Instructional Design

Reframing What It Means to Thoroughly “Understand” Something

[Published on LinkedIn]

I stumbled upon this picture in my LinkedIn feed recently. I have no idea who posted it or where it came from, but it struck me.

Think about what it says for a moment.

Do you agree with what it says?

Why or why not?

In my experience working with subject matter experts (SME) for my entire career as an instructional designer, and I can say I disagree with what that sign says. Just because someone cannot explain something simply does not mean they do not understand it well enough. In fact, my experience is the opposite.

I have worked with some brilliant (and I mean BRILLIANT) subject matter experts throughout my career, and I can’t believe for a second that those who struggle to explain something simply have a lack of understanding of it. Sometimes SMEs have such a depth and breadth of knowledge that they struggle to simplify it only because they want to tell you everything they know. Is that a bad thing?

I don’t think it’s a bad thing, and I appreciate that it is that way. You see I rely on these SMEs to ensure the validity and accuracy of the content and the materials. Sometimes this means lengthy phone calls and meetings and, yes, simplification of what they are saying. Yes, absolutely that.

One of the greatest (and most enjoyable) parts of my job is to simplify what the SMEs know and “translate” it into something that is teachable and learnable! In my case it’s MY job to simplify things. (How to get them to simplicity is another post for another day. Coming soon.)

Because I have worked with these SMEs I can tell you a little about a lot of things, like how to conduct an internal audit, how to use a hospital bed that provides respiratory therapy, how to conduct failure analyses of metals, and how to create an integrated marketing campaign…but I am certainly no SME in these areas. The SMEs I worked with for these projects have years and years of knowledge and experience to lend, and they were willing to share that to help create courseware.

I can tell you, simply, how to do those things mentioned above but I have a limited “understanding” of them. It’s quite the opposite of what the sign in the picture says.

Do you see why I don’t agree with it?


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