When formal learning is less appropriate

The new learning architect

Throughout 2011 we will be publishing extracts from The New Learning Architect. We move on to the third part of chapter 7:

What is the difference between education and training? The answer, according to the old joke, is that, whereas you might be happy for your children to have sex education at school, you’d be a little disconcerted if they had sex training. Training is, almost by definition, interactive. It has to impact on performance and, to accomplish this, it must involve a highly practical element.

In a formal learning situation, teachers, coaches, instructional designers and other ‘learning experts’ take on the responsibility not only for providing interesting new learning material but also for assisting the learner to recognise what’s important, transfer this to long-term memory and then strengthen their pathways to this new learning. They achieve this primarily through interaction – questions, exercises, discussions, essays, assignments, and so on.

But it’s a mistake to believe that learning can only take place when this interaction is externally mediated; individuals can also do this for themselves. Those who have learned how to learn are capable of acting independently: they can recognise when something is important, they reflect, they make notes, initiate conversations and post to their blogs. They’re also quite capable on acting on what they have learned by applying it to their jobs. With independent learners, courses with formalised interactions will often not be necessary.

In 1992, Hubert Dreyfus described the journey that learners take from ‘novice’ to ‘advanced beginner’ to ‘competent’ to ‘proficient’ to ‘expert’. Brian Sutton explains how different approaches are required at different stages along this journey: “The transition from novice to advanced beginner is essentially associated with rule following behaviour and this is best facilitated through formal learning processes. However, the transition from competent through proficient to expert is largely associated with pattern recognition and experience. It can only be attained within the performance context. It is rooted in the acquisition and sharing of tacit knowledge and this is fundamentally a social process – it needs prolonged and deep engagement with other expert practitioners.”

Sutton goes further to argue that “…as learning professionals we need to stop thinking of learning as an event that is organised by one set of people and imposed upon another, regardless of whether that event takes place in a classroom or via the medium of e-learning. Learning is a natural consequence of living and working: work has always involved problem solving, judgement, conflict resolution and choice – these are all learning opportunities. We can experience them and move on regardless or we can reflect upon them within the context of our environment and our core principles and, as a result, produce new insights that move us forward.”

There is a price to pay for the structure inherent in formal learning: interventions take time, money and expertise to design and develop. Organisations can’t always afford to wait for the interventions to be made available, nor can they necessarily spare the resources. When the learning is important to the organisation, when there is a sufficiently large target audience, when there is adequate lead time, then the investment might be made. When these conditions aren’t met, the organisation can either look for an off-the-shelf solution from an external supplier or adopt a more informal approach.

The inflexibility of formal learning can extend to the content, as John Seely Brown and Paul Duquid observe : “Learning is usually treated as a supply-side matter, thought to follow teaching, training or information delivery. But learning is much more demand driven. People learn in response to need. When people cannot see the need for what’s being taught, they ignore it, reject it, or fail to assimilate it in any meaningful way. Conversely, when they have a need, then, if the resources for learning are available, people learn effectively and quickly.”

Sometimes, as Harold Jarche likes to say, you need the ABC solution; that’s Anything But Courses.


Mind Over Machine by Herbert Dreyfus, 1992.

Learning’s Environmental Crisis by Brian Sutton, published as part of the Advance series by Saffron Interactive, 2007.

The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duquid, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

Learning & Working on the Web, December 30, 2008: http://www.jarche.com/2008/12/innovation-and-learning/.

Coming next in chapter 7The transfer of learning

Return to Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6

Obtain your copy of The New Learning Architect

About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd has written 244 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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