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Article : How Do People Learn?

Two significant developments are combining to demand a new approach to the effective delivery of training in organisations.

The first is a shifting business model: the way that organisations compete and society advances. The second is a step-change in the capability and potential of technology-based training. Together, these developments are transforming the world of the trainer. All will recognise that this is a time of opportunities as well as threats: we must take action to shape the future.

One inevitable consequence will be a shift in focus to the individual learner. He or she will be encouraged and, in many organisations, required to take greater ownership of his or her own learning and development. The training specialist, and other human resource professionals, will be responsible for ensuring that this shift in responsibility can take place. In order to do this effectively we shall need to be far more thoughtful in our approach and gain a fuller understanding of how people do and can learn at work.

A renewed awareness of the theoretical background is needed. So too is more effectively focused and relevant research, and an improved transfer of knowledge between research and practitioner.

The report was commissioned to support and encourage this dialogue. Its primary audience is the human resource professional who is seeking to resolve the many practical questions that arise daily in implementing new approaches to learning in organisations. e-learning has been over-sold and overhyped and its contribution misunderstood. However, the potential is enormous. To quote a member of our expert panel: 'In amongst the noise we are experiencing a new dawn; occasioned by the catalytic effect of e-learning. It is certainly right that we take time to reflect on what we know and ask questions of ourselves.'

Such reflection is essential if we are to resolve the many implementation problems that are emerging in the transition in training and learning. A whole new vocabulary is being created: we need to make sense of it and be prepared to reject those terms that lack substance or add little to our capabilities to do our job. This process will require a return to the theory that underpins our work.

Blended learning offers a good example. It is, at the time of writing, the current buzzword. Problems with learner acceptance of new learning technology have become evident. Therefore, rather than relying on e-learning alone, the solution is to blend it with other more traditional forms of learning – the classroom and on-the-job training. With one bound Jack was free! However, making sense of blended learning is a major task. It is in danger of becoming yet another human resource concept in search of an application. One is reminded of the quip used by former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich: 'Rarely has a term moved from obscurity to meaninglessness without passing through an intervening period of coherence.'

The most significant conclusion arising from this review of learning theories is that none of the approaches by itself offers an adequate solution to the 'delivery' of learning in the new competitive environment. This is perhaps most noticeable in the case of the behaviourist approach which, through its focus on instruction, deals inadequately with the social and experiential dimensions of learning. It is also true of the cognitive approach, which relies too heavily on the acquisition of knowledge, rather than the development of practical capabilities.

In stressing the inseparability of learning from activity, the constructivist approach holds much promise for organisations. But it is demanding on the learner and can be difficult and time-consuming to scale. Approaches based on social practice offer organisations a compelling alternative, not least because they operate through many of its existing channels and relate intimately to work objectives. Yet
not all organisations have the culture in place to benefit fully from this approach.

While none of the theoretical approaches is adequate by itself, an appropriate mixture of approaches could be. The evolution in thinking from training to learning is epitomised by the movement towards a richer and evolving palette of learning processes that reflect better the needs of individuals and the demands of work.

Greater experimentation with learning processes is therefore required, in particular ones intended to kindle interest in self-directed learning, or which link learning more directly into routine work activities. Experimentation plays an important role here in deepening the evidence base on which decisions about learning are made: new ideas must flow off the table into practice in order to enable effective comparison.

The conventional training course has been successful for so long, partly because it appears to be an efficient way of 'delivering' learning objectives in the short term. Because it yields an immediate response (completed training packages/courses, test results), it gives the impression that learning has occurred. It also seems to lend validity and control to the work of
trainers.

In fact, the routine use of instruction in training, as exemplified by the 'tell and listen' presentation, is in danger of becoming a rather conservative approach, particularly when it is delivered poorly or does not connect effectively to the wider organizational context. So prevalent is its use, that many employees
have become conditioned to regard training as instruction and, furthermore, to regard learning as training. The net result is that the employees develop a high expectation that learning happens on training courses that involve presentations and a binder of materials to take away at the end.

Similarly, many trainers and managers adhere, sometimes unconsciously, to the view that learning, training and instruction are one and the same. Even when this distinction is fully understood the alternative, less conservative, models may be seen as more demanding both by the recipients of the training and those responsible for organising it. And they would be right. An analogy may be drawn with the tendency of some employees to rely too heavily on their job description in order to interpret their work responsibilities. Few people, now, would disagree that this approach can act as a brake on creativity by inhibiting the exploration of job roles and boundaries. Nonetheless, it might be perceived by some as an easy, low-risk strategy for fulfilling the employment contract and, if it was seen in this way by the majority of staff, then managers might also find reason to support it.

This self-sustaining cycle would need to be arrested at some point in order to let other approaches flourish, and so it is with instruction. Learners who demand instruction, and receive it, will be inhibited in their development of self-directed learning. What are the implications of making greater use of alternative approaches? And what might be the interim steps? Panel members offered a number of suggestions: first of all, there is a need to pause when considering training responses, and to be more inventive, holistic, and to draw on a richer set of learning processes (and hence theories).

