Common knowledge is poor guidance. Behind the phrases "As everyone knows" and "It stands to reason," there is usually very little knowledge and very little reason. Just momentum.
That came to mind when friend Allison Rossett and I were wrapping up an article on the hubbub, rebuttals and reactions to the now infamous "Attack on isd" article that ran in Training in April 2000.
Rossett, who teaches ISD and associated black arts at San Diego State University, came across a piece of enlightenment in the New York Times she saw as all too germane to our thankless hunt for truth—or failing that, at least a little perspective. She was right.
The recently published article, "Evidence-Based Medicine" by Times' reporter Jack Hill makes the surprising point that "only 20 percent of medical practices are based on rigorous research evidence. The rest are based on what has been published in books repeatedly without independent testing—or what doctors have always said should work." In other words, 80 percent of medical knowledge is just folklore—a step and a half above urban legend and old wives' tales.
Fighting back an acute attack of hypochondriac shock, I read on and learned that, when looked at through a rigorous meta-analytical lens, mammogram screenings don't save lives; the placebo effect probably doesn't exist; aspirin taken at the onset of a heart attack does save lives; and bed rest is the worst treatment possible for lower back pain—a therapeutic dating back to Hippocrates.
The link? Dead simple. How much of what we take for granted and justify in the practice of training and development under the banners of "stands to reason" or "according to the experts" or "it is well known that" is just so much hand-me-down hot air, best guess and wishful thinking? Way too much I'd wager.
Take, for example, the commonly held belief that instruction works better when tailored to trainee learning styles. Though one can find a study here or there supporting the idea, there are as many or more that come up quite short of proof-positive. All of which leads Utah State University's M. David Merrill to conclude that as much as he'd like there to be "a treatment-by-type effect for learning styles, there just isn't one." Yet how many books, journal articles and conference sessions prattle on enthusiastically about this substantially unproven relationship as if it were the Salk vaccine? A quick Google search turned up 6,140 references to learning styles—and virtually no data.
Following fads and promoting unproven nostrums in training and development is a heck of a lot different from doing the same in medicine. Nobody dies from a bad training prescription. "Mrs. Smith, we're sorry to have to tell you that your husband was assigned to a bad buzz group in the leadership seminar and his brain froze." No, in fact the adult human learning machine is quite capable of sorting through bad, boring and bogus learning design and coming away enlightened.
Just the same, in the eternal quest for status and acceptance of one's craft as a legitimate profession, it is useful to have a firm grasp of the difference between fact, fancy, rule-of-thumb and common practice. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is time we stop worrying so much about "what's hot and what's not" and put more energy into discerning "what works and what doesn't," and what's evidence-based and what is pure hokum. RON ZEMKE