ATD Blog

Let's Talk About Transformation

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

I’m a fan of the notion “learning experience design.” (I’m not so sure about platforms; I need to investigate them more.) The idea of integrating effective education and engaging experiences is something I’ve been writing and talking about for a long time. And I want to push it a little further. I want to talk about transformation.

What am I talking about? So, I’ve previously referred to Pine and Gilmore’s concept of the transformation economy. That is, going beyond experiences (for example, themed restaurants) to ones that change us. And I argue that’s what we do; we create (or should create) experiences that give us new skills, new abilities to do. But I want to push it further.

Here, I’m talking about deliberately using the idea of transformation as a learning design goal. Not just change but leveraging the emotions as well as cognition to have the learner feel empowered and transformed. This may sound like a lofty goal fine for a TED Talk (just read the book; recommended), but is it practical for e-learning? Well, that’s an interesting question.

Let me spin it another way. I do not think we should be shooting for an information dump and knowledge test, for two reasons: One is that it’s not inspiring. More importantly, however, it also isn’t effective. You end up with what cognitive scientists call “inert knowledge.” You’ll learn it and pass a test on it, but when it’s relevant in practice, it won’t even get activated because you’ve never used it in ways like you practice.

If we are actively thinking about transformation as a goal, we might do a better job of thinking about the necessary practice and the emotional engagement. We can focus on thinking, “What will lead to the transformation we want?” and “How do we make people want it and celebrate when they’ve made the breakthrough?” And I think this is a useful perspective.

Even for things like compliance, I’d suggest that we should have visceral reactions like, “OK, I get it is pretty heinous” and “Safety is important and I commit to following these rules.” For more important things, you’d like them to feel, “Yes, I see, this will change how I do this!”

Yes, it’s ambitious. But why set limited goals for ourselves? When I was teaching interface design, I maintained that if I accommodated the engineers lack of background in psych, I’d get them only so far. If I pushed them, they’d end up further than if I was conciliatory. Similarly, we’ll do a better job if we think ambitiously and end up not as far as we’d like. I’ll suggest that’s better than satisfactorily achieving mediocrity. Most importantly, I truly think we’ll do a better job of design if we strive for transformation.

And, if there’s nothing transformative about what we’re covering, should we really be using our resources? Let me put it another way: Why shouldn’t we do this? Seriously, I’m asking. So, what’s your answer?

Join me February 5-7 in San Jose for ATD TechKnowledge. During my session, "Transforming Learning: A Learning Science-Based Curriculum and Pedagogy," we will discuss how to reframe curricula to put the emphasis on doing, not knowing.

About the Author

Clark Quinn assists Fortune 500, education, government, and not-for-profit organizations in integrating learning science and engagement into their design processes. He has a track record of innovation, and has consistently led development of advanced uses of technology, including mobile, performance support, and intelligently adaptive learning systems, as well as award-winning online content, educational computer games, and websites. Previously, Clark headed research and development efforts for Knowledge Universe Interactive Studio, and held management positions at Open Net and Access CMC, two Australian initiatives in internet-based multimedia and education.

Clark is a recognized scholar in the field of learning technology, having held positions at the University of New South Wales, the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center, and San Diego State University’s Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education. He earned a PhD in cognitive psychology from the University of California, San Diego, after working for DesignWare, an early educational-software company.

Clark keynotes both nationally and internationally and is the author of numerous articles and chapters, as well as the books Engaging Learning: Designing e-Learning Simulation Games, Designing mLearning: Tapping Into the Mobile Revolution for Organizational Performance, The Mobile Academy: mLearning for Higher Education, Revolutionize Learning & Development: Performance & Innovation Strategy for the Information Age, and Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions: Debunking Learning Myths and Superstitions. In 2012 he was awarded the eLearning Guild’s first Guild Master designation. He blogs at, tweets as @quinnovator, and serves as executive director of Quinnovation.

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In the field of secondary education we call it engaged learning, and I agree whole heartly if we are not using our resources to empower and elevate, we are merely performing a machinistic function. We aren't designing to simply deliver information - any computer can function this way - learning should be relational and transformative so they walk away thinking, "I didn't know I could do that!" Great article.
Thanks, Angela. Interestingly, my first book was titled 'Engaging Learning' ;), tho' about designing games for learning. Still, very high overlap.
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Miriam, thanks for the feedback, and glad if it resonated! You absolutely have my permission. Good luck, and of course let me know if there are any ways I can help.
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Hi Clark, I truly love your article. I am part of the new L&D team in my organization, and our goal is to create a transformative learning culture, and your words cannot be more perfect. My favorite part is "if there’s nothing transformative about what we’re covering, should we really be using our resources?" With your permission, I am going to start incorporating that phrase into our conversations with SMEs and senior management.
that really stood out to me as well, and made me have to pause in my reading and reflect for quite awhile on current project.
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