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The Smackdown Learning Model


What happens to your brain when you're forced to choose between two different--and potentially conficting--points of view? Learning. That's what makes the smackdown model such an effective approach to teaching, training, and most other forms of communication.

Whether you're writing user instructions, teaching a class, writing a non-fiction book, or giving a conference presentation, consider including at least some aspect of the smackdown model. It's one of the most engaging ways to cause people's brains to both feel and think -- the two elements you need for attention, understanding, retention, and recall.

How does it work?

By presenting different perspectives or views of the topic, the learner's brain is forced into making a decision about which one they most agree with. And as long as the learner is paying attention, you won't even have to ask. In other words, it doesn't have to be a formal exercise where the learner must physically make a choice between multiple things; simply by giving their brain the conflicting message, their brain has no choice. Brains cannot simply leave the conflicts out there without at least trying to make an evaluation.

And making an evaluation puts it at the most advanced end of Bloom's Taxonomy. (The further along the hierarchy you go, the more cognitive brainpower is harnessed).

Why is this better than a single consistent message?

More brain flexing = more learning. (Yes, there's a big assumption here that the learner already understands the fundamentals behind the different viewpoints.)

When the learner is given a single message, and led through the topic step-by-step with no apparent alternatives, the learner's brain doesn't have to think as much. And since a single message is often less interesting, the material is less engaging and the learner isn't paying as much attention.

And the more intense the smackdown (i.e. the heat/fight of the opposing views) the more likely it is that the learner will feel something. And remember, we learn and remember that which we feel, not that which we merely hear or read.

But this is stupid... what about things for which there is only ONE right way?

Ah yes. Multiple points of view works great when it's a browser or web framework war, but what about something like the the speed of light? Or multiplication tables? 4 x 6 is 24. End of story. A fight over that would just be distracting and get in the way.


Maybe not. It's true that there are subjects for which there is no alternative point of view that makes any sense at all... so nothing to evaluate. But in that case, you can still use a smackdown approach by having the information taught from multiple perspectives. For example, if one teacher uses a rote approach, and another thinks an understanding approach is better, then one of the most powerful learning experiences would offer the learner both, with perhaps discussions amongst the learners over the relative tradeoffs of the two approaches. That means the smackdown isn't about the actual content being learned, but about the way in which it's learned. The more you get the learners thinking (about the right things), the better the learning outcome.

How do you use it?

There are an infinite number of ways in which you could implement a smackdown, but here are a few favorites:

1) Presentation Smackdown

One of my favorite sessions at OSCON was Matt Raible's Spring vs. WebWork Smackdown. Two presenters, two frameworks, one guy with the big bell. The room was packed and everybody was paying attention. The presenters kept taking turns, and when a comment was deemed "below the belt" (a cheap shot), the bell guy kicked in.

Bonus benefit: this approach means you can get away with far fewer PowerPoint slides ; )
and you get a lot more audience participation.

Two other examples of a conference presentation smackdown are the Web Standards Smackdown and the JavaOne '04 Web Framework Smackdown. Another Web Frameworks Smackdown was held at JavaOne 2005, and discussed on this server side thread.

And Rick Ross considered a Java IDE smackdown in his Javalobby blog.

2) Head-to-head Review Smackdown

One example of a written comparison review is Ed Bott's TiVo vs. Windows Media Center smackdown. Another written example is a write-up that actually captured a conference panel smackdown on (this is old) J2EE vs. .NET.

Almost any decent and detailed multi-product or multi-perspective review can be considered a smackdown candidate, but really, if there's no heat and controversy and, well, fighting, then I wouldn't call it a smackdown.

What makes it an actual emotion-inducing learning experience is when the learner is at least wondering whether things could get a little rough. And in many cases, the rougher the better.

3) Anthropomorphized Debates

Head First readers might recognize this from some of our books. The implication of a smackdown is that two or more people are in a fight. A fight to win (even if no clear winner emerges). We make our smackdowns a little more personal in our books by breathing life into whatever it is being debated, and let that thing speak for itself. In Head First Java, for example, the compiler and the JVM argue over which of them is more important. Arrays go one-on-one with ArrayLists. And so on... with each "character" attacking or defending itself according to that character's personality and attributes.

Another benefit of anthropomorhpizing the objects of the debate is that the learner can look at things from the perspective of that entity. We want learners, for example, to know what the compiler's motivation is (no actor jokes here ; ). Who better to describe that than the compiler?


The Celebrity Death Match is quite popular. You could do your own version of this with a little Flash work.

And you'll just have to evaluate this one for yourself: Modified Living Sorority Smackdown.

Finally, if you haven't yet spent some time with Googlefight, here's a fun way to kill your productivity.


Posted by Kathy on August 15, 2005 | Permalink


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» RedMonk and the Smack Down Learning Model from James Governor's MonkChips
Any of you that have worked with RedMonk know that Stephen and I are not afraid to disagree... even during a client engagement. Sure we may have back channel communications going, but not to establish a single "story" or "version... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 16, 2005 8:03:47 AM

» The Smackdown Learning Model from Strong Copy Builds Brands
Thanks to Sierra, Bates and Freeman on their savvy blog Creating Passionate Users for this good read.... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 16, 2005 10:46:19 AM

» The smackdown model for learning makes sense from Anecdote
Kathy Sierra's smackdown model for learning made me smile AND nod—what a great idea. I agree, we should be presenting multiple views rather than insisting there is one way forward. As Kathy argues, when we present two conflicting views ... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 16, 2005 7:17:51 PM

