  6. Alternative methods: Someone who’s spent years incorporating learning styles into their work is going to be hard pressed to change their belief all of a sudden if we tell them it’s not a valid theory. So instead, how about suggesting some alternative approaches that they can use in their work? That might help them take a pause, and consider what’s on offer.
  7. Ease of transformation: We know by now that removing barriers to behavior change makes it more likely for the behavior change to take place. And I realize that here we’re talking about beliefs, and not behavior. However, can we consider how we make it easier for them to say “Yes, I was wrong”? For instance, many in the industry are stretched for time and resources, and simply don’t have the bandwidth to do the research and come up with alternative resources to what they’re using currently. If we can offer them something that they can take and run with, it might make it easier for them to switch.
  8. A safe space: Finally, all of the above ideas will work only if the space is safe for the person to discuss their genuine concerns or objections without fear of ridicule or reprisal. If the myth-perpetuator comes from a place of genuine intentions and concern for the learner (which I believe most of them do), then this alone can go a long way in helping them see the error of their ways and switch to a different way of thinking.

The above arguments are primarily about myths in the learning domain, but I believe it can easily apply to any of the polarizing topics in circulation today, from vaccine efficacy to climate change.

Before we wrap up, I would like to give a shout out to all the wonderful myth-busters in the learning industry, the stalwarts who have been relentlessly going after myths and myth-perpetuators alike.

So, what do you think? Is there any idea that you feel doesn’t belong here? And what have I left out? I look forward to learning from you.


Written by Srividya Kumar, Co-Founder @ Learnnovators

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