By Cheri Milford

Like so many – I thoroughly enjoy Pixar movies. My oldest grew up with Andy in ‘Toy Story’ (I shed many tears when Andy went off to college – anticipating my oldest doing the same a short time later). And who would have thought that an animated movie could draw such powerful emotion as did the first five minutes of ‘Up’. Pixar doesn’t disappoint – and that was certainly the case with their modern classic ‘Inside Out’.

If you’re not familiar with ‘Inside Out’, the main character (Riley) is a happy 11-year-old Midwestern girl whose world is turned upside-down when she and her parents move to San Francisco. Riley’s emotions try to guide her through this difficult, life-changing event as she attempts to deal with everything from Joy and Sadness to Anger, Fear and Disgust. The movie illustrates the complex inner workings of the brain, as the main character contends with the many emotions that make her who she is.

It’s a fascinating movie – and like all Pixar movies pulls at the heart strings. That said, as a talent development practitioner, one scene in particular jumped out at me.

Joy and Sadness get lost in the labyrinth of Riley’s long-term memories. As they try to make their way back to headquarters, they come across mind workers doing memory maintenance. The scene goes like this:

  • Forgetter Paula: “Phone numbers? We don’t need all these – they’re in her phone!”
  • Forgetter Bobby: “Just forget all of that – please. Forget it!”
  • Forgetter Paula: “Look at this – four years of piano lessons!”
  • Forgetter Bobby: “Yeah, it looks pretty faded.”
  • Forgetter Paula: “You know what? Save chopsticks and heart and soul – get rid of the rest.”
  • Forgetter Paula: “US Presidents – what do you think?”
  • Forgetter Bobby: “Just keep Washington, Lincoln, and the fat one.”
  • Forgetter Paula: “Forget ‘em!”

With each “Forget ‘em!” the memories are sucked via vacuum into the memory dump – never to return. Forgetter Paula informs us that “When Riley doesn’t care about a memory, it fades.”

I laughed out loud as I reflected on this scene from an instructional design perspective. As instructional designers, this is an ongoing challenge we face. What is to be taught, and what’s the best method of instruction to ensure application and retention? Further complicating matters, we often receive push back from passionate subject matter experts (SMEs) who are of the opinion “The learner might need to know this someday – so it has to be in the (formal) training.” Of course, we know that if what is taught is not used, it will be lost.

This scene from the movie – where the mind workers are literally throwing out unused memories – illustrates the importance of addressing learning needs with the appropriate solution.

So what can ‘Inside Out’ teach us about instructional design?

“When Riley doesn’t care about a memory it fades.” Isn’t this true of any learner? While training cannot fix a lack of motivation, practitioners can influence motivation by identifying and articulating the anticipated impact of training and how it will benefit the learner – often referred to as the WIIFM (“What’s In It For Me”). Understanding the WIIFM helps learners translate an external need (what the company thinks I need to learn) into an internal need (how it will help me), encouraging retention and application of what has been taught.

“Phone numbers? We don’t need all these – they’re in her phone!” If a learner can get to the information needed via another source, should s/he be expected to commit the information to memory? The answer depends on the specific task. Tasks performed with low frequency that are highly complex or have a high consequence of error could be addressed quite efficiently through use of a job aid or a performance support tool accessible in the moment of need. Tasks with strict time requirements requiring immediate action and with significant consequence must be committed to memory (think pilot response time). Identify via the needs assessment the “nice-to-knows” and the “need-to-knows”, address each accordingly, and don’t spend valuable instruction time on topics that could be better served via an alternative delivery method. If it’s not mission critical, your learner won’t remember it anyway.

“Four years of piano lessons! Yeah, it looks pretty faded.” What we don’t use, we will lose. Two important factors to consider when designing a training solution are the importance of the task or activity to be trained on and the frequency in which the task or activity will be performed. The answers to these questions will help to identify the most appropriate solution (if it is determined that training is indeed warranted).

What about those memories that don’t fade? In the movie, our friends the mind workers inform Joy that the “Triple Dent Gum” song will never go away. Why? Riley has heard this theme song over and over and over again. It’s happened to all of us – the theme songs or slogans we remember to this day. If you’re not sure about that test yourself with the following:

  • M&M’s melt in your mouth, not in your _______.
  • Have a Coke and a ________.
  • Takes a licking and keeps on ________.
  • Where’s the ______?
  • Just __ __.

It can be aggravating that this type of useless information has been drilled into our brains – but we know it works. So how do we leverage this as instructional designers? Methods such as repetition and mnemonics are often used in pedagogical environments. What place should they have in adult learning?

This film – “drawing on real neuroscience and the latest psychological research” (Associated Press June, 15, 2015) – has generated a lot of discussion on everything from emotional intelligence to memory science. As instructional designers, we have an obligation to understand the conditions in which adults learn best and to select appropriate instructional strategies to create effective, targeted solutions to meet learner needs and business goals.

And what about those Presidents? If I have reason to recall the 14th president of the United States, there is ample opportunity to get to that information in my moment of need – say via a quick Google search. (It was Franklin Pierce.)