That Pesky Goldfish Attention Span Myth

I think everyone who works in the research-to-practice area has a persistent myth that annoys them the most. Mine is unquestionably the goldfish attention span one.

Here’s my pass at a video to address that (note: contains a shameless marketing plug):

If you’d like to learn more about how to engage learners, check out our course at


Patti Shank’s detailed investigation:

Ken McCall’s Linkedin writeup (he actually ordered the book to investigate the claim, which is a gold star in my estimation):

The Ceros folks did the deepest dive into the origins, even checking the internet archive (hashtag nerdrespect!)

Props to Entrepreneur and the BBC for not propagating the myth:

Design Better Learning

I’m delighted to announce the first course in my new project — Design Better Learning. It’s an online course library to help people learn to create better learning experiences.

The first course available is Sticky Learning – Learning Design for Attention and Engagement! It’s a self-study course for instructional designers and anyone designing learning experiences.

Learn more here:

Image of the Sticky Learning Course Home Screen

Upcoming Events

Hey folks,

So it’s a little dusty around here, but I do actually have some plans for doing a little blogging in future. In the mean time, feel free to join the conversation in the Design for How People Learn Facebook group.  Loads of smart people talking about interesting things there:

Design For How People Learn Image

Also thought I would mention some upcoming events. I’m doing workshops (mostly on behavior change) in quite a few places this year, so thought I’d mention it. Always interested in connecting with local L&D folks too.

Upcoming Events:

HR Excellence Center – China
Speaking on Behavior Change
May 29, 2188 | Shanghai
May 31, 2018 | Beijing

AITD – Australian Institute of Training and Development
Annual Conference & Preconference Workshop
Design for Behaviour Change (one-day workshop)
June 6-8, 2018 | Sydney…/About-Pre-Conference-Workshops.s…

2018 Guild Academy Workshops
Design for Behavior Change (one-day workshop)
June 25, 2018 | San Jose, CA

VOV Learning Network Summerclass
Design for Behavior Change (one-day workshop)
July 10, 2018 | Duffel Belgium…/vov-summerclass-instructional-design-for-b…

ID Academy (Torrance Learning)
Design for Behavior Change (one-day workshop)
August 6-8, 2018 | Boston MA


New DFHPL Facebook Group – Following the Conversation

So nerdy shop talk is basically my favorite thing, and the internet is a spectacular place to geek about whatever your passion is.  Where those conversations happen seems to shift as the internet evolves.  I used to have most of my nerd conversations on Twitter, but things seem to have shifted to Facebook or LinkedIn more.  I do like the possibilities of longer conversations that are provided by threaded discussions, and I’m opting for Facebook over LinkedIn for the time being.

If you are so inclined, come hang out:

Link to the facebook group for Design For How People Learn


Narrative Strategies for Learning

Had a lovely time at the Learning Solutions Conference last week.  Did a full day pre-con on Gameful Learning Design with Rick Raymer, which was a lot of fun.

I also did a session on Narrative Techniques for Learning.  When I was working on Design For How People Learn, I listened a lot to a podcast on storytelling techniques.


A lot of learning and development folks *are* fiction writers, in the form of learning scenarios, examples and case studies, but (in my experience) it’s frequently pretty dull stuff (and I say this as someone who has written some dull scenarios myself).

So this session is about pulling some of the specific strategies that fiction writers use to into learning scenarios.  There are a lot of other interesting ways to explore storytelling in terms of meta-structures, psychology and cultural constructs.  This isn’t that presentation (though I’ll probably do that one too, one of these days).

This presentation is focused on specific strategies for making learning stories more interesting.




Why I don’t like WIIFM

This is excerpted and expanded from a post that I wrote for the Tin Can blog 

We’ve talked about WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) for years – it’s one of those things you always hear that you need to include in learning experiences to persuade your learners to pay attention.


I’ve started to think that’s a really unsatisfactory view of the world – most of the people I know don’t need a sales pitch to do their jobs, or to learn something to help them do that. Instead, they need to know that the thing they are learning is actually useful and necessary.

One of my favorite studies is this one from Dan Ariely called Man’s search for meaning: The case of Legos.

The paper starts with a discussion of meaning and work:

“Most children think of their potential future occupations in terms of what they will be (firemen, doctors, etc.), not merely what they will do for a living. Many adults also think of their job as an integral part of their identity. At least in the United States, “What do you do?” has become as common a component of an introduction as the anachronistic “How do you do?” once was, yet identity, pride, and meaning are all left out from standard models of labor supply.”

