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If Knowledge is Power, then Ignorance is Bliss

August 06, 2021 8:53 AM | Scott Rencher (Administrator)

Post written by ATDChi member Marc Mattson. This article is part of a series of member-written content on Career Development in Talent Development.

If Knowledge is Power, then Ignorance is Bliss... Ah, truisms! One thing you’ve got to love about them is that there’s always a counter-truism.

Well, maybe not always. It’s a truism in instructional design circles that the “why” is the most important factor in creating effective learning. I think that’s indisputable. I mean, consider these simple questions:

  • “Why is this important to know?”
  • “Why is this topic relevant?”
  • “What is the purpose/use/context for this information?”

(Okay, I know, that’s a “what,” but it’s a proxy for “why.”) These are basic, fundamental questions that drive learning design. They help us set the foundation, they help us determine relevance and set learner expectations. In short, they drive us to empathize with the learner.

Or, more to the point, they help us keep learner ignorance in mind. They also help us, as learning designers, temper our expertise and keep what we know from getting in the way of what learners should know.

Consider what I expect is a universal experience among learning designers... ID (Instructional Designer) asks SME (Subject Matter Expert) what topics are the most important for a learner:

SME says, “all of them.”

ID bangs head on desk. After applying cold compress, ID goes about asking targeted questions to narrow the focus of the lesson.


In this scenario, the ID is the learner. Indeed, learning designers aren’t topic SMEs and probably shouldn’t be. Our expertise is determining the optimal approach to presenting a topic to learners. We partner with SMEs to turn their knowledge into a meaningful, impactful learning experience. At it’s core, our job is not to impart our expertise on learners, it’s to ask questions of the experts to determine what the necessary lessons are and then structure the resulting topics in such a way that learners both understand why they need to learn it and how they can best learn it.

Our job, in a nutshell, is to act as proxies for the learner. And the best way to do that is to actually be a learner.

And being a learner means being ignorant.

Take, for instance, this scenario:

A trainer walks onto a conference room stage, looks down his nose at a sea of eager learners hungering for an Introduction to Cloud Architecture, and says “My docker-compose.yaml includes a Traefik reverse proxy and API gateway.”

“Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?” I think, my eyes rolling into the back of my head. My feeble brain is so preoccupied with parsing his statement Iit can’t even muster the energy to close my O-shaped mouth or wipe the line of drool trailing down my chin.


Now, there are a number of reasons the trainer may have opened his presentation this way. It could, on the one hand, just be an excuse to establish his credibility. On the other hand, it could have been a misjudged ‘shock-and-awe’ attempt to establish the benchmark that the audience will achieve by the end of the course. But, it could also have been a poorly designed course from the start that assumed a level of prior knowledge that the learners, in an introductory course, simply didn’t have.

In all likelihood, it was all three.

For what it’s worth, trainers can’t afford ignorance. In most cases, trainers are SMEs, which is why they are imparting the topic in the first place. Ignorance, then, would destroy their credibility, undermine the lesson, and, at best, anger the audience. Learners go to training because they’re expecting expertise, and the person presenting had better be an expert!

On the other hand, learning designers aren’t SMEs and probably shouldn’t be. We shape a learning experience, and ideally will have a certain degree of ignorance of the topic at hand. In fact, I’d call ignorance a necessity in this case.

For example, I work as a learning designer for a niche business software (for fun, let’s call it XPalidocious). In the nearly five years I’ve been designing eLearning courses for XPalidocious, I can still say that I’m not an expert in the product itself. Not even remotely. Now, there are two legitimate reasons for this:

1) I have no business purpose for using XPalidocious.; It’s a specialized product that has no relation to my profession (other than it being the product I design learning for, of course), so there’s really no reason for me to retain the information. But more importantly,

2) I purposely cultivate an ignorance of it!

“Why?” you ask?

“Precisely!” I say.

I want to keep asking the right why questions:

  • “Why do you do that?”
  • “Why do you do it that way?”
  • “Why do I need to know this?”


Again, cultivate empathy for the learner by putting yourself in their shoes (unless those shoes are a size too small, in which case, find a learner with bigger feet). They will take the course you design because they want to learn the topic, which means they don’t know the topic, which means they’ll be encountering information they’ve never seen before. The best way you can fill in their informational gaps is to exist in those gaps yourself!

Trainers can’t afford those gaps. But they also can’t afford to ignore those gaps. So whether you’re a trainer or a learning designer, I say for the sake of your learners, “stay stupid my friends!”


Marc Mattson is a senior Instructional Designer for SAP and an occasional novelist. He’s been instructional designing for oh, like 15 years now, in one form or another, but nonetheless tends to describe himself first as a writer. He sums up adult learning theory this way: “Adults don’t want to learn what they don’t want to learn, but if they have to, make it quick, make it relevant, and make it fun. And learn ‘em good.”

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Library Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

Head in Hand Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash


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