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Where lies the boundary between training and learning?


TrainingZONE has recently been stimulating debate about the nature and location of training's boundaries. In this article, Robert Gervais offers a thoughtful response based on his Canadian experience of both business and training.

Several weeks ago TrainingZONE asked, in an editorial, where the boundaries might be traced between training and learning. That is an important question, no doubt. However, if you will allow me to deviate slightly from that course, I would propose that there needs to be a shift in our collective focus if we are to truly succeed in this training/learning endeavour. (So as to perhaps understand my bias on this matter, I am not a 'professional educator' by training i.e. not a graduate of any institution which provided professionals to the education stream of the economy. I am, however, an instructor who directs learning programs at a Community College in Montreal with an emphasis on Business related subjects and a consultant on Performance Improvement Methods. I am also a semi-retired business executive, having spent the last twenty odd years as a VP and/or GM in one of several major Canadian and
International companies. )

There is no shortage of programs, courses, seminars or symposia about various skills, abilities or basic entry level knowledge into new markets or subjects. For any person who has even a minimal desire to learn a new skill or ability or who may simply wish to learn something new about something, driven only by our blessed human curiosity, there is something, somewhere.

But, many people walk away from those educational/learning experiences with a feeling of dissatisfaction, of incompleteness, of lack of a sense of achievement, often abandoning the undertaking part way through. The blame is ascribed to a variety of elements: poor course construction, insufficient effort on the learner's part, no serious commitment from the student/learner, over the head of the student . . .the list could go on. In my experience, the most appropriate question is often missed . . .simply because it does not occur to us.

Walk down this road with me a little. Suppose that you and I and a few colleagues were to rent a motor home to make a foray into the highlands for a fortnight. Being good planners, (and perhaps former Boy/Girl Scouts, we would want to be prepared), one of the useful bits of knowledge to have would be "How to change a Tire/tyre", particularly an inside dual. There are at least four clear options to acquire this skill: (1) Watch someone demonstrate the task and then try it oneself; (2) simply collect the appropriate tool kit and sort of bull one's way through it' until the tyre has been changed; (3) read the manual that comes with the motor home; (4) watch a video prepared by the tyre manufacturer. My guess is that, given a group of seven or more, someone would pick each of the methods. Why? Because we intuitively know, without ever asking ourselves formally, HOW WE LEARN BEST.

Most of the training/learning 'courses' are content-defined and time constrained; very little thought, if any, is put into the front end to ask HOW the LEARNER would MOST prefer to have the knowledge presented in order to MAXIMIZE his/her ability to capture the needed/wanted information. This was emphasized recently on your site when someone, commenting on the lack of success of a program stated : ". . .a failure in learning what they have been taught." Au contraire.There is no dichotomy here. We NEVER learn what we are taught. We only ever learn what we LEARN.

Malcom Knowles, the author of "The Modern Practise of Adult Education" , among other texts, and who is rather widely held to be the father of Adult Education , at least in North America, suggests that learning is a self-directed activity. My experience in business, and a couple of course in Androgogy, lead me to agree completely.

I believe that one of the difficulties is a natural, mind-set issue. If I was asked to prepare a course, seminar etc., there is a strong likelihood that I would prepare the material for presentation according to a learning method with which I was comfortable. But, if my hypothesis is in any way relevant, there is a good chance that I would fail to address the needs of over 50% of the target audience because the method I selected may not represent their preferred learning style.

What might one conclude from this short exposé? First , that there is no lack of talent and ability in the field of course or seminar design. That, however is a subjective "supplier" view. What is needed is an objective "buyer" view. In this case, the market question might be HOW DOES THE BUYER WANT TO EXPERIENCE OR ACQUIRE THIS KNOWLEDGE as opposed to What knowledge does the buyer want to acquire?

And, by the by, I practise what I preach in the classrooms. The participants in all of my classes fill out a simple form which allows both them and me to better understand how they, as individuals, learns best. If they get into difficulty with a concept or a topic, I can then seek to find a knowledge acquisition method which complements their individual preference. Often the student with the difficulty will feel comfortable enough to ask me to explain the matter to him/her in another way. I have, on occasion, redesigned parts of a course when I found that a majority of a class demonstrated a learning style preference which my methodology did not complement well.

I trust that I have at least provided some food for thought. Some scholar may even find in here the embryo of a topic worthy of a Masters or Doctoral undertaking. Personally, I am convinced enough of the true utility of this concept that it forms a key component of a book that I am preparing for first time managers.

Robert Gervais
DWB Solutions
Greenfield Park, QC

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