47 years old and I began hating my haircut. I was fine with my hair and then one day I just snapped. I needed a change. It’s painful to fire one’s barber/hairstylist, but I just had to find someone new.

But the problem is this. My hair’s thin and thinning. I can’t use any haircare products because I’m chemically sensitive, so many styles just don’t work. No mousse here. No gels. No spray. My new hair professional has to be somebody who can really think, not just copy a style and apply it to my head. My head requires creativity and deep knowledge.

So I begin the painful process of finding a new hair cutter. Damn I hate this, but I gotta do it, so here goes.

The first guy who cuts my hair is a genius. He looks at my hair. He listens to my strange set of requirements. He talks to me. He cuts. Looks good. We talk.

Here’s how he learned to cut hair. He started out cutting his own hair. He tried different things. He experimented. He built mental models of various cause and effect relationships. He’s not afraid to try different approaches. He also has hair like mine. I like him, but he costs me over $50, which is too much. I’m cheap, and I figure maybe I can find someone else with a better value proposition.

The second person I try has one way of doing things. She’s weirded out by my "no chemicals" request. She tries, but the haircut just doesn’t cut it. She only costs me $20, so maybe I’ll try her again. It could take a little trial and error. She even mentions this.

I’m probably drawing too much from these two data points of anecdotal evidence, but it reminds me of learning research I’ve come across in the past. To help our learners overcome "functional fixedness"—the tendency to limit the range of response sets we consider—it’s helpful to provide learners with multiple contexts and to specifically help them avoid such fixedness by helping prepare them to analyze realistic situations.

The first hairstylist was better able to deal with my wacky hair requirements because he had developed more flexible and more appropriate mental models of how hair-cutting works.

We can help our learners in the same way by:

  1. Providing multiple contexts for practice.
  2. Helping learners understand the underlying principles, not just the obvious surface characteristics of the information to be learned.
  3. Avoid using blocked learning chunks, for example, by only presenting information in topic sections, chapters, etc., without forcing them to deal with all the information together (like they would have to do in the real world). In other words, instead of dividing our learning chunks into chapters, present it in ways that prompt learners to deal with it more organically, more authentically. This doesn’t mean we can’t start with Topic Sections, but we can’t end there if we want to prepare learners for the real world.

I’ve noticed functional fixedness in our own performance as learning developers. Almost all instructional-design shops tend to gravitate to a limited number of learning methodologies to create their learning programs. They have a functional-fixedness toward instructional design. To create the best value and to be more creative (and to prevent themselves from being outwitted by more creative competitors) instructional design shops need to gather a wider range of learning methods.

It’s the "If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail problem." Not only do we have to prevent our learners from falling into this trap, we have to prevent ourselves as instructional-development houses.

Here are some references on functional fixedness for those interested:

Chrysikou, E. G.; Weisberg, R. W. (2005). Following the Wrong Footsteps: Fixation Effects of Pictorial Examples in a Design Problem-Solving Task. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31, 1134-1148.

Solomon, I. (1994). Analogical transfer and "functional fixedness" in the science classroom. Journal of Educational Research, 87, 371-377.

Langer, E. J. (1992). Matters of mind: Mindfulness/mindlessness in perspective. Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal, 1, 289-305.

Antonietti, A. (1991). Why does mental visualization facilitate problem-solving. In Logie, Robert H. (Ed); Denis, Michel (Ed). Mental images in human cognition. (pp. 211-227). Oxford, England: North-Holland.

McKelvie, S. J. (1984). Relationship between set and functional fixedness: A replication. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 58, 996-998.

Arnon, R.; Kreitler, S. (1984). Effects of meaning training on overcoming functional fixedness. Current Psychological Research & Reviews, 3, 11-24.

Greeno, J. G.; Magone, M. E.; Chaiklin, S. (1979). Theory of constructions and set in problem solving. Memory & Cognition, 7, 445-461.