I use a toothbrush that has a design that research shows maximizes the benefits of brushing. It spins, and spinning is better than oscillations. It also has a timer, telling me when I’ve brushed for two minutes. Ever since a hockey stick broke up my mouth when I was twenty, I’ve been sensitive about the health of my teeth.

But what the heck does this have to so with learning and development? Well, let’s see.

Maybe my toothbrush is a performance-support exemplar. Maybe no training is needed. I didn’t read any instructions. I just used it. The design is intuitive. There’s an obvious button that turns it on, an obvious place to put toothpaste (on the bristles), and it’s obvious that the bristles should be placed against the teeth. So, the tool itself seems like it needs no training.

But I’m not so sure. Let’s do a thought experiment. If I give a spinning toothbrush to a person who’s never brushed their teeth, would they use it correctly? Would they use it at all? Doubtful!

What is needed to encourage or enable good tooth-brushing?

  • People probably need something to compel them to brush, perhaps knowledge that brushing prevents dental calamities like tooth decay, gum disease, bad breath—and may even prevent cognitive decline as in Alzheimer’s. Training may help motivate action.
  • People will probably be more likely to brush if they know other people are brushing. Tons of behavioral economics studies have shown that people are very attuned to social comparisons. Again, training may help motivate action. Interestingly, people may be more likely to brush with a spinning toothbrush if others around them are also brushing with spinning toothbrushes. Training coworkers (or in this case other family members) may also help motivate action.
  • People will probably brush more effectively if they know to brush all their teeth, and to brush near their gums as well—not just the biting surfaces of their teeth. Training may provide this critical knowledge.
  • People will probably brush more effectively if they are set up—probably if they set themselves up—to be triggered by environmental cues. For example, tooth-brushing is often most effectively triggered when people brush right after breakfast and right before they go to bed. Training people to set up situation-action triggering may increase later follow through.
  • People will probably brush more effectively if they know that they should brush for two minutes or so rather than just brushing quickly. Training may provide this critical knowledge. Note, of course, that the toothbrush’s two-minute timer may act to support this behavior. Training and performance support can work together to enable effective behavior.
  • People will be more likely to use an effective toothbrush if the cost of the toothbrush is reasonable given the benefits. The costs of people’s tools will affect their use.
  • People will be more likely to use a toothbrush if the design is intuitive and easy to use. The design of tools will affect their use.

I’m probably missing some things in the list above, but it should suffice to show the complex interplay between our workplace tools/practices/solutions and training and prompting mechanisms (i.e., performance support and the like).

But what insights, or dare we say wisdom, can we glean from these reflections? How about these for starters:

  • We could provide excellent training, but if our tools/practices/solutions are poorly designed they won’t get used.
  • We could provide excellent training, but if our tools/practices/solutions are too expensive they won’t get used.
  • Let’s not forget the importance of prior knowledge. Most of us know the basics of tooth brushing. It would waste time, and be boring, to repeat that in a training. The key is to know, to really know, not just guess, what our learners know—and compare that to what they really need to know.
  • Even when we seem to have a perfectly intuitive, well-designed tool/practice/solution let’s not assume that no training is needed. There might be knowledge or motivational gaps that need to be bridged (yes, the pun was intended! SMILE). There might be situation-action triggering sets that can be set up. There might be reminders that would be useful to maintain motivation and compel correct technique.
  • Learning should not be separated from design of tools/practices/solutions. We can support better designs by reminding the designers and developers of these objects/procedures that training can’t fix a bad design. Better yet, we can work hand in hand involved in prototyping the tool/training bundle to enable the most pertinent feedback during the design process itself.
  • Training isn’t just about knowledge, it’s also about motivation.
  • Motivation isn’t just the responsibility of training. Motivation is an affordance of the tools/practices/solutions themselves, it is borne in the social environment, it is subject to organizational influence, particularly through managers and peers.
  • Training shouldn’t be thought of as a one-time event. Reminders may be valuable as well, particularly around the motivational aspects (for simple tasks), and to support remembering (for tasks that are easily forgotten or misunderstood).

One final note. We might also train people to use the time when they are engaged in automated tasks—tooth-brushing for example—to reflect on important aspects of their lives, gaining from the learning that might occur or the thoughts that may enable future learning. And adding a little fun into mundane tasks. Smile for the tiny nooks and crannies of our lives that may illuminate our thinking!