Second, there is a need to recognise the value, extent and legitimacy of informal modes of learning – learning through work, through teams and through other forms of social interaction, for example. This area has been seriously underestimated by organisations despite a weight of common-sense evidence that most learning takes place informally.

The value of working together has been established beyond doubt by years of research on teamworking;

Comments from HRD Professionals

People have the feeling that they can only learn when they come on a course. We need to help people understand that it can happen anywhere; that every interaction with a client, supplier or colleague is a potential learning opportunity; that learning is a state of mind. If I ask one of our employees what they have learned today, I sometimes receive the reply, 'Nothing, I haven't been on a course since last year.' This has always intrigued me, and concerned me, since most of what people learn occurs informally through work. It's just not recognised, even by the learners themselves.

In thinking about how our role might change over the next five years, I think we have to be prepared for a total rethink. It's important that we move away from a narrow focus on training, towards the wider goal of learning. It's only then that we shall be supporting our business genuinely; only then that we shall respond quickly enough to the pace of change.

It's essential for training programmes to give employees the space to learn from each other, not just listen to other people's commentaries on what they should do. We're trying to build transferable problem-solving skills, not just transmit knowledge.

The days of trainers standing up and lecturing all day, saying 'thank you', and departing are basically over. Most of our training is now built around experiential learning techniques like management games and simulations, case studies, scenarios and problem-solving.

The conventional cycle of planning training, sending people on courses, and assessing what things they have learned is too lengthy to respond to the pace of change experienced by many firms. Other tools than the training course are needed to support employee learning more flexibly and quickly.

The key question is how do we make learning as effective as possible? Trainers are going to have to be humble about this. A lot of what we do tends to be unreflective and, perhaps, ineffective.

My frustration is that there isn't enough understanding amongst organisations about how frequently they are learning. Unless they see learning formalised, they don't recognise it as learning. They feel they are learning something only when someone stands up and tells them something.

There is a scepticism about what exactly e-learning is delivering. One of the mistakes people made in first moving to e-learning was thinking it would replace contact time with other learners and with the trainer.

E-learning doesn't so much replace face-to-face learning as supplement and extend it. A good analogy is with e-mail. Nobody in their right mind would replace all their telephone conversations and meetings with e-mail. It's a judgment each time between the various channels: e-mail, telephone or face-to-face.

The Web is the perfect medium for certain types of learning. It achieves speed and spread like no other medium, but you have to remember that there is a human being at the other end.

The key message is blended learning: combining e-learning with face-to-face sessions. Expecting learning to happen on the desk-top is unrealistic. If left to chance it may not happen.

A lot of people still want to go on courses. Taking them away and putting the content online could lead to an uproar by staff.

we now need to recognise the value of learning together in physical, virtual or mixed communities, living off our own wits and resources.

Regarding e-learning, the early adopters' view that it would deliver efficiency gains, simply by replacing face-to-face trainers with technology, has largely been discredited. Its value in providing flexibility is already being taken for granted; flexibility in time, space and design. The new challenge is to capitalise on its support for interactivity between people, inspired by business imperatives and moderated by 'trainers as facilitators.' Here we run up against the issue of time. Intensive online interaction is time-consuming and it must be seen to deliver value to the participant and to the business. Space is needed in employee schedules to get the best out of the new medium, but it will be necessary to show how online interaction translates into business results.

Panel members were unanimous in endorsing 'blended learning' as the way forward. In the first instance this means combining virtual and face-to-face forms of delivery to provide opportunities for interpretation and discussion of inputs obtained over the Web, and for community formation. As this is adopted, blending informal and formal modes of learning offers a further challenge.

We know that learning is a more or less continuous process, whereas training is discrete; clearly some rebalancing is required. Other forms of blend might also be considered. Individual and collaborative activities can be mixed to help develop social and well as individual learning skills; and opportunities for facilitating learning 'through' work as well as 'at' work may be identified to help ground learning activities in work experience. Rather than focusing on just one element of a learning strategy, e-learning can support all aspects of this richer mix. The role of e-learning in supporting web-based instruction and content delivery are well known but, other than in a few well-known cases, we are only beginning to understand how technology can support the experiential and social foundations of learning.

One thing is clear: training and development practitioners will retain a new and exciting role in this mix; if anything, their role will be expanded. Finally, the move towards a richer set of learning processes means that learners need a correspondingly stronger sense of motivation. The best way of encouraging this learner-centred directedness lies not only in external rewards or punishments but through helping learners to take small and regular steps towards a sense of achievement. The expectation of success is probably the strongest driver of self-directed learning of all.

Today's Tip of the Day - Connectivity

Read today's tip or listen to it on podcast.

Published: Saturday, August 10, 2002

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