Trying to have a conversation with someone who “already knows everything” is like talking to a wall. Nothing you have to say matters because they’ll automatically tune you out. To them, the “conversation” is either a waste of time or a way to show off their own smarts. Learners can fall into this pattern too. It often happens because 1) they really do know their stuff and don’t think they have anything left to learn or 2) because they’re new and insecure.


The whole situation reminds me of a scene from The Forbidden Kingdom. Jackie Chan’s character has been trying to teach a student kung fu. But the student, a kung fu movie fan, isn’t absorbing anything because he already knows about tons of techniques from the films he’s watched. Chan’s character is filling a cup as the boy rambles on and continues pouring even when it starts overflowing. This leads to the following exchange:

Student: “The cup’s full. Stop! It’s full!”

Chan’s character: “Exactly, how can you fill your cup if already full? How can you learn Kung Fu, you already know so much. No Shadow Kick, Buddha Palm! Empty your cup.”

Powerful stuff.

So what can you do in a situation like this? How can you coax reluctant learners to empty their cups? The short answer is to let them discover that there are things they don’t know. But have it set up in a safe way that isn’t going to expose them to public criticism from others. eLearning can provide a good private venue where it’s just the learner and the screen.

But what if they just click through everything? That won’t help at all.

No, no it won’t. But locking the navigation so they can’t proceed until the audio finishes isn’t very effective either. All that tends to do is frustrate people. What they need is a chance to fail, to get something wrong. They need something that will motivate them to try again and get it right, aka to learn something new.

Give them a meaningful activity, like a branching scenario or a simulation, to work through. Or it could be a single, decision-based question at the beginning of the learning. It’s easy to ignore an incorrect answer to a multiple choice question, but something with emotional impact is more likely to strike a chord. Let your star salesperson fail a simulation if they haven’t bothered to read up on the latest product updates. Let the new data analyst see that clicking the button they’re not supposed to can crash the system. As they say in the writing world, “show, don’t tell.”

These sorts of techniques aren’t guaranteed cures, nothing is. But they’re good for getting learners thinking in general, whether or not they’re know-it-alls.

You can’t empty their cups for them. You have to give know-it-alls a reason to empty them.

Consider starting with an activity, rather than jumping straight into content. You may find that it makes learners more willing to empty their cups.

If you’d like to read more about training, learning, and instructional design check out the rest of this author’s blogs.

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