I read this research on the Internet, so it has to be true.  Learning hurts your brain. I first began to suspect this was true in 4th Grade Spanish class with Mrs. Gonzalez, where I was called “Ricardo” for reasons that remained a mystery to me all year long.  (Hey — I’m just visiting your country for an hour a day.  I’m not planning on renouncing my citizenship and living here as an ex-pat like Hemingway, lady.) But I digress.

The researchers exposed J20 and wildtype mice to new cages to increase neuron activity. Surprisingly, after 2 hours in the novel environments, the number of gH2A.X -positive neurons spiked in the brains of both healthy and diseased animals, primarily in areas critical for memory formation and learning—suggesting that the brain activity itself was triggering DNA damage.

Interestingly, the damage was resolved in wildtype mice within 24 hours back in their home cages, but the damage persisted in J20 mice. Furthermore, the damage was higher in J20 mice, which had up to three times as many gH2A.X-positive neurons—and the differences could be detected as early as 1 month, before the J20 mice began exhibiting cognitive symptoms. The results suggest that perhaps the high levels of amyloid in the brains of these mice was preventing DNA repair. SOURCE

So — Should You Be Worried?

A slightly “less scientific” version of the findings published on Ars Technica suggests, reassuringly, that this “shouldn’t keep you up at night.”  And that it may even provide some useful insights into the cure of Alzheimer’s. But if you’ve already substantially damaged your neurons by moving to a new cage, you may not even be aware of what you’ve lost.  Check around your desk for degrees that you may have earned, patents in your name, and photos of you with famous people.  You should also ask close family members if you’re a big deal in any way at least once per day.

As educators, I think most of us are already aware of this situation.  I can say that any time I’ve tried to instill learning in any meaningful amount, it makes my brain hurt in a direct relationship to how hard I’m teaching.  That’s why, as I get older, I teach less and less and listen more and more.


(First published on


A client recently relayed a comment to me from a classroom teacher.  The teacher was disappointed in our e-learning unit because some students would just quickly “click through” the content, rather than spending several minutes on each screen.  The instructor wanted to know if we could modify the product to force the students to spend a couple of minutes looking at each screen, before they were allowed to click “next” and proceed.  My client asked how I would respond to the question.

Here’s what I said — I’m curious, how would YOU respond?

Would Forcing Longer Time On A Screen Help?

I usually start this answer (if I think the teacher can take a little gentle ribbing) by asking if, before they hand out the textbooks, they glue down the corners of all the pages.  When they say “no” I let this lead into having the group list the uses of a textbook – not just a front-to-back read, but for reference, to use for review before testing, to quote in projects, to refresh memory during open-book tests, and so forth.

From there, I start talking about how e-learning content can be used in many different ways by a learner.  Some learners will start at the beginning, and go from front to back.  Some will dip their toes in at different places.  Some will scan for subjects of interest.  Some will use the “search” function to find a specific subject.  (I stop to point out that, as educators, we don’t get a vote in this.  It’s how learners build knowledge in the world today.)  So we need to understand that, and build it into our understanding of how we help them facilitate their learning.

What Has Changed In Learning, Anyway?

Back when I was in the 3rd grade, Mrs. Solem had a huge amount of control over what I learned and exactly how that happened.  Today, learners expect to be able to make a lot of decisions about what and how they’re going to learn.  (They make GOOD and BAD decisions, of course.  That’s to be expected.)  Our job as teachers and facilitators is to help guide them as they do this, to show them how to make good choices, and (ultimately) measure the outcome of their choices and achievement.  The learners own their success or failure.

Technically, it’s easy to set a minimum screen time.  Practically, we’ve found that learners just go browse the web or read email or paint their nails or do something else.  I’ve seen no solid research that there’s a corresponding increase in learning.  Much like gluing the pages down in a textbook to force students to spend more time on each one, you’re just going to frustrate the participant.

The larger question that needs to be asked here is why does the learner skip through the content, not learn, and end up with “some quiz and test scores so low”?

Given Good Content And Teaching, Why Don’t They Learn?

If we assume the content is good quality, and the teaching is good quality – why do students skip through it and fail the tests?  There are enough answers there to fill a thesis dissertation, but I’ll focus here on just one.  Motivation.

If we’re trying to teach a student how to write an MLA footnote, and the student sees no reason that they need to learn to do so – I could make them stay on that page for an hour and they probably won’t learn the content.  (Unless I tell them there’s a test they have to pass to graduate.) Google the difference between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivation for extra credit.

But if I tell the student the next screen will show them how to double their score at “Angry Birds” they will stay on that screen until they’ve squeezed every drop of knowledge out of it.  Because they want that information for themselves and see the value.

So as a teacher, one of the most useful things you could possibly do is to show your students that what you’re teaching is connected to their real lives, and actually means something to them.  And that’s a huge, huge job.

