The great American philosopher and educationalist John Dewey has influenced thinking about the design of education since the first half the twentieth century.
He saw education as a route to creating a more democratic society. He reimagined the role of the teacher in improving not just the curriculum but what is taught but how it is taught. He said the learner should interact with the curriculum and take part in their own learning, not simply receive it passively.
I wonder what Dewey would think of the state of the world of work-based learning, training and education today.
“I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.” – Winston Churchill
Businesses are usually legally and socially constructed entities comprising people who work towards a common purpose. In the industrial era these were typically conceptualized as hierarchically structured, discrete organizations driven by a leader with a vision, an executive group who worked out a strategy, and delivery teams who implemented a series of long and short term plans.
The knowledge and skills required to perform effectively could be anticipated and training could be delivered in a structured and reliable way, using traditional methods of instruction. As the half life of knowledge was considerably longer than it is now, management and training of people was mainly oriented towards maintaining the status quo.
The professional field of learning and development grew in its own right and more sophisticated methods of training evolved and certain disciplines came to the fore such as designing courses based on predefined objectives, teaching which maintained attention levels, evaluation of satisfaction of trainees at the end of their training, and the intention to facilitate the ‘transfer’ of learning from one place, the classroom, to the next place, the ‘real world’.
The psychological contract favored the employer, whose members appreciated the training they were served-up, which was typically keyed into the hierarchy of job levels; new hires, specialists, supervisors, managers and leaders.
As we now are thrust into the reality of Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is tempting to continue to apply traditional thinking albeit hidden behind new tech and artificial intelligence (AI) glitz.
So, remote trainers dream up more icebreakers and methods of entertaining audiences via the online platform.
Our excitement with the idea that training can be ‘always on’ led to the belief that participants will always turn up, but the reality is they don’t, and even if they do it’s easy to check-out mentally when learning from a screen – just video-off.
So this has led to the use of various devices to encourage the learners to engage, such as incentivizing them with the reward of medals, graphic credentials and trophy icons to build online status and kudos.
It’s the equivalent but less human method of the teacher controlling access to the chocolate box at the head of the classroom; it’s an extrinsic motivational device which may keep some people in class until the bell goes.
The real challenge for the training designer is how to foster an inner drive to learn.
And the answer to increasing engagement isn’t to simply pander to diminishing attention levels by offer training in bite size chunks.
As suggested by UNLEASH’s Jon Kennard in his hopes for the future of learning and development: ‘…not everything HAS to be in chunks of 30 seconds. Some topics simply require longer to embed themselves in your frontal lobe.’
I suggest if you are a learning and development specialist responsible for design of training programs, a good starting place is with basic principles of matching training methods to the training needs and type of learning.
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There’s more than one type of learning
It is crucial to clarify the type of learning you want to create, and design in methods which are appropriate:
The most straightforward type of learning is relatively easily packaged into, for instance, e-learning, workbooks, articles and lectures. It is usually generic and may be bought in, or adapted, from existing sources.
Much relates to that which is already known. Evidence that the learner has acquired knowledge is straightforward to assess through tests, quizzes or in a more sophisticated sense a case study.
May be technical, professional or interpersonal and they take time to develop as new knowledge is applied either outside the real work context or on the job.
Assessment of some skills may be automated, for instance the ability to manipulate a spreadsheet, but the more human the skill the more likely a human is required to assess it, for instance through a role play or observation.
This is the most important type of learning which is usually the most neglected and is about the wisdom that comes through a personal process of realization. Insights cannot be taught and are often revealed to the learner at unexpected times; those ‘aha’ moments.
We can create an environment conducive to learners achieving insight through, for instance, coaching, mentoring, action learning, storytelling and secondments. Learning through insights goes beyond ‘topics’.
- Realizing why I have been unable to influence a difficult client relationship
- Self-insight regarding my personality and how I behave under pressure
- Understanding of the political power dynamics of the senior team.
Unlearning about learning
Learning, development and instructional designers need to let go of certain beliefs about how learning works. This means unlearning about learning.
Happiness does not equal learning
Metrics such as attendance levels are collected, and measures of happiness are taken on the assumption that showing up and saying you are happy proves quality of learning.
UNLEASH contributor Brad Tombling refers to some interesting studies connect learner happiness with learning and performance. “If we can improve the positive emotions experienced, it can have a huge impact on performance.”
I am dubious, having seen trainers deploy various techniques to encourage trainees to report happiness at the right times, such as just before completing a course feedback questionnaire.
The corollary of my point is that I often hear people report their most powerful learning some time after most difficult times in their career and life.
It is how they process such events reflectively which counts and this is where a good coach, mentor or counsellor may help.
Training inputs do not equal learning outputs
Metrics are often presented to support the case that training has been successful, however these are often based on false assumptions.
So measures of training days, attendance and course completions do not provide evidence of the impact of learning on individual, team or organizational performance.
A challenge with evaluating the impact of managerial and professional learning is the difficulty in proving cause and effect.
So improvement in performance following training may be multi-factorial, and the evidence of impact may only become apparent some time after the training.
Qualitative methods of collecting evidence of the impact of training should be considered, such as interviews, surveys, storytelling and focus groups.
Leadership cannot be taught but can be learnt
Management academic guru Henry Mintzberg presents a strong argument that the idea of teaching leadership is flawed. Attempts by business schools to teach leadership have essentially failed to deliver due to over-reliance on the case study method which may test intellectual abilities but gives little indication of how a learner will lead in a real business situation.
Mintzberg and Reg Revans, guru of action learning, have pointed out that the case studies are dead and relate to the past, whereas most organizations have real here-and-now problems and challenges to focus on.
In earlier columns I have gone so far as to suggest learning might even be oriented towards those mysteries which should be explored to carry a business into the future.
Training designers would do well if seeking to design leadership development to consider how they facilitate learning which occurs closer to the action and real job challenges.