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Home / Resources / ‘We need a revolution’ - Clark Quinn on the state of L&D

‘We need a revolution’ - Clark Quinn on the state of L&D


Clark Quinn has always been ahead of the crowd. He was talking and writing about mobile learning and serious games years before they reached the mainstream, and he continues to lead the debate on a range of crucial issues facing L&D.

His background in brain science and understanding of learning design makes his influential blog, Learnlets, a must-read for anyone hoping to stay informed on industry trends. In this exclusive interview conducted at the recent OEB conference, Quinn shares his views on L&D.

What’s your assessment of the state of L&D?

When we look at the data on Learning and Development, what we find is that although people are beginning to be aware of the fact that they are really not on top of things, there’s not a lot of change happening. I have a fairly simple statement; L&D isn't doing near what it could and should do, and what it is doing it’s doing badly - other than that it’s fine!

We are seeing too much knowledge dump and information test as learning solutions. We’re abandoning performance support, mentoring, coaching and the rest of the 70:20:10 - that’s just unconscionable in this day and age. Most of L&D has been focused on optimal execution and courses, but we’re dealing with an incredible rate of change now. Continual innovation will be the only sustainable differentiator and that doesn't come from courses. We need a revolution in Learning and Development.

“L&D isn’t doing near what it could and should do, and what it is doing it’s doing badly - other than that it’s fine!”

You gave a talk at OEB on mlearning or mobile learning. What opportunities do you think this presents for workplace learning?

There are a couple of things about mobile that are really interesting. First, the device is always with you (tablets maybe not so much) and people take their phones to parties, the store, even to the bathroom! So it’s giving us ubiquitous support. The other thing is that there are certain things our brains are really good at. We are pattern matchers and meaning makers, but we’re really bad at remembering rote and arbitrary information and doing complex calculations in our head. Mobile technology is the exact opposite, it’s really good at remembering rote information and it can do these complex calculations, but for pattern matching and meaning making it requires a huge amount of computation power. So if we augment ourselves with the things that we don’t do well we are far more formidable problem solvers which is why everyone’s carrying these devices.

The really unique opportunity with mobile is around capturing our location and doing context sensitive support. It’s like the GPS in your car, it knows where you are, where you’re trying to go and helps you every step of the way. Imagine having that support for any task you are trying to accomplish no matter where you are. Mobile offers support in the moment to get it done, it doesn't matter if you learn anything or not, but you’re more effective than if you didn't have that support. Performance support is a better match to the things that we do with mobile – we pull it out really quickly, get some information and put it away. We can be doing this deliberately, assisting our people to be more effective where and whenever they are - that’s what mlearning gives us the opportunity to do.

You've been talking about the potential of games in learning for years now. Do you think serious games are reaching their potential or falling short?

We’re falling horribly short still. We are seeing increasing use of serious games and next to mentored live practice they are the most powerful learning experience we can have. The problem with mentored live practice is that is that if you screw up people die and it doesn't scale well so the next best thing are games. They could be so much more a part of every form of learning yet we’re still seeing them reserved for high stakes places like medicine, aviation and transportation.

Using serious games is not as complex as people think. We can do it but people don’t really understand them. People are still having trouble getting their minds around good learning and this has to do with the fact that the most complex thing that we really know in the universe is our brain, yet we treat learning design like kids with crayons. We’re not treating it with the respect and the diligence it deserves. When we do, and when we understand learning, we can start designing really serious learning experiences and that’s really what serious games are.

“The most complex thing that we really know in the universe is our brain, yet we treat learning design like kids with crayons.”

Until then, we’re still seeing people treating games as ‘let’s make it sound fun’ and not worrying about creating intrinsic motivation to drive you through those incredibly challenging decisions that you need to be able to make to do your job. When we get that match right then we’re really going to make that leap to where we could be using serious games as the powerful learning experiences they should be as part of our repertoire.

What’s your best advice to an instructional designer just starting out?

Don’t think it’s about instructional design. The first thing you really need to understand, and fairly deeply, is how our brains work, how we learn. It covers so much about what you’re going to end up doing, about how people learn alone and together, what are the critical elements that make it persist, about making meaningful practice, spacing out the learning - all these elements that we know work but have yet to filter down into most instructional design.

And don’t think your first answer has to be a course. I argue that instructional designers need to become performance consultants; they need to find the root cause of the problem. Maybe it’s a knowledge problem, maybe it’s a motivation problem and a course isn't going to solve that, you need to change the incentives. There are lots of ways in which people’s performance isn't up to scratch that have nothing to do with the cognitive skills that they are able to perform. So don’t take an order for a course, find out what the real problem is, say what measure are we trying to impact and what’s going to do that. Use the best and full repertoire of solutions, not just a course as your only tool.

Clark Quinn Ph.D. has written several books on learning design including Engaging Learning: Designing e-Learning Simulation Games, Designing mLearning: Tapping Into the Mobile Revolution for Organizational Performance, and Revolutionize Learning & Development: Performance and Innovation Strategy for the Information Age For more visit