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Feature: Reality training


John Salt, partner of The Fourth Level, argues that training is unsuccessful when it fails to reflect reality.

Studies have proved it and common-sense screams it: the more realistic that training is – in terms of real context, real use and real solutions – the more likely it is that people will apply the learning once they’ve returned to their real work or lives.
And yet most training fails to reflect reality.

A typical training course format looks like this:
* A trainer explains what will be learnt through this session, using predefined ‘learning objectives’. The trainer might ask the learners how they intend to apply the training to be covered, but it is largely a cursory discussion that will have little impact upon the rest of the session.
* The session starts in earnest with the trainer helping the learners to realise what a “correct” behaviour is, possibly by demonstrating it or perhaps by drawing out such behaviour using questions; and then the trainer has the learners replicate that behaviour.
* When the learners get it right the trainer gives positive reinforcement. The task is repeated until the learners can reproduce the behaviour on demand. Typically there will be a test to prove that this is so.
* The session closes with a final test and/or review of the learning objectives, and each learner fills out a happy sheet. The trainer may consider the job as complete – in blissful ignorance of whether the learners then achieve their desired end-results they or not.

This model, which arose from behaviourist learning theory, fails to reflect reality in a number of ways, not least that it is:
1. Typically decontextualised and ‘chunked’ (broken into parts that tend not to be reflective of the whole), even though people learn in whole experiences – which means that learning tends to ‘stick’ to the context in which it is learnt.
2. Based upon rote learning (memory retention) techniques, which fail to help people prepare for the variety and complexities of real life.
3. Focused upon technical learning objectives that fail to help trainers and/or learners to strive for real-world results.
4. Devoid of ‘follow-ups’ to the training, despite the reality that most training will not lead to success unless it is supported post-training.
5. Devoid of post-training evaluation, again despite the reality that most training fails and it takes concerted effort to raise success rates.

In short there is a disconnect between training content and real life. The challenge and opportunity, then, is to work out how to make training better account for reality.

Why does training tend to ignore reality?
In the 1950s-60s, behaviourism became the learning theory of choice for educationalists and those in the training industry. Today behaviourism’s role in education is challenged, but its grip upon training practice remains tight.
Radical behaviourists such as B F Skinner sought to treat psychology as a ‘true’ science by focusing upon measurable observables, that is, the environment and people’s behaviour within it – hence the term behaviourism. They were opposed to psychoanalysts and the study of ‘mind’, arguing that the lack of statistical evidence meant the concept was irrelevant.

Behaviourists believe that people are “a stimulus-response machine” (John B. Watson, 1919) to whom new learning can be delivered and be re-geared like machinery to achieve a given response if the right programme of positive responses and negative responses are used. As such, whilst training courses are typically interactive, learners are recipients of pre-determined content, with the programming taking the form of repetition and ‘feedback’.

It is this behaviourist view that the mind is irrelevant and that people can be programmed via a system of positive and negative responses, that gave rise to the behaviourist training model summarised in the section above, the use of which is near-obligatory in the training industry and which is supported by the major training qualifications. The learners are treated like a part of a manufacturing process: the training applies learning to them (using the same formula each time) so that they will become changed into the material required.

There is no doubt that many trainers – typically those who use the words “learning facilitation” rather than training – strive to move away from such a mechanised process and better reflect reality in their training. But this is usually a patch-up attempt to improve the flawed model that still underlies their training.

The popularity of behaviourism even helps to explain why, in the training industry, happy sheets are king whilst post-training follow-ups and evaluations are paupers. What matters to the behaviourist is whether the ‘correct’ behaviours have been achieved within the training. There is an assumption that if the learners can demonstrate the behaviours within the training room, then they will apply them to the real world when the right ‘stimulus’ occurs. However studies into the effectiveness of training, ie the extent to which training leads to desired results, rarely put success rates at higher than 25%, and some place it as low as 10%. Clearly the assumption is incorrect.

A learning theory that keeps it real
Constructivism, which became a popular learning theory in the late 20th-century, is now challenging the dominance of behaviourism in education. However, to a great extent, it remains unduly ignored in training.

Constructivists see major flaws with the behaviourist approach to learning theory. They argue that people do not receive knowledge at all – we are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, nor machines that can be reprogrammed – but rather that we each build or construct knowledge for ourselves. For constructivists such as Dewey, Bruner, Piaget and Vygotsky, learning is an active process: when we encounter new information we try to fit it with what we already know. We select and transform the information provided and construct hypotheses (“ah so that’s why…”) and make decisions (“I agree with that, but I don’t agree with the other”). Thus one can facilitate learning, but one cannot deliver it.
This central tenet of constructivism, that we produce knowledge, has given rise to a number of principles as to how learning occurs and how to best support it.

* John Salt will discuss these principles at the Learning Technologies Conference. John will also propose a model for training – Results Orientated Learning Facilitation (ROLF) – that upholds these principles. For more information on the conference, click here


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