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Where lies the boundary between training and learning? – continued

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This response by Jon Kendall continues the earlier TrainingZONE discussion led by Robert Gervais article on this issue.


I have another response to "where would you place the boundaries of training and learning?"

Whilst I agree with your vision of inclusive learning and the emergence of a "learning spirit" I am of the opinion that:

  • a boundary has been inserted between training and learning
  • this boundary leads away from, rather than towards, a vision of inclusive learning
  • the collective mindsets and action stances of the training and development industry (i.e. us) have catalysed the creation, insertion and reinforcement of this boundary

William Hartston wrote the following in the chess column of You magazine 25 April 1993:

"All human skills may be divided into three categories: Putting Things in Boxes, Filleting Fish, and Thinking. Any task that demands the precise fulfilment of clear instructions, whether it is typing, house building or memorising all the answers to trivial pursuit is basically Putting Things in Boxes. Filleting Fish covers jobs that involve the application of a practised routine that still leaves some room for personal expression. Like brain surgery or playing the piano for example. Thinking, however, is something else entirely. When you have to decide both what to do and how to do it, and past experience provides no reliable guidelines, then and only then may actual Thinking be necessary.

In chess all three categories come into play. Learning theory and making recaptures is (in this case literally) Putting Things in Boxes. Calculating forced variations and applying known strategies is no more than Filleting Fish. But getting ideas and seeing how to make them work may involve Thinking. Chess has now been studied for so long that in many games you hardly need to Think at all. Known theory takes you into the middlegame with a clear plan to see you through to the end. The precision and technique of a good fish filleter are all that is required.

Kasparov, however, is very good at Thinking. And when he thinks, his opponents are forced to do the same. Most of them collapse under the strain."

These are my thoughts, prejudices, questions and conclusions:

  1. Most trainspotters know that the number of possible moves in chess exceeds the number of atoms in the universe. So, as a model of complexity and range of possibility, the above applies equally to the world of business and the capabilities needed to operate successfully in this world. One quibble, Hartston suggests that particular occupations are suited to each category, I would contend that all jobs comprise a particular cocktail of Putting things in Boxes, Filleting Fish and Thinking. At the operational end of the drinks menu the glass will be mostly Putting Things in Boxes whilst at the strategic end we hope there will be more Thinking.

  2. In my little universe, moving towards a vision of inclusive learning and fostering a learning spirit means more Thinking is required. This is bizarre, however, because the essence of human talent is Thinking. Most of the significant learning in our lives - mastering basic movements, joining groups, forming relationships, driving a car, becoming a parent, taking on a new job, juggling three balls - thrusts us into a Thinking encounter: we don't know what to do, how to do it and past experience is of limited help. As time passes and experience accumulates the intensity of the challenge decreases, we become accomplished and start Filleting Fish. With more time and practice the task becomes as easy as Putting Things in Boxes. Think of learning to drive: initially it seems there is too much to do at once, like walking and chewing gum; after a few years the driving part becomes second nature leaving us free to eat sandwiches, smoke a few tabs, phone a friend, read a map etc. In summary, the basic human talent is the ability to search for challenges and to respond to them in the sequence: Thinking to Filleting Fish and then to Putting Things in Boxes.

  3. For highly laudable reasons (efficiency, cost effectiveness, economy of time, focus, budget justification) training and development custom and practice is somewhat at odds with the above. Typically the strategy is to strip out complexity and challenge from situations - turning a Thinking opportunity into Putting Things in Boxes. Development interventions, in the main, are geared towards taking action - the boxes to fill, and how to fill them. The risks and challenges in these situations are constrained, especially for the trainer. How many times have I heard myself urging the punters to "think outside the box" while I lounge on my comfort blanket of structure and knowing all the answers? This is not limited to training courses. In spite of the espoused aims, large scale interventions like BPR or TQM, even knowledge management, are geared in practice to Putting Things in Boxes rather than to Thinking. Could this be, in any way, related to their lack of sustained impact? Management literature is overwhelmingly biased towards hints, tips and techniques and away from risk and uncertainty.

Summarising, reiterating or whatever;
We are natural learners, the practice of training and development systematically discounts this talent and this is the source of the gap between training and learning. It is of our own making, it is up to us to do something about it - I don't mean some vast rubber band where we suddenly start removing all structure from programmes but I think there is more room for challenge and uncertainty than we typically allow. If we were there to learn that might be a start.

And in conclusion: an extract from a story "On the art of management"…

Horses have hooves to carry them over frost and snow, and hair to protect them from wind and cold. They feed on grass and drink water, and fling up their tails and gallop. Such is the real nature of horses. They have no use for ceremonial halls and big dwellings.

One day Polo (famous horse trainer) appeared, saying, "I am good at managing horses." So he burned their hair and clipped them, and pared their hooves and branded them. He put halters round their necks and shackles around their legs and numbered them according to their stables. The result was that two or three in every ten died. Then he kept them hungry and thirsty, trotting them and galloping them, and taught them to run in formation, with the misery of the tasseled bridle in front of them and the fear of the knotted whip behind, until more than half of them died.

The potter says, "I am good at managing clay. If I want it round, I use compasses; if rectangular, a square." The carpenter says, "I am good at managing wood. If I want it curved, I use an arc; if straight, a line." But on what grounds can we think that the nature of clay and wood desire this application of compasses and square, and arc and line? Nevertheless, every age extols Polo for his skill in training horses, and potters and carpenters for their skill with clay and wood. Those who manage (govern) the affairs of the empire make the same mistake.

I think one who knows how to govern the empire should not do so. For the people have certain natural instincts - to weave and clothe themselves, to till the fields and feed themselves. This is their common character, in which all share. Such instincts may be called "Heaven-born." So in the days of perfect nature, men were quiet in their movements and serene in their looks. At the time there were no paths over mountains, no boats or bridges over water. All things were produced, each in its natural district. Birds and bees multiplied; trees and shrubs survived. Thus it was that birds and beasts could be led by the hand, and one could climb up and peep into the magpies nest. For in the days of perfect nature, man lived together with birds and beasts, and there was no distinction of kind. Who could know of the distinctions between gentlemen and common people? Being all equally without knowledge, their character could not go astray. Being all equally without desires, they were in a state of natural integrity. In this state of natural integrity, the people did not lose their (original) nature.


Jon Kendall
[email protected]

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