A Tale of Two Periodic Tables for Learning Professionals

Have you ever done a “vanity Google search” just to see how high any search results including your name might be? A little while back I was doing a sort of vanity search for Endurance Learning’s periodic table of amazing learning elements and I was surprised to find that it wasn’t the only periodic table of learning elements at the top of Google’s search results.

In 2020, the Elearning Brothers published a Periodic Table of Instructional Design.

Curious about this “other” table, I reached out to Chris Willis to learn more about how it can be used by instructional designers and even casual trainers (people who don’t have “training” in their title but are asked to put together training). If you have a few minutes, give this week’s podcast a listen (or read the transcript). Warning – this podcast was recorded in person at ATD’s annual International Conference and Expo, and both Chris and I were wearing masks, so the recording came across a little more muffled than usual.

Transcript of the Conversation with Chris Willis

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, Co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning. And I am here with Chris Willis. We are in-person actually, which is a little bit different from our normal podcast because we’re both at ATD’s International Conference and Expo this week. Chris is the Director of Product for the Lectora Authoring Tool at eLearning Brothers. Chris, thank you so much for joining us.

Chris Willis: Oh, thank you for having me, Brian. It’s a thrill to be here at ATD and it’s especially fun to be here with you today.

6-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: It’s fun to meet people in-person finally. And before we get started – like we always do with all of our guests – we like to have our guests introduce themselves and something about this topic with exactly six words in a biography. So for today’s topic we are talking about a tale of two periodic tables – we have one at Endurance Learning and I came across this other periodic table with eLearning Brothers. And we’re going to get into that in just a minute but before we get into that, let’s introduce ourselves. For me, in exactly six words, I would say “Clearly, I think periodic tables rock”. How about you, Chris? How would you introduce yourself in exactly six words?

Chris Willis: Well, I’m going to say, “Instructional design is elemental to performance”. See what I did there? (CHUCKLES)

Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLES) I did, because the periodic table that eLearning Brothers put out is a periodic table of elements of instructional design. And I put out a periodic table – with a book that was published by ATD in June – that revolved around elements of amazing learning experiences. So I was really attracted to this format, this periodic table idea that eLearning Brothers has put out. Before we get into some specifics about it, can you just talk a little bit about what was behind the eLearning Brothers’ Periodic Table of Instruction Design? What inspired it?

The Inspiration Behind ELearning Brothers’ Periodic Table of Instructional Design

Chris Willis: Well, what we wanted to do– because at eLearning Brothers, you know, we create a wide range of services and technologies and products to support people. Well, to support our eLearning ROCKSTARS out there – people like you listening to this podcast, that are out there in the trenches developing or leading e-learning efforts, right? So we created the Periodic Table of Instructional Design to use as a conversation starter for that whole range of technologies and services that eLearning Brothers offers, and also to be used as a reference by our ROCKSTARS to kind of help guide them when making instructional design decisions or create career aspirations.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And we’re going to get into how people can use it in just a minute. But before I do that, I know that with any periodic table – whether it’s the original periodic table of chemical properties or the periodic table that I’ve talked about a lot with Endurance Learning or this periodic table – it seems like the most effective things can happen when elements are bonded together. I’m just kind of curious – how can some of the elements best be bonded together from this table of instructional design elements?

Bonding Elements Together From The Periodic Table of Instructional Design

Chris Willis: So like you said, we go to the table and we look at what are each of the individual elements? And that’s like probably the first line of study, right? It’s like, what is it, and getting our arms around the whole big picture and the context of what we’re looking at. But as we dig deeper – those of us who are actually developing learning or designing learning – we’re going to start looking at: how can we blend those elements together? How do they make sense to use in a learning intervention? I like to call it: what is my box of tricks?

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Chris Willis: Okay. So I’m going to go into my box of tricks and put them together. So with blended learning a lot of times we talk about the modes of learning – like I’m going to do a micro-learning maybe with a webinar. And then there’s going to be an instructor-led portion, then there’s going to be a self-paced or whatever. But when you start digging deeper and looking at the elements instead of just like grabbing from your normal, you know, mode of, “I’m going to put an A with a B and a C”, you start going back to using it as a job aid and thinking about: what is the learning that you’re actually trying to accomplish? What are– everything goes back to objectives, right? What are our learning objectives and goals? 

Now we can step back and use that table as a job aid and say, “Which of these tools in my box of tricks will best help me support my goals?” And when you do that artfully, you create something that is better instruction than the sum of each of those individual interventions, right?

Brian Washburn: Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of the key things is that when you put things together, it’s more than one plus one equals two, right?

Chris Willis: Right, right!

Brian Washburn: And so when it comes to some of the challenges that instructional designers might face, what do you think could be some of those challenges that perhaps using this periodic table may help with?

How Can Learning Professionals Use a Periodic Table to Overcome Instructional Design Challenges?

Chris Willis: Well, one of the first challenges is I think if you come to it cold and you just look at that – especially if you’re early career – you look at that and it can be quite whelming, you know?

Brian Washburn: Yeah, yeah.

Chris Willis: If not overwhelming.

Brian Washburn: Right, sure.

