How much learning should be top-down?

The new learning architectThroughout 2011 we will be publishing extracts from The New Learning Architect. We move on to the third part of chapter 5:

It’s possible that, where there isn’t that much to know and it doesn’t change that often, all learning can be managed on a top-down basis. However, this is completely unrealistic for the majority of organisations in which there’s far too much to know and it’s changing far too quickly. So where should the priorities be placed?

On the most critical knowledge and skills: Some learning is of high importance, not necessarily because it is required that often, but because if it is not applied on the occasions when it is required then there could be serious consequences for the organisation. Imagine a pilot who didn’t know how to land a plane in bad weather conditions, a financial trader who did not know how to respond to a market crash, a manager who did not realise the implications of firing a direct report who he happened not to like all that much. Some learning simply cannot be left to chance – it needs to be planned carefully, expertly facilitated and rigorously assessed.

On the most commonly-used knowledge and skills: Leaving aside the really critical, high stakes knowledge and skills, a judgement has to be made on how the remainder is handled. One answer is to apply the Pareto principle, also known as the 80:20 rule. This states that, in many situations in life, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In a learning context it would be reasonable to assume that 20% of all the knowledge related to a particular job will be adequate to cover 80% of tasks. The remaining 80% of the knowledge is used only occasionally. It makes sense, therefore, to concentrate resources on providing the knowledge that is most regularly needed, whether through a training intervention or the provision of performance support.

On novices: When you have little or no knowledge of a subject, you are more appreciative of a structured and supportive learning environment. Novice learners don’t have the advantage of existing schemas (generalised knowledge about situations and events) in long-term memory that enable more experienced employees to cope with less structured learning experiences. Clark, Nguyen and Sweller  explain how carefully-designed instructional approaches “serve as schema substitutes for novice learners. Since novices don’t have relevant schemas, the instruction needs to serve the role that schemas in long-term memory would serve.” The implication of all this is that, if you’re a skilled l&d professional, your services will be most appreciated by novices.

Where metacognitive skills are low: Those with good metacognitive skills are better equipped to learn independently. They have a good feel for what they already know, what’s missing and how to go about filling the gap. They will benefit from top-down learning but they don’t depend on it. For this reason, where resources are tight, efforts are more sensibly directed at those who most need the assistance. There are various ways of finding out who has the ability to learn independently. You could (1) guess based on generalisations (unskilled workers, unlikely; software engineers, likely), (2) observe behaviour over time and come to a considered opinion, person by person, or (3) ask the people involved directly.  Just make sure you don’t use the term ‘metacognitive skills’!

Coming next, the fourth part of chapter 5: Targeting top-down learning

Return to Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4

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About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd has written 240 post in this blog.

Clive is a consultant specialising in the application of technology to learning and business communications. He was previously Director of Training and Creative Services for a multinational corporation and co-founder of a major multimedia development company. For four years he was chair of the eLearning Network.

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