Why the words we use matter

I will tell you right now, I’m aggravated.

This morning, I read stuff like this:
“As more learning occurs online….”
“What features of an online learning environment lead to better learning?”

I also read some BS article on “Performance Support” that had me all worked up. (leaving out the link to avoid unnecessary conflict)

At the source of my aggravation lies the industry’s acceptance of the rhetoric and our arrival at a place where our collective wisdom actually feels as though we understand “better learning”. We read those words and at first glance they don’t stand out as anything special and we understand. So let me ask you, do you understand what “better learning” is? What is it? What is “better learning”? And are you cool with the idea that “learning occurs online”? If so, what does that mean?

I argue and I argue about how we use the word “learning” because behind our use of it lies perhaps the thing that kills our profession. Behind our use of the word is the premise that we control “learning” itself. Everytime I talk about this someone will tell me that we control the elements that lead to learning, which I’m sorta ok with, but thats different than controlling learning. When we say “alot of learning occurs online” we’re bridging a gap between content and what an individual does with the content that we have no control over. When we say “better learning” we are controlling “learning” itself as though there was a product called “learning” that we can deliver. Can we? Can we make “learning” better? If so how and what is the measurement that we can all refer to to know if our learning is better?

There are some very smart people who have chimed in on this topic, all of whom I respect, and not everyone agrees with me. This of course is a mistake on their part 😉 When online B2B marketers engage their audience with content, its an experiment, not THE solution. They don’t call their campaigns “buying experiences”. They tend to do things like “A/B Testing” which is a process for seeing what resonates with their target audience more. In other words they separate what it is they do from what it is their target audience does and their language reflects it. When our industry uses the word “learning” it too is a reflection of our mental models which do not separate what we do from what our target audience does.

This affects how we design content. Rather than designing around set behavioural patterns that reflect a desired outcome (Example: Engagement)`, we design ‘learning’. This is a BIG mistake. It shows that we inherently don’t trust our target audience to ‘learn’ themselves so we must somehow build the learning into the content itself. Well, if we worked to design content that “engaged” our audience, they would do the learning themselves. #TRUTH This goes back to my post about ‘meaning’ and making things meaningful for people. Yes we control some of the elements that can help someone learn (never all of them) but we don’t need to make them learn. We need to trust and let people control the learning process for themselves because there is no bizarro world where thats not how learning occurs. There is no ‘online learning’. There is ‘online content’.

Words matter. They reflect thinking. If you believe that you can make ‘better learning’ just stay away from me and my kids and knock yourself out.

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