So — what do you think?  Do you glue your virtual pages down?


I spend lots of time developing learning that lives online.  e-learning, web content, videos, podcasts, support information, application forms for tractor assembly jobs — so I fancy myself as a bit of an expert in how this type of content is consumed.

(Many other people in my discipline would use less flattering terms to describe me — including references to rodents, orifices and familial relationships.  But even if true — I design a bunch of online learning.)

As part of that, I joust regularly with people who teach and train in something called “The Real World”.  I have a hazy memory of this place — it involves chalk boards, rows of desks, and children in freshly-pressed jumpers smiling up at me as I whack their knuckles with a wooden ruler.  I rarely teach there anymore — nobody wants to pay my embarrassingly high prices, and I keep trying to click on individual students and block them.

baggageAs they move into the world of online teaching, most “real world” practitioners attempt to bring all their baggage with them.  And as the airlines have found, the more baggage you allow the more difficult it is to get the damn thing off the ground.  So I’m here today to show you a few of the cherished icons of classroom instruction you’re going to have to leave at the gate if you want to succeed in the online world.

Everyone Does Not Stay Together
In your classroom, you can exert a good deal of control that all students advance at a controlled pace — by assigning readings, presentations, and in-class activities.  You’ll find that online students will lag behind and race ahead.  Some will have questions about section 14 on the third day of class.  Oopsie.

So you’d best be prepared on Day 1 to teach the whole thing, or you’ll take the wind out of the sails of the students who are really engaged.  And you’ll have to be willing to support someone who’s going back to the beginning for a refresher during the last week.

Everyone Expects Personalized Support
Blame it on Tony Hsieh of Zappos — a large number of your students will now expect to interact with you via email, chat, FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Snoozle, Schmaltz, Fizzle, Abdalo, Whackadoodle — ok, I was just making up those last few.  But you get the picture.  If you’re not careful about designing how you set up your assignments, your workload will go up exponentially.

Be sure that you set your assignments up so that students interact with each other, rather than always depending on you.  Be sure that you become an Online Facilitator, and let go of the idea that all learning comes from you.  Be sure that you spend some time learning new skills for this new role that you’ve taken on.

Everyone Will Not View Every Screen
Do you have a DVR?  If so, I bet you don’t watch commercials.  Or the boring parts.  And your e-learning students are going to do that, as well.  In your classroom, they sat their in their seats and pretended to listen during the boring parts.  Online, they’re just going to skip past the things they don’t want to pay attention to.  (I always find it amusing when teachers complain about learners ignoring boring online content.  I ask them what they, personally, do during the sermon in church.)

So you’d better make sure the e-learning you’re using is interesting, engaging, and makes your learners want to pay attention.  Or find a way to introduce it so they will.

Quit Measuring Stuff You Don’t Track
There’s no reason to add in all those little “Check Your Understanding” and “Quick Quiz” screens throughout the e-learning, unless you’re going to collect the data and use if for something.  Only three possible outcomes:

  1. Student actually knows the answer. Wow.
  2. Student doesn’t know the answer.  Unless you force them back through the content, you just make them feel dumb.  Wow.
  3. Student skips past the test — which the majority will do.  Wow.

If you feel you must do this, just have a question and the correct answer on the next screen, like a flashcard.  That way you’re reinforcing a positive.  There’s good data to support that.  And you can re-use that content for test prep at the end of the course.

Let The Inmates Build The Prison
As I’ve mentioned above, you need to start thinking more like a “facilitator” than a “teacher”.  You’re guiding this group of learners through the curriculum, and no longer the main source of knowledge.  Let them learn from each other, from resources you provide (and that they find and vet through you), bring in live humans via Skype or Webcasts, have them do original research and share — be creative in how each new class discovers information.

Each course will look different, and that’s ok.  Each group of learners will approach the problems in a different manner, and the shared knowledge that they create will be unique.  That’s one of the amazing parts of online learning — those “Poindexters” that sit in the front row will fade into the background, and you’ll meet a whole new group of people you never heard from before.


(Addendum added Nov 6, 2011)

I keep getting myself in trouble. Let me be the first to admit it. And this time, it’s because I’m proud of the work I did, and I hate to see other people cheapen the meaning of it. In this case, we’re talking about the word “Certified”.

When you drive your car into a garage, you see signs for an ASE Mechanic.  If you want to climb into the cockpit of a jet airplane, you’ve got to talk to a guy (or gal) who’s holding a CFI Rating. And, if you want to get into the server room at work, you’re gonna need a little something called an MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) Certificate(Full disclosure, I spent a good part of my career writing big complicated courses to teach people to get that last one — which hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people — now hold around the world.)

My point is, when you bill someone as being “Certified” in something, you’re saying to the public at large that you’re in some way reassuring them that this person can actually perform the tasks expected of them in a competent manner.

