A Return to Common Sense

Today I read some very obscure academic white papers on instructional design. Later, in the bathtub, I read several chapters of There Are No Accidents, a psychiastrist's trip through Jungian synchronicity, a place where causality either doesn't exist or doesn't matter.

Time to get back to reality. First principles. And once again, I'm going to turn to David Forman. His essay on common sense in instructional design is a wonderful, down-to-earth counterpoint to my spacy reading earlier.

Please leave a comment or drop me an email about publishing other people's stuff here. Is this good? Or a diversion? Give me your opinion.

Common Sense Learning Principles

Lessons from Sages, our experiences and each other

By David C Forman

As learning becomes increasingly central to our lives and more complicated, a growing array of templates, methods, blends, objects and knowledge repositories have been created to facilitate wider distribution of information. This is both useful and inevitable, but is it all that learning should be? This article looks back at memorable times when learning was enjoyable, meaningful and relevant. It looks at both formal educational and training settings as well as at informal, real-world learning events that can happen anywhere at anytime. Nine common sense learning principles, often overlooked in many of today's programs, are presented for possible inclusion in future programs and events.

David C Forman is founder and president of Sage Learning Systems, a consulting company dedicated to the effective use of technology in learning. He has also founded e-learningjobs.com, the first Internet job board for e-learning professionals. David has held management and executive positions in the training industry for 25 years. He has worked with many of the country's leading corporations to design, develop and implement multifaceted learning systems. David has written over 30 articles and books in the fields of training, evaluation, return on investment (ROI), and instructional design; and has presented at major industry conferences and seminars, both in the United States and abroad. Contact info: [email protected], 619 656-2920

Current training and education programs have moved away from essential, tried and true, practical principles of learning that have endured for centuries. These principles are derived as much from our own experiences as children and adults as from clinical research or learning theory. They are from memorable times when the "message took", learning was exciting and meaningful, and we remember elements of it to this day. These common sense lessons become part of life's wisdom and should not be forgotten or lost.

Today's education and training programs have industrialized learning. This has been done because the emphasis is on courses and chunks of knowledge that can be distributed through existing classroom and electronic delivery vehicles to thousands of people. Templates, standards and content repositories have been created so that mass dissemination is accomplished efficiently. The result is that this type of engineered learning is often antiseptic, almost alien, from what we do, who we are, and what we know works.

Common sense is a powerful force. It provides a framework for "the way things ought to be." It is practical wisdom. In educational measurement terms, it is face validity. Historically, Common Sense is the name attached to Thomas Paine's pamphlet that helped arouse America against the rule of England. Paine believed that it was simply a matter of common sense that an island could not rule a continent. Seems reasonable. Six months after publication of this pamphlet, America declared her independence from the strongest military power on earth and created a form of government that had no historical precedence in the modern world.

It is certainly true that one person's common sense may not be another's. But there is often a shared collected wisdom or common sense that most people would recognize as being valid. This emphasis on common sense is also not intended to detract from research and more structured forms of inquiry. This perspective would be wrong and it would ignore the great contributions provided by researchers, scientists and educators over the years (e.g., Clark, 2002; Clark and Mayer, 2003). But it would be equally wrong and too easy to dismiss common sense learning principles, simply because they are not footnoted or the subject of a formal study. There are other ways of knowing, albeit more subjective and less scientific.

Early in my life, my mentor explained to me the three paths that lead to the creation of knowledge: The analytical path, where philosophers reflect, meditate, and make sense of objects and events; the empirical path, where scientists manipulate variables and conduct controlled experiments to validate reliable principles; and the pragmatic path where practitioners struggle with real-world challenges and come up with strategies for effective and efficient performance.

Sivasailam"Thiagi" Thiagarajan, 2001

If these familiar learning principles make sense, try them out, learn from the experience and make modifications as necessary. These principles can be kept in the forefront of what we do as mentors, learners, teachers, parents, caregivers and neighbors in every day life as well as in educational settings. They can be applied in formal learning contexts as well as in informal learning events that can happen anywhere at anytime.

Tell stories

Long before schools were established, information was conveyed in conversations around the hearth, out in the field, or in the shop. These conversations passed along the skills, tradition and understandings needed to be successful in the next job or challenge to be confronted. These conversations were often in the form of stories.

Story telling is the original form of teaching. Stories can include drama, tension, memorable characters and events within a real life or fictional context. Stories have a beginning, middle and end; and they can bring to life, lessons and information that would otherwise be mundane and ordinary. We remember stories. The lessons from good stories endure.

