My sister was in first grade when she discovered that she would be responsible for keeping track of the days of the week. She knew the days of the week: she could spell them and memorized their order and even understood that they looped around infinitely. What she didn’t care about was what day of the week it actually was. It could be Monday. It could be Thursday. It could be Saturday. She didn’t know and she couldn’t be bothered to pay attention. Alas, her first grade teacher felt differently. The class was to have a desk check once a week on a randomly-selected day. One morning her friend leaned over to whisper, “Is your desk ready for the check today?” Baffled, my sister responded, “How do you know there will be a desk check?” Her friend answered with impeccable logic, “Well, we haven’t had a desk check yet this week and today’s Friday so we’ll have one today.” My sister yelled what has since become a family favorite, “What? You mean I have to know the day of the week, too?”

As the elder sister who often felt put upon by her younger sister’s space-y memory, I recall this story and think, “Typical.” As an educator, I find many intriguing lessons in this anecdote, some of which we may be in a position to control and some of which we may not. All of which you’ve probably heard at one point or another but perhaps bear repeating anyway.

One, the lesson intended is not always the lesson learned. I imagine the teacher’s goal was to make sure that 25 potentially grubby and disorganized first-graders had orderly desks. However, the lesson my sister came away with was the value of attending to the day of week. Cleanliness and time management are both important skills to master but while my sister has become an efficient scheduler of client sessions, meetings with parents, and professional development with colleagues, she has yet to become a world-class housekeeper. Which leads to observation two . . .

. . . the unintended lesson can have more impact than the planned lesson. A lackluster elearning experience may teach the learner to avoid elearning rather than teaching him/her the content. Inaccurate or poorly-written content may convey the lesson that the course isn’t trustworthy. Switching up the user interface “just to keep it interesting” ensures that the learner will learn how to use the new interface rather than the goals of the course.

Three, if a learner feels overwhelmed, don’t give him more to learn. My sister already felt like she was handling the demands of first grade as well as she could. Throwing in the need to keep track of the days was just too much for her at that time. Pacing a course module so that the learner has sufficient information to build a knowledge foundation and then introducing new content as the learner is ready to absorb it is crucial. Because the learner is already working so hard to process content, including superfluous graphics (even if they’re super cool) or unnecessary verbiage just adds to the load the learner is already carrying.

Lastly, an effective lesson has staying power. My sister was in first grade 25 years ago but she still recalls the moment vividly. I wasn’t even a participant in the story and yet I’m writing about it and learning from it, working hard to make sure learners don’t have to scream, “What? You mean I have to know that, too?”