What can elearning designers learn from an early 20th century horse?

Published by Alex Kristal on

What can elearning designers learn from an early 20th century horse?

Table of contents

Considering the learners’ context

In another blog post I wrote how training shouldn’t just be disseminating information, rather elearning designers should consider the physical and social environment in which the training is applied. For example, a designer should take into account how social norms might influence a learner at the time they’re meant to apply the training.

Things that facilitate or block learners’ behaviour can be nuanced and sometimes tied into the processes and culture of an organisation. It’s important to ask ourselves the risks of designing digital experiences without knowing the socio-environmental context of the learner.

A strategy I like using to obtain this knowledge is a mix of surveys and focus groups. The reasons I think it’s imperative to have multiple streams of data comes from a story that affects how science is conducted today. It’s a neat curio from history that I use to remind myself of certain principles.

abstract image of digital data and surveys

The story of Clever Hans

“Clever Hans”, as the horse is remembered, was a spectacle to many, at first in his hometown in Berlin and, soon after that, the world. A 1904 article in The New York Times reported on Clever Hans as the horse that “stirred up the scientific, military, and sporting world of the Fatherland.” Initially they thought Hans could count, solve maths questions, distinguish the value between different coins, and identify people.

The performance went like this: his trainer, Wilhelm von Osten, would pose a question to Hans, and Hans would stamp his hoof to communicate an answer. For example, having placed three balls on the ground von Osten would ask “How many balls are on the ground?” Hans would stamp three times. “How many threes are there in seven?” Hans would stamp twice Following further investigation, Hans became a spectacle that the majority of varied experts  were convinced of – biologists, psychologists, medical doctors, and laypeople. It didn’t matter if the person posing the question was von Osten or a stranger, Hans was still able to answer correctly.

However, it wasn’t until biologist and psychologist Professor Oskar Pfungst ran a series of tests that it was discovered that Hans could only answer the questions correctly if the questioner knew the right answer and Hans could see the questioner. Pfungst determined that when Hans’ stamps approached the right answer the questioner’s posture or facial expression involuntarily changed ever so slightly in ways that were consistent with an increase in tension. Hans could pick up these subtle unconscious cues and used them as a sign to stop stamping. So, Clever Hans never really knew the answer, he just learned that he would receive a reward for yielding his stamps at the moment he perceived facial tension from the questioner.

Soon after, it was discovered that humans similarly pick up on subtle unconscious cues and change their behaviour in reaction to them. Today we call this the Observer-Expectancy Effect and it’s part of the reason current studies use a blind, or double-blind, methodology.

horse on sunset background

What we can learn from Clever Hans

Personally, I don’t blame the people at the time for genuinely thinking Hans could be a breakthrough in animal intelligence. Take a moment to consider their context: The lightbulb had been patented in 1879, the automobile was becoming more accessible, Orville Wright made the first airplane flight in 1903, and in 1901 Guglielmo Marconi sent the letter S in Morse code across the Atlantic from Cornwall to Newfoundland. It doesn’t seem like such a stretch that more strides in science and technology would occur, let alone through a horse, an animal present in various mythologies (e.g. Pegasus), and with a longstanding tradition of domestication (e.g., warfare, policing, ranching, and sport).

Today, like the folks in the Clever Hans story, we can get swept up in the excitement of technological advancement. I think it’s important to reflect upon when and why we might use hot new trends today like AI, micro and mobile learning, and gamification. These are all great ideas, but have we talked to our learners to see if they’re the right fit? Will we deliver it in a way they can use?

It’s also worth noting that an initial investigation did find Clever Hans to have superior intelligence. It’s stories like this that remind me of the importance of having multiple lines of inquiry. Using both focus groups and surveys ensures you’re getting different types of data from a wide variety of people. Having only one “source of truth” is far better than nothing, but it can have its pitfalls.

Lastly, even though Hans wasn’t as clever as initially believed, Pfungst’s studies did lead to a breakthrough discovery that has changed how science is conducted today. In surveys and focus groups, you never know what unexpected learnings might arise that could be useful beyond the elearning you’re designing.

Overall, the story of Clever Hans reminds me to hunt for good data, be careful around unsupported data and to talk to learners to make a digital experience truly fit. If you’re interested in hearing more about how we use surveys and focus groups to create effective digital experiences, or how we use Behavioural Science in general, please get in touch.

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