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The Tyranny of the Top Ten List … (or: 3 Habits to Start Improving Your Writing) … (or : 2 Ways To Approach Learning) … (or: The One Thing You Need to Know About Lists)


Lists help the instructional designer…

  • Gain attention
  • Structure ideas
  • Encourage discussion
  • Reinforce learning

..and if you want to understand what’s behind those bullet points, read on…

Habit #1:  Beware of Empty Calories

It’s trite and obvious… yet we, as readers, fall for it anyway.

"We are all individuals." -Life of Brian

“We are all individuals.” -Life of Brian

“3 Ways to Start Improving Your Life!” shouts the link…  or the glossy magazine cover…or the book cover…. and we feel compelled to click/flip it open.

Inevitably, we are disappointed once we read the article/book in question. The promise of quick and easy enlightenment is once again unfulfilled, and we search onward.

When it comes to the delivery of learning, as a trainer I regularly face a tyranny of the Top 10 List, i.e. PowerPoint slides with bulleted lists of items pretending to be instructional material.  There are too many slides in too many decks with too many bullet points.

Yet, somehow, when I flash those slides onto the overhead screen, I often see the faces of the learners light up — “ooh… a list!”  — but, depending on the list, the momentary rush of interest may fade just as quickly.

Gummies-WormsThe Top 10 List appeals to our love of informational snacking, but ruins our appetite for healthier, more nutritious mental meals that require real chewing and digestion.

..or as Tufte-the-PowerPoint-slayer puts it,

“There are many true statements about complex topics that are too long to fit on a PowerPoint slide.

What gets left out is the narrative between the bullets, which would tell us who’s going to do what and how we’re going to achieve the generic goals on the list.

What this means is that we shouldn’t abbreviate the truth, but rather get a new method of presentation.”

Edward Tufte, Information Visualization Geek

In the field of instruction, on the spectrum of “Sage on the Stage” vs. “Guide on the Side,” the Top 10 List is where the Sage has taken over and the audience has abdicated their responsibility for learning. Any natural tension that existed between entertainment and education has been lost — the cause of entertainment has won the battle — and the instructor has become simply a speaker, a storyteller.

ok energy drinks

“Everything is going to be okay.”

The Top 10 List attracts us with its packaging and then we gulp it down quickly… while it feels like we are “using our time efficiently,” we are in fact expending our time on empty mental calories.

If we habituate ourselves to this sort of “learning,” before long. we’ll find ourselves fatter and dumber for it.

Wo ist das Rindfleisch?

Wo ist das Rindfleisch?

For the group of learners that enjoy these lists, we do damage by feeding their habit.

As for the “healthful eaters” — the group of learners who have learned to see through the banality of contrived lists –we do damage to our own credibility.

So the first lesson of the Top 10 List is this:  Recognize it as a great way to attract initial interest… and then insist that there be some meat… some substance and purpose behind it.

Habit #2: ..But Don’t Be a Nutrition Fanatic

There is an opposite kind of tyranny, which is the instructor who insists that all learning must be heavy, fibrous, nutrient-rich information. No, that slice of zucchini-carob-carrot cake does NOT cut it… I want my Devil’s Food Cake.

It would be a mistake for a writer to say, “never present a ‘top tips’ list,”  just as it would be foolish for a reader to say, “refuse reading any article that uses the cheap trick of being titled  ‘x ways to get y.'”

In other words, don’t be a health food bully… give the kids some candy… or better yet, some high quality dessert.  I’m thinking dark chocolate…. 70% cacao at least, perhaps filled with a rich truffle ganache… (read more here:  6 Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate) ..but I digress…

sea salted dark chocolate

This blog post brought to you by Ghirardelli Intense Dark™ Sea Salt Soiree™

Taking these two suggestions — Habits #1 and #2 — together, it reads something like this:   Use those “Top 10” Lists in your reading, writing and instruction, but recognize them for what  they are: pedagogical amuse-bouches…. small bits of instructional strategy used to refresh the learner’s attention and ease into a deeper conversation… much like using humor, a quotation, an image, etc.

Habit #3:  Give Your List a Purpose

The key to getting the right balance of Habit #1 and Habit #2 is to have a purpose in mind when deploying a list.

