Why Content Isn’t King for Learning

What pops in your head when I say the word “teaching”?

Did you imagine an expert, sharing their knowledge with people who are less expert? Maybe a lecture and then an assignment, or some reading and a video?

If so, you’re not alone.

After all, that’s how most of us were taught in school. And since we teach how we were taught, it’s also how most of us continue to teach in our businesses and information products.

But what if I told you there was a better way?

One that created better student results, and required you to create less content?

Complexity Kills Content-Driven Learning

Most of us, when we teach, take a very traditional approach: we break the subject down into it’s parts, organize those parts into a linear structure, create content that fits within that structure, and voila! Share that content with students, and you’ve got teaching.

But it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work for us as content producers, because we know that things are interconnected. And so we get stuck, trying to figure out how to organize all this complexity into a neat, tidy package.

It doesn’t work for our customers, because reducing everything to “lists” and “step-by-step guides” misses out on the inherent complexity that makes it all work. So they get a simplistic view of things, and are unable to make the broader connections.

From there, it’s all downhill: they don’t see the results they’re expecting, and we don’t get the shining testimonials and case studies we need. Plus, the misconceptions they pick up carry over into future learning experiences, making them even less likely to be successful in future courses.

The Alternative To Content-Driven Learning

To explain, I want to tell you about a study conducted by a group of neuroscience and educational researchers from Stanford. These researchers were interested in figuring out the best way to introduce students to the study of the brain.

Now, the brain is no easy thing to understand; medical students consistently rank neurology as the most difficult medical discipline. It’s all interconnected and interwoven. There’s no clear start or end-point, and honestly, it’s a bit of a moving target.

Sidenote: sounds kind of like the topics prominent in information products, doesn’t it? Neurology, business development, entrepreneurship, personal development, marketing, writing … they are all messy, complex topics without a clear path from start to finish.

Through the magic of technology (and some old-fashioned ingenuity), they decided to try something completely different: what would happen if students were given an interactive, 3D model of the brain to explore and experiment with, instead of a traditional content-driven lesson?

And so, they took a bunch of students, all new to neuroscience, and divided them into two groups. The first learned the material in the traditional fashion: they were asked to read about it. The second group spent the same amount of time doing free-form experimentation using a hands-on, interactive tabletop interface.

Both groups were given the same pre-test and post-test, so researchers could see how much they’d learned through each method.

The results?

“Hands-on learning” kicked “textbook learning” to the curb.

(And, just in case you’re about to jump on “textbooks” as the problem – the same experiment was conducted with students learning through video rather than reading. Same results.)

Now, before I continue on with our little tale, I’d like you to put yourselves in the shoes of the “hands-on” students for a minute.

You’ve just had 15 minutes to play around with this ‘brain game’. No direction, no background, just free-form exploration. You’re encouraged to make hypotheses, observe the results, and extrapolate from what you’re seeing. It’s the scientific method at it’s purest.

And then you’re given a test.

Feeling uncomfortable? A little unprepared?

If so, you’re not alone. One student in the experiment, Joe, said: “I would have been better able to take full advantage of the table if I had read the text beforehand.”

But was he right? Let’s continue on…

After the post-test, the researchers switched the groups around. The students that started with the textbook went to the tabletop; the ones that started on the tabletop went to the textbook. Then, they did one final evaluation.

And while both groups of students showed improvements, hands-on learning before traditional text or video learning got far superior results. 

Here’s Why You Should Care

You can spend all the time in the world creating content. Courses built on hours of video, eBooks, webinars, presentations … you name it.

And it’ll be fine, because that’s why way people have learned for decades. Content-driven learning been shown to be moderately effective, and, hey, it’s familiar. It’s how you were taught, so it’s how you teach.

But what if you were to cut your content in half, and replace all those videos, pages and infographics with activities, hands-on learning and practice, feedback, discussions, you name it?

All of a sudden, you’d have less content to produce and your students would get better results.