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The Value of One-Pagers in Learning


JAstronaut Chris Hadfield is a big fan of writing one-page summaries of the things he needs to know. In fact, he collected all his one-pagers on being an astronaut into a binder and brought it into orbit with him. When he was working on some task in the space station he would flip to the appropriate page for a quick refresher.

However, there is something absolutely critical HR professionals need to understand about Hadfield’s approach. NASA did not kindly prepare one-pagers for him. He did it himself. He did it after studying the topic in-depth, then pondering how to make sense of it, and ultimately summarizing it in a way that made sense to him. If someone else had prepared the one-pager, it would have been far less useful.

Hadfield’s one-pagers were less a document full of knowledge and more a key to his own brain. The one-pager activated the parts of the brain that had done the hard work of understanding and summarizing the knowledge.

When we are training employees, we need to be cautious about giving them summaries of the key points that imply they can gloss over the hard work of really understanding a subject. There are in fact two steps in the learning process:

1. Mastering the detail. If we think of an auto-mechanic, they have to understand each system, for example how the air conditioning system works.

2. Organizing the content so that we can remember it. We need to take what we learned and consolidate it in our minds, connect it to other things we know, and reflect on the key points.

If you’ve ever helped a child with a word problem in mathematics, you may have noticed the same learning phenomenon. Imagine the problem involves throwing a ball and figuring out how high it goes. If the child is stuck you might sit down, think about the problem, and realize that it has to do with parabolas. You then remind the child about the formula for parabolas at which point they can calculate the answer. Is that a job well done? Are you a successful teacher?


The hard part of the problem isn’t applying the formula, it’s figuring out which formula to use. The child has to work through the difficult part, just as Chris Hadfield had to work through the difficult parts of learning to run a spacecraft before his one-pagers became useful.

It’s always tempting in learning to look for shortcuts. Certainly, learners want to reduce the effort they need to put in, and they’ll happily accept a one-pager if you offer it to them. As a trainer, you need to recognize that you want the learner to go through the process so that they know enough to create their own one-pagers. Once they do that, then you can trust them to do the right thing on the job or in outer space.


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