Applying Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to L&D


According to an old joke – really only understood by particle physicists – a policemen stops a particle for speeding. The policeman says, “Did you know you were traveling at 150 miles an hour?”

“Oh no!” says the particle, “Now I don’t know where I am!”


The joke is based on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, notably the section that says: “It’s not possible to precisely know a particle’s position and momentum (speed) at the same time.”

This joke is relevant to L&D because of the rapid and growing rate of technological change during recent years. Some L&D consultants believe that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle can help us either see where things are or how fast they’re going, but not both at the same time.

Bryan Eldridge, an Athens, Georgia-based senior consultant with eXact learning solutions, is a strong supporter of this view.

He focuses on the question of “where are we?” in technological terms. He believes that, 15 years or so ago, organizations were concerned that 60 percent of their intellectual property (IP) could “walk out the door” as people retired. So, they put processes in place to keep their IP.

Baby boomers continue to retire and are replaced by millennials. Eldridge says, “This means that organizations have to re-purpose – and change – the learning content they have in order to meet millennials’ learning preferences.

“We now have the unprecedented situation where there are four generations represented in our working population – from baby boomers to Generation Z. Employers and learning providers need to take account of the enormous diversity in the audience for corporate learning today.”

Turning to the question of “how fast is technology moving?” Eldridge points out the recent growth of, and access to, virtual reality through platforms such as the Oculus Rift. He asks, “If we integrate some of these technologies as ‘standard’ in the learning mix, how will this affect corporate learning?”

However, he agrees that L&D is still highly focused on formal learning – even though research continues to reveal that informal learning accounts for some 70 percent of learning.

“Informal learning tends to be problem-solving focused, while formal learning is more content focused,” he adds. “While formal learning is organized, directed and curated, informal learning is self-directed and demand-led, and tends to be more ‘haphazard.’

“Formal learning tends to be focused on a particular subject and is consciously presented, while informal learning is more holistic and can even be assimilated ‘unconsciously.’ The result is that formal learning produces theoretical knowledge, while informal learning results in experiential knowledge.”

Eldridge says that building strategies to bridge formal and informal learning means separating learning content from such issues as presentation, branding, standards, language, modality, and audience. There are currently four generations in our workforce, and members of each of them prefer to learn in different ways.

To solve this dilemma, Bryan advocates developing a Model of Instruction (MOI). An MOI is the conceptual representation, through templates and activities, of an instructional strategy. This strategy is intended to support a given learning outcome or competency within a specific context, across both formal and formal approaches.

Moving away from the traditional fathers of online learning, such as Gagné, Maslow and Bloom, the MOI approach looks at the templates and activities of an instructional strategy.

Eldridge says, “An MOI approach provides a systematic strategy to ensure that the organization’s overarching learning and training goals are integrated regardless of the components. It helps the organization move from an ‘e-Reading’ to an ‘e-Everything’ model – and provides a framework for incorporating and supporting both formal and informal activities.

“In addition, it helps in avoiding being lured into building an online approach to learning around a given vendor’s ‘out-of-the-box’ template set.

“An MOI is also a powerful tool towards operationalizing design standards, learning standards, industry standards, usability standards and so on.

“Besides, when aligned with classification against learning outcomes or competencies, it provides learning teams with the ability to design and create new content quickly by exploiting the underlying template/storyboard approach with a library of MOIs. This also provides complete flexibility within an MOI and still allows for complete ad hoc treatment development.”

An MOI used for teachers in the U.S. state of Georgia begins with a “Module Introduction” – setting out the scope of the instruction, the intended audience, disclaimers, and activity overviews.

Next comes the “Problem of Practice Introduction.” This describes the performance problem that’s addressed in the learning materials and activities. It also includes some reflection questions intended to enable the learners to begin building their own insights into the problem.

The third part of the MOI is the “Key Performance Attributes.” This gives an overview of the performance attributes of someone who successfully addresses or remediates the problem. It also sets out the criteria used to measure how well the learners’ evidence demonstrates proficiency in these performance attributes.

Fourth in the method are the instruction materials recommended for the learners.

Finally, there’s “Evidence Collection and Assessment.” Learners provide evidence in the form of “an authentic job-embedded item type” – such as a video of the learner demonstrating proficiency, or an observation form completed by a supervisor – that will be submitted for assessment.

Eldridge says, “The advent of new standards – such as the recent CMI5 – can revolutionize the way we think – as, also, can such things as the application of artificial intelligence to learning, producing something closer to personalized learning. These can actually engage people – not just getting them to learn but also to apply that learning to help meet both their, and their organization’s, goals.

“All of this changes our perspective on learning – to view it in terms of performance.

“Asking – and answering – the question, ‘how are people going to perform?’ impacts on what learning activities need to happen and what actual learning needs to be done. For example, it may ultimately impact on the official job description for the role. From this, we need to consider how we can share all this information – not just among L&D professionals but also among HR and other main board executives – in order to better support and develop people in their jobs.”