A Top 10 (or any other number other than the total number of fingers on a dominant primate’s hands) List can be used in a purposeful and even creative manner.

Here are just 7 of the ways a list can useful for authors, teachers and instructional designers:

  1. Provide a “hook” by making information seem easier to digest
  2. Break-down bigger, complex concepts into a series of smaller, simpler, essential facets
  3. Provide a structure or prompt to aid memory & recall (especially when combined with other mnemonic strategies)
    • (3.1) Organize information  so that it can be more easily referenced later
    • (3.2) Use the list number itself as a symbol or reference point (e.g. “The Seven Deadly Sins of List-Makers”)
    • (3.3) Introduce a job aid / checklist that will be used at a later time in the performance context
  4. Force the author to be concise
  5. Prioritize
  6. Spark ideas
  7.  _________________ (yeah, you saw that coming)

No, the above list is not presentation-quality… it has yet to undergo the process of recursive abstraction that will yield — presto — the summary list that appears at the top of this post.

Yes, there is a power in the making lists for the designer, as a way to structure information, as a way to encourage categorical thinking, and as a scaffolding for brainstorming… and they can make information seem less intimidating to the reader/learner. Usually not all of those things at the same time, mind you.

Indeed, there are often two ways that people approach learning:  learning as education, vs. learning as entertainment… but of course, it’s a false dichotomy.

As Marshall McLuhan said,

“It’s misleading to suppose there’s any basic difference between education & entertainment.

This distinction merely relieves people of the responsibility of looking into the matter.”  

Marshall McLuhan, Prophet

spoonful of sugar

The one thing you need to know about lists is this:  They are the spoonful of organizing sugar that makes the learning medicine go down… in the most delightful way.

Just take it easy on those spoonfuls, okay?


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.”

Bring Me Back Some of the Old Time McLuhan Religion

This semester in the UMass M.Ed Instructional Design program I’m taking a course on selecting and evaluating instructional materials. I was thrilled when the instructor of this course kicked things off with a bit of Marshall McLuhan.  Ah, that Old Time McLuhan Religion… it brought back memories of sultry summer nights driving through downtown Montreal, listening to Dromotexte on CKUT on my car radio. There was magic in the air when I first heard this:

…and this….

So now, thanks to this course I’m taking, McLuhan has come back to me after all these years and is reminding me that, “we shape our tools (instructional materials), and thereafter our tools (instructional materials) shape us.”

I also enjoyed hearing McLuhan the Prophet’s words again in the year 2011, now in our Age of Facebook and Twitter.  Check out these little gems:

“There ain’t no grammatical errors in a non-literate society.”

“Publication is a self-invasion of privacy.”

“The older, traditional ideas of private isolated thoughts and actions are patterns of mechanistic technology are very seriously threatened by new patterns of instantaneous electric information retrieval, by the electrically computerized  dossier, that one big gossip column that is unforgiving and unforgetful and for which no redemption and no erasure of our mistakes.”

“Our is a brand new world of all-at-onceness. Time has ceased. Space has vanished. We now live in a global village of simultaneous happening. We’re back in acoustic space. We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy have divorced us. The tribalizing process, the inner trip, the depth involvement in the experience of the unified human family, that is something of which we’ve had no experience for many centuries.  It is a process that is located so entirely in the present that it does not appear at all in the rear-view mirror to which we habitually look to for reassurance and nostalgic orientation. Joyce called it all space in a naught shell, a naught shell being an eternal present.”

Of course there is also McLuhan the Educator whose words are even more pertinent to me now, than ever before:

“Training will be more concerned with training the senses and perceptions, than with stuffing brains. “


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

Of course, I found the greatest pleasure and comfort in the words of McLuhan the Generalist… or at least, the McLuhan Anti-Specialist:

“Where the whole man is involved there is no work. Work begins with the division of labor.”

“The specialist is one who never makes small mistakes while moving toward the grand fallacy.”

“The scientist rigorously defends his right to be ignorant of almost everything except his specialty.”

Bringing it all together, we can cap it off with two more McLuhanisms:

“The trouble with a cheap, specialized education is that you never stop paying for it.”


“When this circuit learns your job, what are you going to do?”

Good question, Marshall.

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