» The Smackdown learning model from Work @ TAFE
Forget social constructivism - even connectivism - Kathy Sierra of Creating Passionate Users has posted The Smackdown Learning model: "Whether you're writing user instructions, teaching a class, writing a non-fiction book, or giving a conference pre... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 19, 2005 12:00:15 AM

» Des débats from Foire aux idees
Ceux qui me connaissent savent que j’aime bien discuter, j’aime débattre, essayer de convaincre l’autre (même si je ne suis pas moi-même convaincu). En ce, je tiens de mon père : s’il est «bleu» et entre dans une pièce où tous sont bleus, ... [Read More]

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» In Defense of the "smackdown" Learning Model from Coding Horror
I've occasionally been told that I have a confrontational style of communication. But that's not necessarily a bad thing-- as Kathy Sierra points out, the smackdown learning model can be surprisingly effective: What happens to your brain when you're fo... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 10, 2006 11:59:16 AM



Googlefight rules.

Posted by: Shaded | Aug 15, 2005 8:16:49 PM

Good image... the numbers are wrong it's 8.71 to 8.07

Best regards from Santiago, Chile

Posted by: //jorge | Aug 15, 2005 8:39:40 PM

//jorge: thanks! I fixed it.

Shaded: YOU rule. ; )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Aug 15, 2005 9:15:01 PM

Smackdown? Its not something that has made it to the UK. I get the general idea from the article but can we have more consideration of us non-US readers in future?

Posted by: Chris Tregenza | Aug 16, 2005 2:17:16 AM

Flickr fight is a more visual way to do the same:


But I'll let Google fight and Flickr fight, er, fight amongst themselves.

Posted by: Scott Reynen | Aug 16, 2005 5:35:12 AM

surely look at the picture chris, and try google.

being generic is nice and all, but in this case, this is a blog by an american using a fairly well known phrase. diversity is a good thing.

and WWF is huge in the UK!

I demand that I be able to use cricketing and "soccer"/football analogies in my blogs.

Posted by: james governor | Aug 16, 2005 7:33:34 AM

I can't believe you didn't mention (since the context would have been perfect) one of the most influential "smackdowns" in history: "Dialog Concerning the Two Chief World Systems"--where Galileo presented the Heliocentric system as an argument between three "experts" each presenting their opinion, and eventually leads the reader to choose the correct system.

Posted by: Jeremy Smith | Aug 16, 2005 9:11:04 AM

James, well done. You captured my thoughts exactly. I was going to post earlier, but I couldn't have said it any better.

Posted by: Bill Mietelski | Aug 16, 2005 9:44:41 AM

good post- setting up cognitive "forks in the road" is indeed a powerful way to engage your audience members. Even better, when you have the leeway to make things more interactive, having participants forced to defend positions which they disagree with can bring interesting results. In the legal industry, this is most apparent with mock trials by having attorneys represent the opposing side for the mock. They end up unearthing all kinds of potential counter-arguments which they would not have considered otherwise and their own case becomes stonger because of it.


Posted by: Sean Tierney | Aug 16, 2005 10:24:19 AM

I personally think this is an interesting and good way to learn, but for some people, I think maybe it could just be confusing. In particular, you offer an example of teaching math in different ways... for some students, this would just end up confusing them so that they can't learn it at all.

Posted by: Jennifer Grucza | Aug 16, 2005 12:23:03 PM

The best math teacher I ever had, Mr. Mirto, got our class through algebra I in 4 months by teaching it as many ways as possible. He kept at it until he had gotten through to everyone. Rather than confusing us it inspired is. Imagine a bunch of HS freshman skipping classes to go to the math resource center.

Posted by: Julie | Aug 16, 2005 2:03:48 PM


Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Aug 16, 2005 2:31:04 PM

Touche! So long as the happy-clappers don't use this as an excuse to introduce religious dogma into biology classes...

Posted by: Bill | Aug 18, 2005 5:27:18 AM


Google has spoken.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Aug 18, 2005 10:20:46 AM


Posted by: Shaded | Aug 18, 2005 2:38:15 PM

And what is the alternative to using the smackdown approach??

I didn't pay enough attention because you did't told us.

Posted by: serg | Aug 29, 2005 10:38:07 PM

You're right serg. Guess it's time for an "approaches to learning" smackdown! Stay tuned...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Aug 29, 2005 10:49:52 PM

I'm no expert, but in Tibetan Buddhism debate is an integral part of the learning process. Preparation for the Smackdown/debate is a learning excercise for the presenter. In the case of Tibetan monks, it helps them digest the hundreds of religious texts learned by rote. Then the use of multiple angles and approaches help the core info stick better. Here's an OK summary (note there's more of a master/student think going on here than in your smackdown, though still an interesting parallel): http://iris.lib.virginia.edu/tibet/essays/dreyfus/examination.html

Posted by: ScottSimpson | Aug 30, 2005 5:04:18 PM

Hi Bill,

Public schools already allow scientific dogma in classrooms. Example: Presenting the THEORY of evolution as fact.

With more and more evidence pointing towards an intelligent designer, it would be nice if public schools played fair and allowed an opposing view.

I am posting this as a way to display an opposing view to your post, not to have this blog turn into a flame war. Please feel free to respond to me directly via my website.


Posted by: Tod | Jul 10, 2006 2:26:48 PM

I am not very sure if the smack down model is the best to use when teaching,writing a book or making something else.It's too agressive for me.I prefer something not so harsh.

Posted by: Cara Fletcher | Jul 24, 2007 12:04:41 PM

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