Is learning more than a classroom affair?

Barry Johnson explores how best to support learners at work.


Most readers of this article are professional trainers. You know the subject matter and skill areas required of your trainees. You will design the training, for a target population, to meet the business learning requirements using appropriate training methodologies.
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You will have favourite approaches that you have found successful. When you have completed your off-the-job training, the learners having met their learning objectives return to the workplace.
It is at this point the real learning begins in the reality of the hurly burly, time pressured environment of the practical situations faced by your learners. Or perhaps not. Perhaps some just return to the way they did things before. In reality all learning rests with the learner. 
Our experience is that most people want to learn but that many do not have a clear view of how to do that. All their education has been predicated on somebody with some expertise telling them things supported by exercises and reading that they are supposed to remember and they can become very good at that.
Most job descriptions of responsibilities include some phrasing indicating it is the manager’s responsibility to ensure the training and development of the employees in their care. They send their employees to you to do that job.
Some managers want you to do the training quickly, ‘a just tell them’ approach that indicates they have little understanding of the requirements of learning but things are changing.
In today’s global economy, organisations can sell in the same markets through modern communications, and design cycles are such that product differentiation has shrunk. It is building and maintaining a more capable and better trained workforce that offers the most sustainable advantage available to most organisations.
The market talk is about talent and leadership with a multiple of understandings and meanings. The skills of human capital are now the key differential between organisations in competition and leads to organisational success and that success is best exploited when the employees from the chairman to little Fred have the learning bug.
The question is what have you done to help the participants on your learning events to make the transition to the work place and who will, or perhaps should, help the learners continue their learning on the job? Have you, as professionals, supported the managers, team leaders and supervisors to pick up where you have left off? If you have, how have you done that?
Many years ago one of the writers of this article underwent some training by Dr Silvia Downs. Undoubtedly you have met 70:20:10 and some TJ readers may have the impression that it is something new. It is amazing how freshly packaged old concepts makes ideas seem new with a catchy title. One of the projects Silvia was working on was the degeneration of the learning after a learning event.
That must have been forty years ago. When the writer was trained as an instructor in the Royal Navy in 1968 it was hammered into to us that the off-the-job training was just a start point. The foundation for us was to get out there and learn and for our trainees to learn. The 70 per cent was what they were aiming at and I think we all caught the learning bug.
Around 344 BC Aristotle captured this when he said, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do.” 
Plato too had the learning bug when he said, “I would fain grow old learning many things.” The 70:20:10 theory is not new – as true professionals it is what we enable.
So how do we enable this learning culture through our intervention helping people learn in a subject and skill area?
On-the-job learning is not a short cut, or a cost cutting method, but a different vehicle for developing people and their skills. It takes place in the workplace but is not instructor based. It is individually focused and ideally it follows training or other directed learning interventions that have occurred on or off the job.
It can be used post any instruction such as training, coaching or distance information presentation, to reinforce and confirm the learning. When done well it provides the process, task and the context, and the learning achieved is often more powerful than other approaches.
Learning is always learner centred. It is not about telling the learners things or directing them to practice things. It is about listening to them and asking them questions so they can think through situations, make decisions, remember things and try things.
The answers are their answers and are never wrong. The learner needs to test them, to confirm them or change them. For managers, project and team leaders, and supervisors helping people learn is now a crucial business skill set. It is not like school where the teacher was in control. The learner is in control and we will explain that below. Here are some reminders about learning that can make a difference. 
The terms ‘training’, ‘development’ and ‘learning’ may be broadly characterised as follows:
  • Training is an instructor-led, content-based intervention designed to lead to skills or behavioural change within a job context
  • Development implies a longer-term or broader process of personal growth acquiring skills, concepts or knowledge by a range of different means as is appropriate 
  • Learning is a self-directed, work- or persona- based process that leads to increased adaptive potential.
  • The words education, training, coaching, development, counselling and learning have undergone a revolution over the past ten years and each word used now has multiple meanings. There has been a change of emphasis during recent years from a limited perception of formal training to a broader concept of learning and development: the role of the person development professional is now learner-centred rather than instructor-centred.
The learning environment
The change in the traditional trainer-led learning environment is crucial to business and brings with it a greater role for line managers, project and team leaders, and supervisors in the support of the learner.
