The need for actionable content

Teachers want to give their students actionable skills. Managers want their direct reports to formulate actionable objectives. Authors of self-help books want to give their readers actionable guidelines at the end of each chapter. Trainers want to give their attendees actionable takeaways at the close of the session. Making content actionable has become a very popular solution to a widespread problem. Typical content is something other than actionable.

Through the next several blog posts, I'll explore how this idea of "actionable content" serves a purpose, how that purpose is changing, why it's so difficult to formulate and different ways to create the desired effect. For starters, here are seven problems that beg for actionable content.

Inert content: Sometimes we deliver content that only applies to the content itself. We foster encyclopedic knowledge of a subject area that only pertains to further study of itself. We dish out what Alfred North Whitehead called "inert ideas".
In the history of education, the most striking phenomenon is that schools of learning, which one epoch are alive with a ferment of genius, in a succeeding generations exhibit mere pedantry and routine. The Aims of Education 1929
Hypocritical content: We tell people to do something that is the opposite of our conduct. We cannot walk our own talk or provide an example of our advice. We lose credibility because we are merely preachy. We are full of what to say and bereft of what to do differently, more effectively and toward particular results.

Excessive content: We can make a thing of becoming inundated with too much information. We end up twice as smart as we act and say to ourselves "I knew better than to do that". We get so preoccupied with knowing more, we disconnect what we know from how we act. We expect to change ingrained habits by being well informed and then fail to do anything differently.

Abstract content: We can give others content that is taken out of context. It seems unrelated to a context where it could be applied to problems, conflicts or opportunities. It's disconnected from contexts of meaning, relevance, significance. They say "we understand the words, but not what it has to do with anything".

Expert content: We can dwell on being authoritative and fail to hand off our expertise. We can make the right answer seem too demanding, complicated or out-of-reach for others to take ownership of it. We come across as self-righteous, ego maniacal or pompous. We inadvertently silence their voices and dismiss alternative perceptions. We impose modernism on subjective, post-modern sensibilities.

Trivial content: We can prepare others for quiz shows and board games like Trivial Pursuit. We celebrate knowing facts as accumulated possessions. We foster the materialistic acquisition of bigger inventories and abundant collections of information artifacts.

Pseudo-actionable content: We can give people things to do that do no good. We set up people for pointless exercises. We pretend it's valuable to go through the motions with no lasting effect. We take time to waste their time with mere busywork. We show people how to look productive while accomplishing nothing of significance.

What are you supposed to do with that information? Recognize where you're having any of these seven problems. Consider whether actionable content has the potential to solve any of these problems. Wonder why there's still a need for actionable content if it's already clear it would solve these problems.


  1. I like all of your categories. However, I think many times instructors go into a classroom with good intentions. For example, I suffer from excessive content. This is not because I want to show my students how smart I am, but rather, I assume they have knowledge coming into the classroom that perhaps they "have" but then I find out they don't really understand.

    I also assume that they can follow the connections I make and underestimate the amount of time it will take for them to master the content. I know they have to have a certain content (as mapped out by our university and department) but I want them to have other content that might be more valuable for them than just the minimum we are required to cover.

    My sister trains science teachers. She and I have discussed this problem of trying to balance content we are required to teach, and content that we know our students will need to be successful. As a result, we tend to try to fit in to much into a course. But both of us (and many of my colleagues) feel it is unethical NOT to cover content that is not in the curriculum, but that our students will need to be successful.

    I think the problem is more a lack of awareness by many professors of how to balance required content with what we feel might be more necessary for the student (who is to say that the administration, curriculum developers, or professionals know better than we do). I think the solution is a better system to develop curriculum so all parties have a say, but no one has more power than the other.

  2. Thanks Virginia
    I'm on the same page as you and your sister in struggling to get the right amount of content introduced. There's always so many connections I can make to a single concept that helps the students to tie the new thing in to their understanding, compare it to other ideas, apply it to multiple contexts, etc. Usually the required content appears oppressive to me, because it does not allow for helping the students successfully grasp a smaller portion of the curriculum more deeply.

    Being aware of this challenge has not resolved it in my mind. Rather than define the problem as "a lack of awareness", I see the problem with assuming we can define course requirements for a group of students. If we factor in all the variations you describe: in how much they already have, how many connections they can follow along, how likely they are to successfully grasp the new material at this time in their lives and pacing of this course -- it seems to me the solution is to set up self selected, self-paced and self motivated explorations. It does not seem possible to balance requirements and supplemental add-ons for more than one or two students at time. On the other hand, I really like your idea for the process of developing the structure collaboratively on a level playing field. Thanks again for so much good stuff to ponder!