Reflections on #Lrnchat: What Can We Learn about Learning from Star Wars? (Part 1)

Each week that I am able to participate in #lrnchat discussion I post a summary of the discussion to my blog. I do this both for my personal development as well as sharing with the Learning and Development Profession at large. This summary is based on my own interpretations of the chat; others who participated may have differing opinions or interpretations of the discussion. I welcome those that do to add your ideas to the comments.
The topic of this week’s #lrnchat session was What Can We Learn About Learning from Star Wars?“. 
One of the ways I enjoy learning is by trying to find connections between two seemingly unconnected and unrelated things.  I find that the process of building these connections very often opens my mind to possibilities I had not considered before. 
I often do this with learning, asking myself the same question: What can ‘XYZ’ teach me about learning?  The fun of it is that ‘XYZ’ can be anything, and the more difficult it is to build the connections, the more enjoyable and valuable the experience can be.  I’ve done this in the past on my blog with the video games Angry Birds and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.  This week’s #lrnchat provided a similar opportunity, as we explored what the Star Wars movie series can teach us about Learning.
This #lrnchat was especially enjoyable, as there was tremendous energy and excitement around the theme.  There just seemed to be a great number of people having fun during the chat – some even created special avatars for the occasion.
So let’s explore the Star Wars Universe, and see what it can teach us about the world of learning.  In this exploration, I look not only at the stories themselves, but also the making of the films.

Because of the length of this post, I am going to spread these reflections into two (or three) separate posts.  This first response explores the first of the six questions asked during the chat: 
What are some lessons you take from Star Wars?
The more you try to control, the more people rebel.
In a scene from the original Star Wars, Princess Leia defiantly states to General Tarkin: “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers”.
This speaks almost directly to the learning professional, and to the shifting tides that we need to change with.  Historically learning has been about control, with a trainer showering selected knowledge onto participants.  It was a very controlled environment, which is very much why it was also often a very ineffective environment. 
You can not force people to care about learning that is forced upon them – just look at the average organization’s compliance training program for a perfect example.  More and more, employees are setting their own learning paths, and it may not fit into the cookie-cutter approach designed by the L&D group. 
Learning Professionals need to adapt to this new model.  We need to find ways to support and foster this new environment for learning, and to incorporate our formal approaches into this new environment in a more focused and targeted manner.  The more we try to force learners into the ‘old’ mold, the more they will resist it, and ‘slip through our fingers’
If you don’t complete your training, Darth Vader is going to kick your @ss and chop off your hand.
While it was ultimately Luke’s decision to leave Dagobah, the fact that he faced Darth Vader without completing his training ultimately resulted in very poor on-the-job performance, leading to very real ‘Level 3’ evaluation data in the form of the stump foound where his right hand used to be.
Kidding aside, too often learning professionals are operating within the constraints of a specific time allocation related to a learning program.  We allow ourselves to be pushed into situations where we try to ‘fit’ more content into shorter timeframes. 
Learning Professionals need to be stronger in these situations and be very forthcoming about what can be accomplished – and what will be sacrificed – if the expectations for a program exceed what can be accomplished by the program’s constraints.  Otherwise, when someone loses a hand while putting new skills to use, it will be because training has failed.
Luke: “I can’t believe it.”;  Yoda: “That is why you fail.”
In one of the key scenes from The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda uses the force to pull Luke’s X-Wing out of the swamp, and the above exchange of dialog takes place.  It’s a simple and powerful concept that should be very present in the design and delivery of our learning programs. 
It is not enough to deliver learning.  We need to connect learners to the content on an emotional level – the quintessential WIIFM needs to be present.  In addition, we need to verify that our learners believe the performance outcomes expected of a learning program are realistic and achievable.  If they do not believe this, they will never be able to perform effectively.
I’m OK with Yoda pulling the X-Wing out of the swamp to provide the example of what is possible.  I just think he should have dumped it back, looked at Luke, said “Your turn it is.”, and continued the training.
The smallest design flaw can blow up the whole Death Star
On a project the size of building the Death Star, it’s unlikely that none of the thousands of parties involved would have picked up on the design flaw of an exhaust port with a straight path directly to the volatile core of the facility.  Yet that’s exactly what happened, with catastrophic results (unless you are a rebel).  In learning design, it’s entirely possible that one simple mistake could derail all of the desired outcomes of a program. 
Sometimes this issue surfaces in the form of an error in content.  A simple miscommunication between the Subject Matter Expert and the Instructional Designer results in an inaccuracy in the program content.  Learners that recognize this tend to fixate on it, and you really can’t blame them for that.  After all, if this one fact is incorrect, how many other mistakes are there?  Should any of it be taken seriously?
E-Learning design also can suffer from the small error that can completely derail learning.  Sometimes it’s not design as much coding.  If you’ve ever clicked a button and gotten an unexpected response that should have been picked up in testing, you know what I mean.  Often we shave testing time in the pursuit of ‘speed-to-market’.  That’s probably what happened with the Death Star.
And just look at how well that turned out….
Subject Matter Experts should not produce nor direct the projects.
That’s a direct quote of a tweet from Aaron Silvers, and one that I wholeheartedly agree with.  It’s not a commentary on the stories as much as the making of the films.  George Lucas is the definitive Subject Matter Expert for Star Wars.  That doesn’t mean he is the most qualified to produce, direct, or write the stories.  This was one of the biggest complaints of the newer ‘prequel trilogy’ – that George Lucas should have let others with more expertise take the reins in these areas.
This applies to learning programs as well.  A SME is quite often not the best person to make the decisions related to a learning program.  Their knowledge of the content is critical, but that knowledge does not extend into an understanding of designing a program to convey their knowledge. As learning professionals we need to make sure we make our expertise known, otherwise we become order takers, and our programs become the learning equivalent of “The Phantom Menace”.
No matter how many digital effects your e-learning has, it falls apart without a strong narrative.
The Phantom Menace is a technically amazing piece of film.  The amount of digital imagery in the film was staggering, and often awe-inspiring.  Yet despite being bombarded with digital eye-candy for over two hours, many movie-goers walked away with some form of ‘meh’ reaction to the film.  Why?
The answer quite simply is that so much time was spent on the digital effects that somewhere along the way the story got lost.  People didn’t care for the story, and ultimately walked away without the same type of connection they felt from the original films.
How often do we do this in learning?  Some sort of new high-tech or trendy tool comes about and we plug it into learning programs.  We forge the learning around the features of the tool instead of the other way around.  Not every learning program needs a Jeopardy Quiz, an avatar guide, or whatever new fireworks the latest upgrade offers.  Just like The Prequel Trilogy did not need Jar Jar Binks.  Don’t try to hide an inferior learning experience behind flashy effects.  It won’t work.
In parts two (and maybe three) of this Reflections of #lrnchat post, I’ll explore the remaining questions posed during the chat:

Q2) How do you fix your Podracer in the middle of your race? (overcome challenges while still keeping up with your projects)?
Q3) What “Jedi Mind Tricks” do we employ in our trade-craft?
Q4) How would you describe your/your org’s Dark Side? How do you avoid becoming Darth Vader?
Q5) Before leaving Dagobah, Yoda pleads with Luke to complete his training. What could inform Yoda that Luke wasn’t ready?
Q6) Who is your Yoda? What are the qualities that fill that role?

Until then, May the Force be with you.