The Three Simple Principles of Empiricism

Welcome to my first entry in Enact Academy’s new blog, Empiricism. My goal here is to share a framework for using evidence and reason to design better learning experiences, with a particular focus on online learning. 

Many of our mental models of teaching seem to presume the conveyance and delivery of information. Knowledge is passed, baton-like, from teachers to learners. We show and tell, and we assume learning of that which is shown and told. There is almost no evidence to support this neat little assumption. What we do know is that people are complex and they don’t behave rationally. Homo economicus doesn’t exist. 

By the same token, we know from education research and allied fields that Homo autodidacticus – an inexhaustible sponge taking up knowledge and skills – also doesn’t exist. The brain is selective about what it retains – it would be incredibly inefficient to learn every tidbit of knowledge and master every skill. Deep and enduring learning requires practice, processing, repetition, application, contextualization, cognitive engagement, mistakes, feedback, and more.  

Empiricism is about breaking down these outdated mental models and the ineffectual learning experiences that are their descendants.

The Principles Behind Empiricism

I want to start by outlining the principles that guide Empiricism. These principles have crystallized in my mind over the past year, but they build upon my experiences in online learning and international health education.

The first principle: Focus on outcomes, not inputs. We think too much about what we do as teachers, to the detriment of learners. To acquire knowledge, to develop skills, or to update attitudes, change must happen within individuals. When we focus on what we have “taught,” it reinforces the fallacy that teachers can impose or confer learning. I prefer to think of teachers as catalysts of change. That change must happen within learners, which brings me to the second principle.

The second principle: Meet learners where they are, not where you want them to be. There is a pervasive gap between intentions and reality in education, a gap that only widens when we consider online education. MOOCs might be the best example of this: so many immodest predictions were made about MOOCs revolutionizing education; almost none of them came true. Most of these hubristic claims stemmed from the belief that providing access to content in a particular course-based format is necessary and sufficient to drive deep learning and engagement. We have to consider what learners want and need, what motivates them, what incentivizes them, and what works for them. This requires us to humbly recognize that learners are, first and foremost, people. This brings us to our third principle.

Third principle: Design learning experiences based on how people learn, not how you want them to learn. The quality of supporting evidence varies, and there is still a lot to be discovered, so I try to avoid the term “best practice,” but it is fair to say there are “principles,” or “hallmarks” of effective learning. I’m talking about empirical evidence, not theory. Learning is a process that happens within people. That process has been scientifically studied, and these studies give us some fairly robust evidence of what does and does not work.

These three principles synergize – everything needs to line up well to maximize the chances that learning happens. That doesn’t mean we have to exert huge amounts of effort or spend extravagantly to design flashy learning experiences. It just means we have to thoughtfully apply the above principles – we have to be intentional.


The three principles lead us to a series of questions. These questions relate to the learning strategy of your organization. If you have sound, defensible answers to each of these questions, you’re already practicing intentionality.

Questions stemming from the first principle: What are the outcomes you hope to achieve? How are you measuring these outcomes? How do you know that your investments in learning are leading to the returns you want?

Questions stemming from the second principle: Who (specifically) are your learners? How do you know that they are willing and ready to learn? What motivates and incentivizes them to learn, and how do you leverage those motivations and incentives? Do your learners have all of the resources they need to engage with the learning experience you are offering?

Questions stemming from the third principle: How do you design and facilitate (or catalyze) learning to maximize the chances that learners achieve the outcomes you are aiming for? How do you revise and update your offerings based on data and learner feedback to move even closer to desired outcomes?

Every leader I know wants to ensure good stewardship of organizational resources. Yet many organizations double down and persist with learning initiatives and projects that don’t meet their initial promise. Again, MOOCs come to mind. The sunk cost fallacy helps us understand this phenomenon. It can be hard to phase out projects that are underperforming, particularly when we don’t have solid evidence that the projects aren’t working. It becomes a matter of pride – organizations and institutions don’t easily let go of cherished initiatives.

Because it is so hard to let go, we have to be diligent and intentional when we start new learning programs. If we follow the three principles and have sound answers to these questions, we’re less likely to come to the point of making the tough decision to retire an underperforming project. 

Though it is easiest to apply these questions and principles to new projects, organizations also benefit from taking a hard look at their current portfolio of learning initiatives and asking tough questions. The “stop doing list” is a powerful tool to hone your organizational strategy. It frees you to focus on the initiatives that have the best chances of success.

Empiricism, not empiricism

Let’s be clear: this is not a blog about philosophy, though I may venture into philosophical territory at times. In philosophy, empiricism holds that all knowledge is derived from that which is observable. Philosophical empiricists get into all kinds of riveting debates with rationalists and skeptics over what we know and how we know it. If you want to engage with the philosophical aspects of empiricism, I encourage you to look elsewhere!

That being said, the capital “E” Empiricism title deliberately invokes the primacy of evidence. In my opinion, academic institutions (particularly schools of education) place too much of an emphasis on theory, and not enough emphasis on practice and evidence. We have evidence of what works, and we have tools to measure outcomes, so let’s make the most of that evidence!

Welcome to Empiricism. I hope you enjoy the journey.