The paper goes on to explain “we view labor as meaningful to the extent that (a) it is recognized and/or (b) has some point or purpose.”

They did two actual experiments — one where they had participants do a word problem exercise, and a second where participants were constructing figures with legos.


All the participants were paid money for their efforts, but some of the participants had their papers shredded as soon as they were done (without anyone even looking at the page), or their lego figures immediately broken back up in front of them (I particularly love that they labeled this last instance as the “Sisyphean” condition).


You can read the details here, but essential, people worked significantly longer or for less money in the condition where their work wasn’t meaningless. That shouldn’t be the case if people where primarily motivated by what they could get out of the situation (i.e. $$$). Dan Pink talks about several similar studies in his book Drive, when he talks about the importance of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

So, my issue with WIIFM is that, while it probably doesn’t hurt to let people know about the benefits of something, it’s not really a complete answer.

How about WCIDWT?

I think we should talk about WCIDWT (What can I do with that?).  If I have the knowledge or skill that you are trying to teach me, what will I be able to do that I couldn’t before?

Kathy Sierra talks about this when she compares old school marketing (“Buy this because we kick ass”) vs a focus on the user (“Buy this because we want you to kick ass”). What can *you* (the end-user) do to be more awesome, to know more and to do more.

I’ve been playing around with the idea of accomplishment-based learning — using accomplishments as the fundamental organization of content and learning experiences, so that the very structure of the course is about learners accomplishing thing (*real* accomplishments – not finish-the-lesson or pass-the-test accomplishments).  For example which photoshop course would you rather take?


So, my issue with WIIFM is that it feels transactional — I’m trying to *buy* your attention by waving shiny things, when instead it should be about your goals, and what you can do. WIIFM also feels disrespectful of learners for those same reasons.

Thoughts? Opinions? Examples? Violent disagreement? Would love to hear about it in the comments below.

Play a Game with Mundane Imagination


I’ve been reading The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell (which is wonderful), and there was a passage about imagination that I thought was really remarkable:

Imagination puts the player into the game by putting the game into the player.

You might think, when I talk about the power of the players’s imagination that I might mean their creative imagination, and the power to make up dreamlike fantasy worlds — but I am talking about something more mundane.  The imagination I’m talking about is the miraculous power that everyone takes for granted — the everyday imagination that every person uses for communication and problem solving. (p. 124)

What does this look like?

He goes on to give the example of a story:

“The mailman stole my car yesterday.”

Take a minute and run the movie of that story in your head.  What do you see?




Schell talks about the fact that you can picture the story — if asked, you can probably describe the mailman and the car, and the scene where it happens, including time of day, the weather, the color of the car.  You can even start assigning motives to the mailman, and describe the consequences of what happens next.  You didn’t need to be told any of that, and you don’t even need to work that hard to see it — most of it appears nearly effortlessly (it’s not the effortful kind of thinking we associate with creative design).

This ability to automatically fill gaps is very relevant for game design, for it means that our games don’t need to give every detail, and players will be able to fill in the rest.  The art comes in knowing what you should show the player, and what you should leave to their imagination. (p. 125)

Picture an Armchair

Schell talks about how amazing this power of imagination is, and how incredibly flexible it is.  For example, imagine an armchair (another of Schell’s examples).

  • Now imagine that it’s very large.
  • Now imagine that it’s bright orange.
  • Now imagine that it’s made of oatmeal.
  • Now image that it’s walking around the room.

The fact that you can change your inner vision of the chair, largely effortlessly, is miraculous and mundane at the same time.

Barely Games

I thought of all of this when @bfchirpy sent me a link today for this posting from Russell Davies:

He talks about the idea of Barely Games – experiences that come from interacting with the world around you in a game-like way.  His games seem to have a game-like intent without the rigid structure.  He explains that the rules for these games are ambiguous, and that ambiguity is part of the experience (read the whole post – it’s worth it).

He talks about the role of Everyday Pretending in Barely Games, and explains that:

Everyday Pretending is something you do with a bit of your brain, with the edges. It’s a thing of inattention, not concentration.”

What do you see?

I usually try to make sure that my blog posts have a lot of visuals, but I didn’t this time, because I didn’t want to interrupt your own mundane imagination when you were reading this.  I also usually try to include ideas for how to apply the topic to learning design, but I’m not going to do that either.

Here’s why — I want to you take something you are working on at present (a project or task – whatever it might be), and picture it.  Now, as gently as you possibly can (without regard for practical constraints – in the same way you can picture an armchair walking around a room), picture that project/task/work as a game.

What does it look like?


(if you feel like playing, describe what you see in the comments)