Blog Post

What Do Broken Windows and Your Learning Experience Have in Common?

Dr. Tom Tonkin

Principal, Thought Leadership & Advisory Services

If you are in the learning space and follow the trends as of late, you’ve seen that the market is shifting from a focus on learning management systems to learning experiences. This assertion is not a dismissal of learning management systems, but more so a focus on the experience that a learner may encounter. The fact remains that regardless of focus, we all have experienced learning to some degree. Starting at a very young age, we were given goals and expectations through rote exercises, and as we matured through the educational system, we became familiar with rubrics and lectures. The same can be said for corporate education. When you're first hired, you were given a set of learning tasks during your onboarding, most likely including compliance training as well as awareness of corporate policy. All of these "experiences" influence the way you perceive learning.

The Tipping Point Theory

In a recent webinar, "Creating the LMS experience: It’s the new way of delivering learning," my team at Cornerstone tackled the importance of context and how it influences your learning experience. During the webinar, we discussed Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point framework. In essence, the framework answers the question, "How did the popular shoe, Hush Puppies, become a raging sensation in the mid-90s after almost being an extinct product?" Gladwell suggests that there are three components in creating a Tipping Point: "The Law of the Few," "The Stickiness Factor," and "The Power of Context." Because of the complexities of each, we only discussed the second point in the webinar, "The Stickiness Factor." This component was also one that Gladwell was a bit vague in operationalizing and needed some attention. For the sake of expanding on the entire notion of a learning experience tipping point, this article touches on only the third point, "The Power of Context." It specifically addresses the theory of the "Broken Windows" and how it applies to the learning experience.

Is It a Crime to Learn?

Gladwell borrows the theory of the "Broken Windows" from criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Killing to frame his "Power of Context" tipping point component. The term, ’broken windows’ came from the metaphor that suggests that if a window is broken (in a neighborhood) and left unrepaired, those that walk by it conclude that no one cares nor is in charge. From there, anarchy ensues. Wilson and Kelly suggest that crime is a direct result of broken windows.

Gladwell suggests that this is the basis for "The Power of Context" in the Tipping Point and this is something that we can also apply to our learning experience. A very classic example would be that of compliance training. I'm sure all of us have gone through an onboarding process at a new company that requires one to go through compliance training. What images do you have when I say the words "compliance training?" Yes, I thought so. These would be the "broken windows" in a learning experience. Explicitly, if this is the kind of training I can expect for my development, how compelling and engaging will it be? What might other "broken windows" do you have in a new learning experience?

Triadic Reciprocal Causation... Huh?

To best decompose and understand the learning experience in a fundamental and social way, we reach to Albert Bandura’s theory, Triadic Reciprocal Causation: Simply put, the three components that create a social learning experience—person, behavior, environment—all influence each other and create the overall learning experience. It is the quality of each the determines the effectiveness of the experience. Specifically, each of these three components has specific areas for consideration:

  • Person - Understanding s person’s preferences, intelligence, thoughts, as well as personality, all have influence and how effective they are in their learning.
  • Behavior - Actions and verbalization, as well as nonverbal actions, influence the person's learning effectiveness and experience
  • External environment - The corporate culture as well as physical material and other people have strong persuasive power for the overall learning experience.

Purely from a diagnostic perspective, we should evaluate not only each of these learning experience components, but also how they influence each other. For example, if the person is highly motivated, intelligent and has a personality to learn, but they are embedded in an environment that is not a learning culture and the physical resources are not available, the overall learning experience would be Ineffective.

As a concluding call to action, ay I suggest that you listen to a webinar recording that Brett Wilson, Practice Leader of the Thought Leadership and Strategy group at Cornerstone deliver on this same topic for even greater clarification.

So, given the three components, what would you say is the status of your learning experience? I would like to know, so let’s start the hashtag #LXState and message me @DrTomTonkin.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Gladwell, M. (2000). The tipping point : how little things can make a big difference (1st ed.). Boston: Little, Brown.

Photo: Creative Commons

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