The skill of interrogating models in L&D

One of the tasks we often have to do in L&D is interrogate and evaluate the models presented to us. Pretty much everything in L&D revolves around a model, and it can be easy to get lost in the array of stuff that’s out there. Evaluation models can vary from Kirkpatrick to Brinkerhoff. L&D models can vary from 70/20/10 to learning cycle to responding to learning requests to performance consultancy. Digital learning can be e-learning, video learning, can include social learning, and can be about anything you do on the internet. Then there’s the models used in skills development / interpersonal skills / leadership and management development. E.g. coaching models, feedback models, communication models, succession planning models – there are lots. Too many, almost!

Sometimes, there are no models at all. Just a person and their thinking. That’s ok, sometimes there’s a lot of value in hearing a person’s thinking. For example, unconscious bias training, diversity and inclusion training, these topics often revolve around a set of thinking or a theory as opposed to a model.

Over time, what I’ve learned is that there are useful questions to ask about models and theories, and these can help in ensuring the solutions we develop or the interventions we design are based in sustainable practices, and help drive actionable outcomes. Often these questions are about interrogating the presented models or theories. I’m very willing to be driven by the evidence behind a model or theory. If there is a paucity of information, I’m less likely to be convinced. If the theory or model has been debunked, I need to know why. If there is evidence for a model or theory, I’m more likely to want to explore it further.

Another thing to bear in mind about the choice of models or theories is that as a people, we are more likely to be swayed by the advocacy a person has about a topic, as opposed to the facts presented. Sometimes, a person thinks x. They haven’t fully investigated, researched or explored their thinking. Their conclusions based on their thinking will reinforce their world view. E.g. A person who has never drunk water from a tap, may go to an undeveloped country, drink water from a tap, contract an illness and believe that all tap water is dangerous to human health. Of course, we know this to be false, and there are likely to be clear reasons for the water causing illness which can be corrected. But if you’ve had a bad experience, it’s going to take a lot of evidence and convincing to encourage you to try again. That person is also likely to advocate you never drink tap water, even though thousands of people will be unaffected. But their advocacy will make people listen, for no other reason than the person will have a strong opinion about it.

The skill of determining which sets of thinking / models we decide to proceed with also answers a different and very related question – which version of the truth do we want to promote? There is no one model which answers all questions about the human condition, and so it becomes really challenging to know which models present the version of the truth that we want to be associated with. However, there are models which are unhelpful, are based on false ideologies, and have questionable evidence.

So with the above in mind, here’s a set of questions I normally ask myself and ask of the person(s) about the model(s) or theories being presented.

  • Am I biased because I like the person and want to be associated with them?
  • Does the model/theory support a world view I have? If so, what other evidence is there that I should be aware of which may go against this model/theory?
  • What evidence is there for the model/theory being presented? Is that evidence reliable? What is the validity of the evidence? How has it been researched? What has been the criticisms? What settings has the evidence been developed in?
  • If the evidence claims to be scientifically validated, where is the supporting research that can be looked at independently?
  • If the evidence is about a person’s own thinking/research, how do they present it? Does it cause concern? Does it look like they are only seeking to validate their own thinking or are they attempting to present other points of view?
  • Do I have a set of thinking about the topic which will unduly bias the model/theory I decide to select?
  • If there are claims about success, on what basis are they claiming success?
  • Are there organisational / political drivers at play which will directly influence my decision making?

This isn’t an exhaustive list. It’s not even a complete list. It’s a set of thoughts that help me to keep alive to the reality that I am going to be biased in my thinking, I am going to be biased in the decisions I make, and I need to be aware of the influences on me when making decisions. Importantly, I believe, it helps to ensure that I don’t just follow up any model or theory which is presented as being the ‘right’ one, as there can only really be a ‘best fit’ or ‘right for now’ approach.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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