Chris Willis: So you’re going to look at that and say, “Oh my gosh! All of these things!” And it’s like, depending on where you’re coming from– it used to be back in the day an e-learning team – it was understood there would be an instructional designer that was an expert in adult learning theory.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Chris Willis: And there would be, possibly, somebody else even on the team who was better at writing than you. Maybe somebody’s better at writing scenarios. They have a specialization in that kind of fiction writing. Other people might be technical writers. There are people that would come that would be specifically graphic designers, and those would be separate from the people who were using the tools and developing e-learning. And that was a standard team back when my career started for e-learning, instructional design and development. 

Today when you look at this table, it’s almost as if– if you look at the posts that are out there for jobs for instructional designers, we’re all expected to be superhuman unicorns that are experts in each one of these elements, that at one time was somebody’s full time career. 

So I think what we can do when we’re looking at the table– that is probably such an extreme challenge for everybody. How could I be an expert in everything? And I think if you use that table again as a job aid or a guide and look at it yourself and say, “Where am I going to specialize? What is realistic for me? Where are my strengths? Where are my areas for growth?” And use it as kind of a key for helping determine where you are and where you want to go. 

And then bring in some experts, develop relationships. And if you need to go to somebody like eLearning Brothers and say, “We’re going to do this part but we need some help with this other part”. And that’s how you can use it, that’s where it can take you.

Brian Washburn: And that works really well for people who have some sort of background, righ, some sort of foundation. And we all know that tons of training is developed by people who have no background in training, right? And so if you think of people whose job isn’t instructional design – but they still have to put training together – how might this help introduce them to what it is that they should be thinking about?

Periodic Tables Can Introduce Elements of Instructional Design To Novices

Chris Willis: So what they can do then is look at a book like yours, look at a table job aid like ours, and think about more deeply instead of, “This is the content that I want to deliver. This is what I want people to know”. But really take a look and be introduced to that whole rich box of learning interventions that we have available to us. Don’t be afraid that you don’t know yourself how to do that. Get some expert help, get some quotes, reach out. 

There are a lot of people in this industry – a lot of them coming over right now. There’s a big move of people moving from education – K-12 or even higher education – into instructional design. They’re all out there and able to help, and we’re all in this together. 

So use it as a reference, use it as a guide. If you are coming in and you know your subject matter area– you’re what we in our industry called subject matter experts or SMEs. And using a group like you eLearning Brothers, or probably like your team to help develop learning, that’s a smart way to go.

Brian Washburn: Yeah.

Chris Willis: Because we can work with you and use your area of expertise and go deep there. And then very quickly and efficiently turn that around into expert learning.

Brian Washburn: Sure. So yeah. I think a lot of people will say, “No, no, no, no, I can handle it all myself. I can handle it all myself”. But it’s amazing what happens when you can start to open up to the world of either job aids or collaboration with other people that do this really, really well.

Chris Willis: Yeah, absolutely. Well, what will happen is if you do it yourself– think about how many people are going to be taking your learning and how much time they’re going to be spending away from what they’re doing. If you multiply that time out, it very quickly becomes a really great investment to make sure that the learning is as focused and efficient as absolutely possible. And you can get an ROI very quickly by working with an expert.

Brian Washburn: Absolutely. Well, Chris, thank you so much for your perspectives on this and the periodic table – which is really, really cool.

Get to Know Chris Willis

Brian Washburn: Before we leave, I have a few speed round questions so that people can get to know you just a little bit better. Are you ready for the speed round?

Chris Willis: Let’s go, let’s go!

Brian Washburn: Here we go. What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?

Chris Willis: The best piece of advice I ever received, when I was running my company, it was actually a quote from Dee Hock, which was the gentleman who invented the visa card. And I’m going to paraphrase – something along the lines of, “Never hire in your own image because you do not need to replicate your strengths. You already bring those to the table. And only a fool would replicate his weaknesses.”

Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLES) I like that one. How about what people should be reading or listening to that are in the training field?

Chris Willis: Oh my goodness. I love Hidden Brain.

Brian Washburn: Mhm. That’s a great one.

Chris Willis: Hidden Brain is great because it’s not specifically focused on instructional design but it is focused on helping us understand how people think and why they think the way they do. And when we do that, we can have empathy for our learners. And that just makes us better educators.

Brian Washburn: Hidden Brain podcast. That’s a good one.

Chris Willis: Hidden Brain podcast. Absolutely. Thank you.

Brian Washburn: And before we leave – any shameless plugs for us?

Chris Willis: Of course! Reach out to eLearning Brothers – we’re here to help you with all of your instructional design learning needs. Whether you’re developing learning, whether you’re delivering learning, or whether you’re offering learning yourself. We have a wide range of tools in our ecosystem and we can help you support all of your learning needs.

Brian Washburn: And how do people get their hands on swag if they’re not at a conference?

Chris Willis: Ohhh! If you’re not here at ATD– if you’re not lucky enough to be here at ATD or you weren’t lucky enough to be here at ATD – then please reach out to us at eLearning Brothers and we want to swag you up. We want you to be out there strutting like the eLearning ROCKSTAR that we know you are!

Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLES) Chris Willis, who is the Director of Product for the Lectora Authoring Tool at eLearning Brothers. Thank you so much for giving me some time today.

Chris Willis: It has been my extraordinary pleasure, Brian. Thank you so much.

Brian Washburn: And thank you everyone else for listening. You can find Train Like You Listen on Apple, on iHeartRadio, on Spotify – wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to subscribe. If you like what you hear, also share it because that’s how other people will find out about us. Until next time, happy training everyone.

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox. Sign up today for a free demo below.

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