In the classroom and with the self-paced training products of today, there seems to be little time for stories. The emphasis is on funneling through as much information as possible, and not making the most important elements come to life and be remembered. It is also harder to tell stories now, since we do not practice and appreciate this skill. It is, afterall, much easier to simply convey information.

Why was Solomom recognized as the wisest man in the world? Because he knew more stories (proverbs) than anyone else. Scratch the surface in a typical boardroom and we are all just cave men with briefcases, hungry for a wise person to tell us stories.

Alan Kay

Tip: The use of stories to foster discussion and interaction is especially productive early in a class when it is important to establish common ground. Higher participation rates generally lead to greater commitment and less of a sense of isolation, which, in turn, increases retention (Neal, 2002)

Play games

School and learning have become synonymous with hard, tough, serious, and relentless work. Many believe that if it's not hard and demanding, it's not worthwhile, and that school and learning should reflect life's tough lessons. While this thinking has predominated the education and training professions, it doesn't coincide with common sense. It doesn't account for many wonderful, fun and effective learning moments we all have experienced.

There is no reason why games should not be an integral part of schooling and training. They involve the learner, foster higher-level thinking, boost interest, involve many senses, reinforce the value of goals and rules, and show outcomes. Games, like stories, have a meaningful context and wholeness to them. They can become ideal teaching vehicles as people reflect on what they did in the game and why.

Anyone who makes a distinction between games and education clearly does not know the first thing about either one.

Marshall McLuhan

Current research in the areas of stress, anxiety, creativity, self-efficacy and neuroscience shows that more play will improve our learning and performance. While "more work and less play" has been touted for a long time as the way to improve human performance, there is much evidence that such thinking is wrong.

Marc Prensky, 2001

Tip: It is not easy to create engaging and meaningful games, either in the classroom or in standalone training products. There are, however, excellent resources that contain pre-existing games and teaching resources. Leading authorities in the field of game-based learning are Marc Prensky, Thiagi, and Roger Schank. While these experts and available resources are valuable, it is still important to develop or customize games to your own audience needs and learning requirements.

Explore and experiment

Do you remember times when you were exploring something new? It could have been hiking over new ground, trying to fix an engine problem in your new used car, baking bread for the first time or working on your initial chemistry lab. It was exhilarating, exhausting, challenging, frustrating, and maybe even scary. It was, in fact, a very real and impactful learning experience. It defined what you needed to know so you could do it better next time.

The prevailing way we learn today is through instructional models that present the content you need to know before actually doing something. It is the structure of content and the instructional design process used to create it that frequently defines what we learn. Sometimes this approach is necessary and appropriate (it is best not to explore brain surgery), but often its not. Furthermore, this content centered approach leads to the popular perceptions that training is little more than "chalk and talk," "hose and doze," or "spray and pray" presentations.

Flip the traditional approach around and begin to learn with a problem, issue or experiment. By immediately engaging learners, they become interested, motivated and discover what they need to know more about. This "problem-centered" as opposed to "content-centered" approach can be initiated by games, activities or even simple questions. As with other common sense learning principles, "explore and experiment" has been described and recommended for decades, but its actual application and use remain limited.

From the very beginning of his education, the child should experience the joy of discovery

Alfred North Whitehead

The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery

Mark Van Doren, Poet

You can talk and talk and talk, and the kids don't learn. It's that wow experience when you go out and do.

Fraser Randolph Model Teacher, USA Today Oct 17, 2002

Tip: The problem-centered approach is particularly useful in building interactivity, motivation, and interest; all very important and often missing elements in current training and education programs. But because it is a less directive teaching technique it can take more time than conventional practices and require different types of feedback and guidance. Allow enough time so that the exploration and subsequent debriefing are not rushed. The problems that are presented should be challenging and a "stretch," but not too sophisticated or difficult so that learners become lost and confused.

Use pictures

A picture is worth 1,000 words and probably a lot more. But all too often pictures, graphics, and visuals are an after-thought in the text-heavy learning materials of today. Because these materials are mainly derived from books or lectures, text is used to convey the core message. Visuals are usually just an adornment. It is easy to forget that centuries ago pictures and visuals were the primary means for conveying information.

