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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Classroom training: why do we still run instructor-led courses?


Why is classroom training still so popular in our technology-driven world? Here are two reasons  one good and one bad.

I was working with Michelle Parry Slater the other week and at one point she brandished her smart phone and said to the assembled group – this changes everything.

That started me thinking. If we carry the internet around with us, all sorts of things change including learning. Especially the more traditional ways of doing things.  Which brought me in a roundabout way to ask: why do we still send people on classroom courses?

The demise of the classroom course has long been anticipated, but still it prevails. In fact, it seems to be growing – slightly – in popularity.  In Training Magazine’s 2017 review of the US L&D market, each individual employee was being given more training hours and a slightly greater proportion of those hours were in the classroom – more than 2/5ths of all training is instructor-led.

I think classroom programmes persist for a couple of reasons.

1. Inertia is keeping instructor-led training alive

One is inertia – we’ve always done it this way.  When talking to my clients, they will often start from the perspective of organising a workshop or a classroom event to resolve a people performance opportunity or issue, rather than considering other activities.

Part of this inertia is caused by the perceived difficulties of the alternatives – eLearning is still considered expensive and lead times are too long.  People are notorious for not reading documents, and the idea of leaving people to figure things out and share what they know fills some with suspicion, if not dread.

Learning on the job is notoriously difficult to measure and monitor – the caveats go on.

It’s much simpler to gather together the organisation’s subject matter experts and have them give their standard presentation than it is to think about the most effective and – in the long-term - less expensive and time consuming ways of delivering similar if not better results.

The other contributor to inertia is that people like it. Many believe that they’ve not been trained unless they’ve visited a hotel conference room and been fed by the company.  The chance to share a hobnob with Albert in Accounts is not one to be missed.

If you need to persuade people, answer their questions, foster discussion and debate as a route to changing people’s attitudes and beliefs, then the classroom event can be a pretty good way of enabling that to happen.

Many conference speakers will tell you at length that the classroom has had its day and we shouldn’t believe that being talked at by someone reading out their powerpoint slides is acceptable in the 21st Century.

Usually they’re telling you this from a stage where they are presenting using PowerPoint slides. Admittedly, they’re hopefully not just using them as a series of massive cue cards. No, they’ve got wacky images on their slides instead, many of them hand-drawn, apparently by a dyspraxic four year old – but the irony remains.

You see the problem is that the presenters love it too. In many ways, L&D is show business for ugly people.

Why would anyone want to give that up? Being the so-called sage on the stage is fun and a teeny weeny bit addictive.

I haven’t talked about how training companies bill by consultant days or that training days are used for budgeting purposes, but you get the idea – there’s plenty of factors contributing to a sense of inertia.

2. Classroom training can be effective

However while some organisations use the classroom indiscriminately and often for the wrong reasons, there is a second reason why the classroom persists.

It works.

I’m not talking about poor presenters with 14 bullet points on a slide boring an audience into compliant torpor. The six-hour lecture interspersed with badly thought through exercises where the trainer tells you the right answers afterwards has never worked and never will.

I’m talking about changing attitudes and enabling people to try new skills and approaches in a supportive environment.

If we get rid of the fallacy that training is exclusively about acquiring new knowledge, then we see that classroom training used well offers much more than death by powerpoint.

I believe that training is about enabling people to do things differently and do different things. To achieve this we need to address any barrier to making that change – knowledge, yes, but also attitudes and skills, culture, belief and preferences.

In some classrooms, at least, good things are happening.

This is where the classroom can still win out.  If you need to persuade people, answer their questions, foster discussion and debate as a route to changing people’s attitudes and beliefs, then the classroom event can be a pretty good way of enabling that to happen.

If you want to create a safe place where people can practice, make mistakes, gain feedback and observe others, then a classroom – with a skilled facilitator guiding the discovery of new skills and latent capability – is a pretty good bet. It’s not the only option, of course, but the practicalities of addressing these issues in other ways are sometimes too tricky to overcome.  

Classroom training: a learning route for the counter-intuitive?

The other thing that a group event can help with is to create a common focus amongst that group. Not everything we would like people to do is simple. Many of the things included in learning interventions are counter-intuitive.

Yes, eventually, working together a few people might come up with similar unexpected and effective ways of working – but allegedly enough chimps with enough typewriters could produce the works of Shakespeare if given enough time.

Most organisations don’t have the time for people to work out what someone else has already discovered.  And if what someone else has discovered is a radical departure from what happens now, then maybe the classroom has a role to play in winning hearts and minds, and presenting people with a route to a counter-intuitive way of doing things.

We won’t harness this opportunity if we think the classroom is just a place for the endless lecture and a brain dump by a time-poor subject matter expert.

But that’s not what’s happening everywhere. In some classrooms, at least, good things are happening.

Maybe, on some occasions, that’s why we still send people on classroom courses.

Want to find out more?

If you want to hear a further discussion on this topic you can view the on-demand version of Learning Now TV’s August programme here.


6 Responses

  1. Good article Robin.
    Good article Robin.

    I’m a big fan of using the right tool at our disposal. As long as classroom training is good and impactful it has a place in learning. We can use technology to improve the experience.

    1. Thanks Blake.
      Thanks Blake.
      We have a responsibility to use the classroom wisely when we think it has the bet chance of success.

  2. While I do believe virtual
    While I do believe virtual learning is going to have a bigger role, one thing I have learned over the years is the importance of “structure” and having the power of institution for young people to buy into. When kids are young (even young adults), their personal responsibility and self motivation is not fully formed. Therefore, they need a place to go to where it sends them a signal that says, “It’s time to learn”. It’s like going to the gym…sure you can workout at home. But when I go to the gym my body and mind are sent a signal, “It’s time to workout”

  3. Great piece Robin, thank you.
    Great piece Robin, thank you. As someone who sometimes dreams of earning their living whilst sitting in their jammies catching up on boxed sets, it’s reassuring to read that classroom still has value. Agree with Ashley that people are more switched on when they enter a different space. For me the question is more about how to harness tech to really help that learning to stick.

    1. Thanks Dawn, couldn’t agree
      Thanks Dawn, couldn’t agree more. How do we harness tech to enhance rather then replace the classroom? I’ve just recorded a video for Learning Now TV on this very subject about engaging learners in learning journeys which involves the classroom. Weirdly, it also includes a reference to box sets!

  4. Thanks Robin! I am a beginner
    Thanks Robin! I am a beginner in the training area. This is a great article which has given me new insight into the classroom learning. For me, there are more interactions with others in classroom learning than E-learning, which is like listening to music at a concert has much more the feeling than at home. Classroom not only provides a place for people to learn skills and knowledge, but also provides an environment where learners can intuitively learn something else such as attitudes, cultures and values from people’s behaviours. From another perspective, appropriate teaching methods and technology may also light up the classroom learning.

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Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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