The Hitchhikers Guide to the Learning Galaxy


The late and legendary author of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams once said, “A learning experience is one of those things that says, ‘You know that thing you just did? Don’t do that.”

Those familiar with his work will appreciate the strange smart twisted logic of his writing. His point is well made here. Sometimes the quickest way to learn new things is to mess up. We’re more careful at a road junction where previously we’ve nearly crashed. We brush more diligently after a visit to the dentist. “That’ll learn you” my Yorkshire grandmother would ungrammatically mutter when I emerged bawling and bruised from another ill-advised childhood scheme. Whether it did, I don’t care to remember.

I wonder how many people view learning this way? Just a series of negative incidents which, once experienced, will enable them to instinctively avoid future mistakes. Learning this way doesn’t appear fun or even desirable. It’s the opposite of how us learning professionals like to portray the process. But it does have one big plus point – it works! So effective is it that psychologists still reach for it, in the guise of aversion therapy, to combat anything from drug taking to simple nail biting.

I realise this is no new observation in e-learning either. US guru Elliot Masie has been an exponent of such techniques for years. ‘Failing our way to success’ forms a key part of his Learning Trends and Challenges 2017 presentation.

Of course, there are other ways of leveraging this instinctive reaction without the obvious downsides. We also learn well just by watching someone else’s shortcomings.  Video Arts is a master of these productions. Its brand of video learning, where well-loved comedians act out a hapless solution which is then corrected, is legendary in corporate training.

It is also the one of the possibilities in gamification and game based learning. Creating outcomes where there will be losers as well as winners is important. Both sides of the coin will learn. This may be one of the least cited learning benefits of gamification but could yet be one of the most valuable.

But returning to Video Arts, its use of narrative – and the ability to demonstrate negative outcomes engagingly within it – helps make their videos compelling. Why then do we use the fail/success technique so relatively rarely? Is it, as some IDs suggest, that much of the corporate content we consume doesn’t lend it itself to this format? The popularisation and success of microlearning also contrasts against this approach.

More probably it is that our LMSs, e-learning development tools and SCORM reports were not designed to let us display these kinds of outcomes. But today’s new applications are starting to overcome this. For instance, learningPlay enables learning professionals to easily build and curate their own narratives with gamified outcomes that can be used to demonstrate failure as well as success. It rejects SCORM assessment in favour of much broader algorithms which can view achievements in different ways.

Being able to easily show failure/success scenarios, using video or other means, and assemble the results using an app like learningPlay can be a powerful tool in learning. But beware; Douglas Adams also pointed out that, “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” We all still need a nudge.


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Martin Belton

Martin is a director of Ascot Communications, one of the UK’s leading consultancies working with learning technology organisations. He has presented on stages as far afield as Tokyo and Los Angeles and authored more papers on elearning and IT than he, or anyone else, cares to remember.