We know that learning is enhanced if the message is presented through both words and visuals with each channel reinforcing the other. We know that there are visual learners who prefer to have information conveyed graphically. We know that the visual elements of children's books and Sesame Street are vital parts of the message and essential in sustaining the child's attention. Common sense tells us that visuals can add meaning, spice, a framework, and relevance to material. But we also know that this rarely happens.

In order to change the excessive reliance on words and text in today's education and training materials, we need to think differently. Flip the traditional instructional model around and start with the visual, not the text. Try to represent each major concept or objective with a key visual, and then develop the surrounding text. Show a visual outcome first, and then teach backwards. Lead with strength.

People remember 10% of what they read, 30% of what they see, and 50% of what they hear and see.

Nick Van Dam, 2001

Tip: An important step in enhancing visual treatment is to recognize the various types of visuals that can improve a presentation. Among the key types of visuals are: fact, concept, process, procedure, relationship, visual outcome, topic organizer and thematic. A visual must have meaning and purpose. As bad as a visual-less, straight text presentation can be, learning can be equally impeded by too many irrelevant or competing visuals. Learners can become easily confused unless the visuals have a role, work together, and add value. For an excellent review of research findings related to the instructional role of graphics, see Clark and Mayer (2003)

Have a coach

I have learned a number of practical lessons over the years, and few of them occurred in formal educational settings. Among these lessons: looking for unique value propositions in products and companies, trying to distill a presentation into 3 to 5 salient points that I can remember, beginning a course development project by developing a job aid first, putting a splash of water in as I make my two egg omelets, and always catching a ball with two hands. Why?

I was taught these lessons by coaches and mentors, found them to be valuable, and have never forgotten them. These lessons weren't learned in a class or a course; they were passed along by people with experience, wisdom, and dedication to their craft. These lessons were made personal, relevant and part of an ongoing dialog related to personal development and apprenticeship in professional tasks.

Current training systems seem to have forgotten the long-standing almost revered role that mentors have had in learning. We don't seek out mentors or try to make these connections; and are therefore missing tremendous learning opportunities. Interestingly, one of the fastest growing areas in leadership and executive development is the rise of the executive coach. There is a return, in some disciplines and companies, to the practical common sense understanding that mentors matter, are enriching, and add value.

We do what our mentors teach us to do

M.F.K. Fisher

Tip: It is important for learners to recognize the value that coaches provide through different stages, projects, and occupations. We can design systems and courses that include provisions for personal dialog and discussions with experts and mentors over a continuing time period. Technology can even be used to foster mentoring. Seek out coaches and be one yourself; learning is incomplete without them.

Learn with others

We learn more from each other than we do from formal teachings. An EDC study reported in Training Magazine (2000) stated that 70% of what people know about their jobs they learn informally from each other. What does this say about how we approach education and training?

It says that learning is a social activity. It says that learning devoid of the human touch and personal contact is limiting. It says that self-paced training can breed a lonely long distance learner unless these systems put people back in the equation. It says that learners learn most from each other.

The EDC findings are not as humbling as they first seem. No one is suggesting that formal training courses should be drastically reduced because they can impact only 30% of job performance. What it does suggest is the importance of the informal, human context around formal training as a rich learning experience. This interaction among peers is where ideas get discussed, reality checked, applied, and adapted.

I think peer interaction is where you learn. Having students work in groups is essential. The course is not just the material that we present to them.

Don Norman, 2002

None of us is as smart as all of us.

Satchel Paige

Tip: The classroom and campus are well suited to human interaction and informal learning opportunities. This is a primary reason for their enduring success over the years. But effective and creative uses of technology can also bring a spirit of community to distance learners. David Grebow (2002) provides the following advice:

"We need to use technology to facilitate the informal as well formal transfer of knowledge by including expert locators, e-mail connections with instructors, real-time Internet meeting places, virtual learning support groups, instant messaging, expert networks, personal e-learning portals, moderated chats, and more. We need to create the 100 percent learning solution, in which the proscribed formal learning events and the serendipitous learning moments are given equal value."

Focus on the important

Most training courses today opt for complete coverage as opposed to making the tough decisions on "what is really important to know." It is easy to develop programs that try to teach everything. It is hard to make choices and prioritize to only focus on the important, relevant and meaningful. Courses, therefore, are often an inch deep and a mile long; and present more information than could ever be comprehended.

