The Magic Question for Learning and Instructional Design


The most important question that instructional designers can ask is:

“What do learners need to be able to do, and in what situations do they need to do those things?”

While we might discount such a simple question as insignificant, the question brilliantly forces us to focus on our ultimate goals and helps us to align our learning interventions with the human learning system.

Too many of us design with a focus on topics, content, knowledge. This tendency pushes us, almost unconsciously, to create learning that is too boring, filled with too much information, and bereft of practice in realistic situations.

The Magic Question requires us to be relevant. For workplace learning, it focuses our thinking toward learners’ future job situations. For education learning, it focuses our thinking toward real-world relevance of our academic topics.

The Magic Question in Practice

In practice, the Magic Question forces us to begin our instructional-design efforts by not only creating a list of instructional objectives, but also by creating a list of performance situations. For example, if we’re creating leadership training, we not only need to compile objectives like, “For most decisions, it can be helpful to bring your direct reports into decision-making, so as to increase the likelihood that they will bring energy and passion in implementing decisions.” We also need to compile a list of situations were this objective is relevant, for example in weekly staff meetings, project meetings, in one-on-one face-to-face conversations, in phone conversations, etc. Also, for general decision making, but not in situations where time is urgent, where safety is an issue, where legal ramifications are evident, etc.

By framing our instructional-design projects in this way, we get to think about our learning designs in ways that are much more action-oriented, relevant, and practical. The framing makes it more likely that we will align our learning and performance contexts, making it more likely that our learners, in their future situations, will spontaneously remember what we’ve taught them. The framing makes it more likely that we will focus on practice instead of overloading our learners with information. The framing also makes it more likely that we will utilize relevant scenarios that more fully engage our learners. Finally, using the Magic Question forces our SME’s (subject-matter experts) to reformulate their expertise into potent practical packages of relevant material. It’s not always easy to bend SME’s to this discipline, but after the pain, they’ll thank you profusely as together you push their content to a much higher level.

Obviously, there is more to be said about how the Magic Question can be integrated into learning-design efforts. On the other hand, as my clients have reported, the Magic Question has within it a simple power to (1) change the way we think about instructional design, and (2) transform the learning interventions we build.