Then why not formal learning?

The new learning architect

Throughout 2011 we will be publishing extracts from The New Learning Architect. Here we continue with the third part of chapter 8:

We’ve already argued the case for formal learning, but it should be clear that, although running a course can often be the right way to address a need, there are many more cases where an alternative will be more effective and more efficient. Back in 1970, Peter Honey pleaded for us to ‘stop the courses, I want to get off.’ He argued that organising courses was the easy option, but that to create effective learning situations which were meaningful in terms of the job called for much more effort, imagination and innovation.

Nearly forty years later, Donald Clark took up where Peter Honey left off: “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that great staple of train the trainer courses, is typical of the simplistic junk that is thrown about in the training world, but he did have one great line: ‘If you walk around long enough with a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail’. That’s training, folks. Our hammer is the ‘course’ – the pat solution for every problem.”

He elaborated as follows: “Courses are also at odds with the psychology of learning. We know that ‘spaced practice’ is a necessary condition for almost all learning, yet almost all courses do the opposite, delivering large, single doses. We also know that most skills need a ‘learn by doing’ approach, yet most courses are skewed towards knowledge. We know that learning is about long-term memory, yet most courses focus on short-term memory and assessment. We know that learning needs to avoid cognitive overload, yet most courses suffer from an obesity of content. We know that learning benefits from being situated in the context in which the learning is to be put to use, yet most courses pluck people out of this context. I could go on and on, but perhaps the greatest problem is the sheer lack of knowledge and awareness of the basics of the psychology of learning, and its application in training. It’s like engineers who build bridges but know nothing about physics.”

Perhaps, if you’ll excuse the pun, it’s just a case of horses for courses. There are many good reasons why some learning should be formal, why some should be conducted in groups, why some courses should be carried out in real-time as opposed to being self-paced, and why some should be face-to-face as opposed to online. And there are equally good reasons for doing the opposite. In the end the choices you make should be made on the basis of the particular situation, not familiarity, prejudice or predisposition. And if that choice is made well, effectiveness will then depend on how well you carry the job out.

ReferenceStop the courses, I want to get off by Donald Clark, TrainingZone, March 2009.

Coming next: The non-formal learning toolkit

Return to Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7

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About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd has written 243 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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