An Orwellian Reflection

I’ve often argued that nomenclature shapes cognition.

Nobody has ever been interested.

I guess that illustrates my point.

Language matters. The language we use shapes our thinking and we need to be careful about what we think as our thinking shapes our life. In George Orwell’s 1984, language was one of the principle tools of Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth. We should note that 1984 was intended as a warning, not as an instruction manual!

The recent social experiment in China highlighted by the ABC’s Leave No Dark Corner also points in part towards the power of controlling language (and has some scary echoes from Orwell’s dystopian world).

Orwell 1

One of the keynote presenters at AITD2015 conference described what was for them a headshift moment, a recent discovery that they’d made: “We’re not creating content, we’re creating learning experiences”. A general murmur of agreement rolled around the room and a smattering of applause broke out.


This was a room of learning and development professionals. This should have already been part of our shared language, but it wasn’t.

When you call yourself a content developer, a subject matter expert, a trainer, an instructional designer, it shapes how you think about what you do which in turn shapes both the process and the product of your work.

And so, dissatisfied with designing content and instruction, from the intersection of user experience design and instructional design we get the new terminology of Learning Experience Design.

Do we really need another name?

What does the new language bring?

Learning rightly shifts the focus from instruction and content. It shifts the focus from the deliverer and what is being delivered, to the learner and what is being learned.

Experience rightly shifts the focus from content to process, to campaign, to engagement and has a learner (perhaps human) centric presumption. It opens the door to informal and social learning, resources and courses, investigation and connections.

Design speaks of intention, creativity, innovation, something that’s purpose driven, that’s value is measured by how well it meets the design brief, of complexity or simplicity.

The shift in language brings the reminder of the shift required in our thinking. In the 80’s we started using the term chairperson. The old guard grumbled about political correctness taking over the world but the idea was right and the language shift put that idea constantly into the dialogue and mindset.

But learning experience design suffers from the same problem – as our profession has rightly begun to emphasise, a focus on meeting business needs, on delivering business outcomes, perhaps even discovering them means that perhaps a learning experience is not always what is needed. The Knowledge, Skills, Motivation, Environment matrix offers a good way of considering whether a learning experience is really the solution (as does Cathy Moore’s Is Training Really The Answer? flowchart ) and perhaps opens our professional language description to being solution designers.

It’s been 10+ years since the 70:20:10 model opened our eyes (and language) to the breadth of how people learn. It’s been longer than that since we’ve recognised the ineffectiveness of the isolated sage on the stage/chalk and talk approach. We’ve moved from overhead projectors and slide shows to interactive whiteboards, e/mLearning and immersive technologies.

As our profession develops, so must the language that we use to describe it.

That new language will both reflect and create the change our profession is experiencing.

Hopefully we can heed 1984’s (well, an adaptation of it, oft quoted as George Orwell, but seriously, it was written in 1949) warning:

Orwell 2




2 thoughts on “An Orwellian Reflection

  1. I think you have a valid point, Neil.

    I also see misnomers in the workplace. For example, “Instructional Designer” is often used (wrongly) in place of “Online Course Developer”, while the meaning of the “e” in “e-learning” seems to have been so narrowed over time to necessitate yet another term “digital learning”. Isn’t it all electronic?


    1. Yep. Both eLearning and Instructional Design have become so strongly associated with just building things in authoring tools that the new terms have come into play as people beyond the authoring tools try to distinguish themselves from the narrowly perceived click-next crowd and product. I think digital learning has arisen to encompass but not be restricted to eLearning.

      Liked by 1 person

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