The ASE Mechanic can diagnose the problem with your car, order the parts, install them and then test your car and return it to you without giving you a dangerous vehicle.

The CFI Flight Instructor can teach your pilot how to fly an airplane in such a manner that you will be safe riding with them, and that if a problem arises they will professionally and quickly resolve it and land the airplane without you ending up a small grease spot on the pavement.

The Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer will be able to install, configure and diagnose your computer servers and systems so that your data is safe, your users are happy, and that that guy from Nigeria doesn’t get into your bank account.

Now, of course, there ARE organizations that provide “certification” of crystal ball gazers, balloon animal makers, and those who make sculptures out of dryer lint.  Anyone can “certify” someone in a skill — coaching, finger-snapping, apple carving — and that’s their right.  While I think it’s amusing, I don’t really have a big problem with them.

But a year or two ago, a Large Learning Organization (Let’s call it the “Amazing Society for Trivial Development” decided that the world needed them to “provide a way for workplace learning and performance professionals to prove their value to employers and to be confident about their knowledge of the field.”

Great!  Sounds just like my definition above — reassuring, performance, competent…

Well, hold on there, Hoss.  The bar’s not all that high.  Here’s what you need:

1.  Three years in a “related” field.

2. “Pass” a multiple choice test (which apparently has not been validated)

3.  Submit a “sample” of your work (PPT deck?  Drawing of you in a classroom?)

Oh — one other little thing.  A check for $1,000 dollars. For a machine-scored test and to have a “blue-ribbon panel” look at your course plan?

Just for comparison, a Microsoft Certification test (for a single cert) right now costs around $200.  And having it will immediately boost your income about 25% or more in most markets.  Because the people who pass this test have to pretty much take a week of classes and then study really, really hard before they can pass.

If you got all five certs, you’d double your income.  Those tests would be about $1000 out of your pocket.  Probably a good deal.

So let’s get back to the Large Learning Organization.  Do they have any documentation that their certification maps directly to more income? Well, they do claim that the Fortune 500 “prefer their candidates” but they don’t give any hard data. If there were actual stats, I bet they’d quote them.

But come on — who in their right mind would say these people are competent at what we do? E-learning?  Instructor led?  Webcasts?  Curriculum Design?  Needs analysis?  Assessment?  Social Media?  Coaching?  Psychometrics? Data Analysis?

But (from their own data) the LLO has now administered their test to 3,605 people and charged users about $1000 each.  I’m not a math whiz, but that comes out to Three Million, Six Hundred and Five Thousand Dollars! Now they did have mimeograph costs for the multiple-choice tests, and they had to print up some nice blue ribbons for the panel, but other than that — pure profit. And people say Bernie Madoff was smart!

(Full Disclosure:  They will give you a $200 discount on the test if you join the org or are a member.  But that money just goes in another pocket, so I’m not discounting it.)

This causes an itch under my saddle because they’re supposed to be a Professional Learning Organization, and they should know better.  If it was a bunch of Balloon Animal Professionals, I’d cut them some slack and say “Well, what do they know about training and certification?”  But these people CLAIM to be the best and brightest.  In fact, I bet some of them even HAVE this certification. (Interesting side note would be to see if EVERYONE paid full price, or if the insiders got it discounted or for free.  I know what I’d be betting — how about you?)

So there you have it.  Call me cranky, call me snarky, or call me somebody that’s proud of my profession.  Proud of my skills.  Proud of the people that I work with every day who really provide Training and Development at a high level of quality.

And embarrassed to be associated with a money-machine that grinds out pretty certificates.










Addendum:  Several people have written me personally, asking why I hate people who have certifications from the Large Learning Organization, or think that those people don’t have skills in learning.  PERISH THE THOUGHT!  I’d bet that a large number of people who coughed up the $10000 fee for this overpriced and poorly-designed piece of irrelevant documentation are likely highly skilled learning professionals.  I know several of them personally, and would recommend them highly, depending on what it is you wanted them to do.

The point is that this Four Letter Acronym really has nothing to do with whether they are skilled or not — it merely proves they can write a check and answer some multiple-guess questions.  It’s not a certification for a potential client that they can actually provide the services that the client needs, or that they have the skills that map to the project at hand.

Were I at the beginning of my career, with no other evidence of my skill (like advanced degrees or client referrals) I’d probably hold my nose and write the check.  But I’d have to take a shower every time I put the acronym after my name.


I work with lots of folks who create and deliver some kind of instruction — training, documentation, presentations and such. I’m planning to have this quote from Etienne Wenger tattooed on my forehead in large letters, just so they can think about it.

“Instruction does not cause learning; it creates a context in which learning takes place, as do other contexts. Learning and teaching are not inherently linked. Much learning takes place without teaching, and indeed much teaching takes place without learning.”