In Praise of Not Knowing Too Much

Person behind stack of binders

In a perfect world, people who know everything there is to know about a topic (also known as Subject Matter Experts) would also be absolutely wonderful at putting their ideas together so they could share their knowledge with beginners, and help everyone become as competent as they are. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case. In fact, Subject Matter Experts are often the worst people to train others on their specialty because they assume that everyone knows at least as much as they do and they struggle to frame information in a way that the uninitiated can understand.

Enter the Instructional Designer—the professional whose lack of expertise in the topic at hand is their greatest asset. Because the Instructional Designer has no preconceptions, they are free to ask questions like “What do you need your students to know, or be able to do, once you’re finished training them—that they can’t do now?” (also known as the course objectives). If the answers come back sounding like a rocket scientist is needed to translate, then that again is an opportunity for additional questions—to break the training goals into the kind of bite-sized chunks that the beginner can digest. The Instructional Designer continues to ask questions until it becomes clear which topics and content must be included in order for students to master the objectives.

But what about a situation where no Instructional Designer is available? How can the Subject Matter Expert (or someone tasked with helping them) figure out how to get started, if they’ve never built training before? Well, there are many excellent online resources. A good place to start is, which is a site maintained by a private individual that nonetheless has quite a bit of good information for the novice. Another resource is from the manufacturer of the elearning software Articulate Storyline. Although they focus primarily on elearning, their information on basic instructional design principals is solid. Check out their Instructional Design posts.

Another option is the course “Teach Almost Anyone Almost Anything,” which is newly available on OpenSesame. This course provides a high level view of the Instructional Design discipline, with real-world examples and downloadable templates that will get the training project off to a good start.

Regardless of the way in which the Subject Matter Expert decides to research their approach, the main point is that they have an approach. An ad-hoc “brain dump” won’t work in most cases. In order for knowledge transfer to take place, it’s important that the content be presented with the ability level and learning needs of the student in mind. The resources cited above can help someone start thinking like an Instructional Designer, without having to pick up another degree.

Karen Fields combines a uniquely focused academic background in education, visual communication, and organizational design with over 20 years of experience in corporate human resources, talent management, and training. Her business, Learning-Dynamics, designs creative and relevant learning solutions for organizations in various industries. As a strong believer in the transforming power of learning, Karen particularly enjoys projects that empower individuals to share what they know with others.