Our short-term memory is much like RAM in a computer: it can process only so much information at any one time. In general, short-term memory can process 7 ideas (plus or minus 1) effectively. More information leads to overload and confusion. This personal bandwidth limitation is why it is so necessary to not try to teach everything. Select a limited number of the most important ideas or concepts, and then teach these in depth and effectively.

Put first things first

Steven Covey

At harvest time, separate the wheat from the chaff.


Tip: The 80/20 rule is worth remembering. It states, for example, that 80% of what you do in a software application is accomplished with only 20% of its features. The essence of the 80/20 rule is that "you can do a lot with a little." Performance is largely determined by a relatively few activities, lessons, or skills. The art of the 80/20 rule is determining what the core 20% is that drives the 80%. How do we separate the consequential few from the inconsequential many?

Take recess

Learning takes time. The movement from data to information to knowledge to wisdom (Davis, 1995) requires time to think, question, percolate, apply and test. The ability to really understand something in depth is not a quick fix. It takes time. Common sense tells us that this is true.

Because education and training today have largely focused on fact acquisition, there is an emphasis on faster delivery of more and more facts. Consequently, a relentless barrage of facts and figures is conveyed in our courses, with very little assimilation or retention. What really sticks? What is retained from this flood of information?

The irony is that when we are not spending time in formal classes we are probably learning the most. It is this time "not on task" when knowledge settles and understanding starts to emerge. Using other parts of our mind and body, as we do in recess, often unlocks the brain to welcome learning. How many times have insights come while taking a run, walking on the treadmill or playing a set of tennis?

Understanding cannot be rushed, crammed, delivered immediately, or accessed by a clicker. "Aha" moments are not manufactured or created on demand. They evolve and emerge as information, ideas, time and the situation interact.

With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown

Chinese proverb

Real learning is the state of being able to adopt and adapt what you know and can do under a varying set of informal circumstances.

David Grebow. 2002

Tip: Structure key learning activities and exercises over a period of time. Allow learners to have days or weeks to adopt and adapt what they have learned. Let them test it against different contexts, people, and events. Enable them to refine and shape their ideas over time and with more experience.

Have lunch

Recess is good, lunch is better. Lunch can involve all the senses, be a time when friends get together and share conversation and laughter. It is a time to nourish the body, refresh the mind, connect with others and learn. Meals and the discussions that surround them can provide the fuel for both the mind and the body.

In the Forman home of working adults and children in school and activities, meals-in this case dinner, not lunch-were the touchstone. We all came together to sit, eat, and converse. Rarely was anyone excused or absent, because this informal tradition became so important. The candles, tablecloth, folded napkins all signaled a time for discussion, news, casual conversation and probably not much else. But maybe a lot more than we recognized at the time.

For eighteenth and nineteenth century farming families the core meal was, in fact, lunch, although it was called dinner. It signaled a break from the fields and provided an opportunity to refuel for the afternoon's work. These gatherings provided more than just nourishment. They helped to convey information, expectations, traditions, and values, not always smoothly or easily; but the forum existed and was used for these purposes.

Learning thrives when nurtured, nourished and encouraged. It can whither without the attention, sustenance and support it deserves. It does not occur in a vacuum or in an antiseptic, controlled environment. It occurs outside the classroom in real life settings with an ever-changing mixture of people, ideas, debate, challenges, senses, and support. It is just like having a good meal with friends and family.

Dining is and always was a great artistic opportunity

Frank Lloyd Wright

I never try to teach my students anything. I only try to create an environment in which they can learn.

Albert Einstein

Tip: Be interested in fostering learning in casual and informal settings. This doesn't mean that dinner or social conversations become monopolized with homework reports. In fact, it is best to talk about ideas and questions and not school schedules or training activities. Good questions are often more valuable than good answers in these types of conversations.

Become passionate

Do you remember listening to someone who became so involved and invested in delivering a message that she became animated, her voice rose, her intense vision permeated the room, and she was visibly exhausted when finished? Politicians and actors do this for a living; but it is rare to see such passion in learning and education. When it happens, it can be magical.

Learning is heightened and invigorated by the senses and emotions. While most current training programs try to isolate knowledge and discard affective and psychomotor factors, we know that life does not work that way. All of these domains work together. The higher the emotional component and passion, the greater the retention of knowledge and skills. Perhaps a key reason why current retention rates in training programs are so low is that knowledge becomes isolated from affective and psychomotor elements, devoid of context, and adrift; and therefore difficult to remember.

