Keeping it Fresh: Why Variety and Novelty Matter in Education, Instructional Design, Leadership Development, and More


A lot of authors begin their essays, articles and/or books with the statement that there has been much hype, many essays, articles and/or books written by wannabe gurus about the topic which they are about to write about.

In this way, we the readers can infer that they, the author, are the true guru on the topic… or at least a no-nonsense, non-wannabe guru.

So it was with some enjoyment-yet-rolling-of-the-eyes that I read the following no-nonsense excerpt from the book, Good Boss, Bad Boss by Robert Sutton, on Fast Company a few months ago: Good Bosses Are The Same Today As They Were In 1992  (HT AnneS). 

The excerpt begins as follows:

“A lot of people write business books: about eleven thousand are published each year. There are armies of consultants, gurus, and wannabe thought leaders, and thousands of management magazines, radio and TV shows, websites, and blogs.”

From there, the author proceeds to pour cold water on various trendy fads in management theory… Gen X… Gen Y… Gen Z… (what comes next?  Gen OnBeyondZebra??  Someone’s going to make money on that, for sure). 

I filed the article under “Yeah I Totally Agree With Everything He’s Writing Here, But Why Does He Have To Be So Cantankerous About It?”

Same As It Ever Was

The one-line summary:

 “In a world of near-constant innovation and disruption, the definition of a great boss (or leader or manager) may be the one thing that doesn’t require reinvention.”

The bottom-line:

“Don’t believe the hype about reinventing management. As over fifty years of research shows, treating employees with respect, encouraging them to participate and to make suggestions, and listening to them are as important as ever. The same is true about setting a clear direction, making decisions, and taking charge.”

Sutton seems to be asking a rhetorical question, “Why we keep needing to reinvent leadership??”

All right, I’ll tell you why —  because when it comes to learning, in addition to Certainty and Authority, people also crave Variety and Novelty.

What Keeps a Learner’s Interest

“Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”

– Marshall McLuhan

If ever there was a learning topic that was in constant search of new material (and also, authoritative material), it would be the topic of leadership development, a perennial favorite in all spheres of education: corporate, non-profit, religious, academic, organizational and personal.

The world will always need to develop new leaders, and leaders will always be looking for ways to become better leaders, and so there is a continuous demand for new leadership development programs, materials, mentorships, experiences, and so on.

Certainty and Authority

Have you correctly formatted your citations and validated it as peer-reviewed scientific research? Yes, this is the equivalent of removing all the dirt and insects from your fur… that is to say, deeply satisfying.

Human beings have an innate need for Certainty. In the psychological literature, (see here, here and here) this is often referred to as a need for Order.

The proxy for certainty in learning is often the attribution of Authority. This may come in the form of a time-tested text, some well-worn wisdom, or perhaps an exemplar of exceptional eminence. The attribution of authority is what tells us, the learner, “Yes, you can trust this story/book/article/video/instructional material.”

Variety and Novelty

However, human beings also crave Variety… and yes, those same three books cited earlier also talk about the basic human instinct for Curiosity and Play… but really, I don’t need to cite any literature on this… YOU know it from YOUR OWN LIFE, don’t you?

We don’t want to hear the same things over and over again.  Our brains tune out bland repetition. That which is bright and shiny will get our attention… sometimes only briefly, sometimes long enough to make us listen.

Those whose job it is to transfer foundational knowledge (e.g. basic reading, writing, math, morality, and more) must often find ways to instill a sense of Novelty for the learner, if they’re going to connect the learner with an age-old message.

Keep the message fresh by presenting learning materials with up-to-date language, imagery, relevant examples and exercises (for example, connecting common sense themes with current trends, like combining the notion of respecting employees and spinning a yarn about so-called Millenials, just sayin’)… this is not just “making it pretty” window dressing;   It’s part of good instructional design.

Well… kinda. It has to be done well.  Otherwise, it looks stupid.

Blending — nay, Remixing — nay, Mashing-up the Old with the New

The way one bridges these two opposing concepts – Certainty vs Variety, aka, Authority vs Novelty – is to connect  them by delivering an educational experience marked by Authenticity:

It’s real because it’s interesting and it’s interesting because it’s real.

Here’s a first draft visualization of this concept of blending novelty with authority to create authentic, engaging learning:

Recognize the pattern of lines on this fancy 2×2 matrix?  That’s right. What I’ve drawn here is a close cousin to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow.

Just as with the concept of Flow, individuals will vary in how much authority versus novelty they require, in order to be engaged in a given lesson.  

..and to be sure, within and outside of these two (oversimplified) dimensions, there are any number of other attributes or values that a person may have — e.g. word choice, graphical composition — that can affect the motivational quality of the lesson.

(Still The) Same As It Ever Was

When the author of Ecclesiastes wrote “There is nothing new under the sun,” he was a cranky old man. Ecclesiastes — the alter ego of King Solomon — stole the line that would be used and re-used by many wannabe cranky old men in the generations to come.

Then again, perhaps for some audiences once in a while, the message of “nothing new under the sun” exactly the type of no-nonsense message that grabs the learner’s attention.

Perhaps he (Solomon? Sutton?) knew this.

Perhaps, when he put the pen down, he relaxed his grumpy shoulders, smiled to himself, and said, “Ha! I got them to listen.”

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on July 17, 2012, in Business, Coaching, Communication Skills, Instructional Design, Learning, Management, Psychology, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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