It is certainly true that all learning cannot be wildly exciting. It is hard to be passionate about foundations of knowledge such as sentence construction, geometric principles, historical timelines, vocabulary words or learning to use a software application. But passion can be directed at why these foundations are important to know, and how they can be used to solve problems or improve performance. This passion can have a direct bearing on the learner's motivation to learn. If learners are motivated to learn, they will not only learn the material but retain it longer.

All learning has an emotional base Plato

Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of a fire

William Butler Yeats

Tip: There is a simple abbreviation that is always good to remember: WIIFM-or what's in it for me. All too often, training and educational programs are created with little understanding of how it can benefit the learner. At the very least, the benefits to the learner are not well communicated. It is hard to be passionate about something that does not seem to be connected to what you do, who you are or what you want to become. If WIIFM is clear-and conveyed with passion and meaning-it becomes much easier to devote mind and body to learning.

Keep learning

It is ironic that this is the most important lesson of all. It is true that learning is not being accomplished with the joy and passion that it deserves, but it is also true that learning today is more important than ever. Knowledge is both being created and obsoleted faster than ever before. There is a great deal to learn and unlearn to keep abreast of changes and stay informed.

Continuing to learn is both a state of mind and a skill. It is fueled by a belief that there is more to know and more to life than already exists. It is fanned by a passion for ideas, improvement, growth, personal and professional development. It is enjoyable to be with people who question, seek, read, want to know more, and set a standard for continuous learning and development.

The ability to keep learning is valuable for both personal and professional reasons. In business today, a key metric is time to competency. Given the compressed half-life of products, markets and knowledge, the ability to become knowledgeable and skilled quickly in changing conditions is a major competitive advantage. The quicker an individual can learn about a new product, procedure, process, or initiative, the more valuable he or she is to the enterprise. Learning how to learn and learning quickly are core competencies for being successful in today's world.

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.

Henry Ford

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists

Eric Hoffer

It's what you learn after you know it all that counts

John Wooden

Tip: One skill necessary for continuous learning is the ability to digest and synthesize large amounts of information into meaningful lessons. Without this skill, we are overcome and paralyzed by the flood of information and choices, both now and in the future. The Web is the perfect example of both the power and fizzle of so much information. Activities and exercises can be designed to expose learners to the vast resources of the Web, but should also guide them to analyze, synthesize and make choices from this rich repository. This is a life skill that fosters continuous learning for both personal and professional improvement.

Remembering common sense

These common sense learning principles are not new or breakthrough ideas. They are all in our conscientiousness. They have played an important role in our lives for many years, and we know that they work. But these familiar principles are often absent from contemporary education and training programs where the emphasis is on expediency, delivery platforms, granular learning objects, engineered learning, and formal programs.

It is easy to overlook familiar and common sense learning principles, especially if they don't neatly fit the present learning mold. The result is a set of formal educational offerings that can be efficiently presented but lack soul and connection. This does not have to be the case. It is possible to develop more enjoyable and challenging learning solutions that: involve each other, include mentors, incorporate the best ideas tested over time, use our full mental, physical and emotional resources, recognize the value of informal as well as formal learning, and can lead to our own continuous learning.

These common sense learning principles cannot be present every time, all the time. But they are too important to be discarded or forgotten. They should be considered to be part of future learning systems or simply part of our daily lives as learners, mentors, teachers, parents, caregivers, and neighbors. If they can help instill the passion and desire for learning, and keep the fires burning, then the old lessons are well worth remembering.


Clark, R. C. & Mayer, R. E. (2003). E-learning and the science of instruction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Clark, R.E. (2002). Turning research into results. PerformanceXpress. October, 2002.

Davis, S. & Botkin, J. (1995). The monster under the bed. New York: Touchstone Books.

Grebow, D. (2002). At the water cooler of learning. The Batten Institute at the Darden School, University of Virginia.

Neal, L. (2002). Storytelling at a distance. ELearn Magazine. August, 2002

Norman, D. (2002). Q&A with Don Norman. Elearn magazine. August, 2002

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital game-based learning. New York: McGraw-Hill

Thiagarajan, S. (2001). Foreward. In: Prensky, M. (2001) Digital game-based learning. New York: McGraw Hill.

Training Magazine (2000). Cites an edc study. January, 2000.

Van Dam, N. (2001). Training and Development, May, 2001.

Quotations not otherwise in the reference section are taken from the following sources:






Quotations in Prensky, M. (2001) Digital game-based learning. New York: McGraw-Hill

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