This shift implies a different set of behaviours by managers, team and project leaders, and supervisors that may crudely, and we hope non-offensively, be summed up after as treat learners as fully functioning intelligent adults.
The learners are subject to this new situation. They have been to school where teachers taught them, been in training where instructors instructed them, with luck been coached and undoubtable been talked at and talked through doing a job and expected to learn from that telling.
Those of us in L&D love learning. We read stuff, we listen to stuff, we test that stuff, we make decisions and from those decisions do things and have a foundation for our next step in learning. We are learners so we do what is necessary to learn what we want or need to learn. Our job is to encourage that in others, the leaders of the employees and the employees we have trained.
The issue is that unless the initial learning from training is put into practice it will degrade. Revision will put it back but again but without usage it will again degrade. It is therefore essential that learning is put into practice. It can’t be stored for future use. Skill decay is a major problem for companies.
Depending on the complexity of the subject matter and the depth of initial learning, without follow-up the trainees can lose over 90 per cent of what they learnt off-the-job in a relatively short time.
Technology-based training can be highly successful, but without active learner support both during and post the distance learning programme it is a waste of both time and money.
Principles of self learning
Below are a set of statements that indicate the principles that aid a learner to learn. All are in the direct interest of the learner. Some are a requirement of those interested in enabling the learner to learn – there are no added descriptions or guidelines to those statements. Learners and those with the interest in the learners learning will read them, interpret them and act on their interpretation.   
  1. The responsibility for learning lies with the learner.
  2. Learners must have clear objectives and a sense of progress towards their objectives.
  3. Learner’s motivation determines, directs and sustains what they do to learn.
  4. Learners require an appropriate level of support to achieve learning.
  5. Learner’s efforts determine the learner’s achievement.
  6. Learners learn best when they are physically, mentally and emotionally ready to learn.
  7. Learners require time for reflection for the learning to be processed and assimilated.
  8. Learners learn best and retain information, skills and behaviours longer when they have meaningful practice and repetition.
  9. Learners must monitor and adjust their approaches to learning to be successful.
  10. Learners must acquire component skills, practice integrating them and know when to apply what they have learnt.
Ownership is key to success – the responsibility for learning lies with the learner. The learner has moved on from being instructed to personal ownership.
Manager’s role
You as a professional may need to sell the idea to the manager, team leaders and supervisors that they need to help the learners; so what do they need to do to help the people in their care to learn?
When people return from off-the-job training, you as a manager, project or team leader or supervisor will:
  • Ask them what they learnt and what they are going to do to practice it. Create the situations for them that they want. They are in control of their learning as adults.
  • Encourage people to try out the ideas, express problems and compare situations they know about. It is up to the learners what they will do, encourage them to try to do it
  • Encourage them to talk to as many others as possible such as previous job holders and workmates. Have them explain to their workmates the things to help their learning and that may help their colleagues. People learn by sharing. 
  • Have them seek colleagues’ viewpoints. Viewpoints are valuable in developing understanding.
  • Demonstrate that learning is non-competitive and never make comparisons between people.
  • Help the learners achieve performance standards rather than beat other people.
  • Answer their questions with ‘what do you think’ and then build on what they say using more questions. You are using their understanding and they learn to think for themselves.
  • Seek out problems the learner is having. What is stopping or blocking their learning and get them to find solutions. 
  • Get them to explain things to you. That is what embeds their learning. 
  • If something is new to you get them to teach you. You both will learn from that.
  • Observe the learner. Give them feedback on what they have done well by being specific about the behaviours they used. Never, but never be negative. People learn from success.
  • Arrange for the learner to work with a skilled person who has different, but related skills.
  • Ask the learner to:
  • Compare and contrast the new ideas with their previous experience
  • think what the cause of something may be
  • think of things that could go wrong
  • think of the result if part of a procedure was omitted
  • think of the result of something not being done.
  • Check that any technical words, jargon or abbreviations are understood.
  • Use mistakes as a learning opportunity.
Helping a learner is all about ask never about tell. Not easy in the culture of most organisations and the beliefs of many managers, and supervisors but is the major tool of a leader. Learning is a major key to organisational success. 
About the author 
Barry Johnson is the non-executive director of Learning Partners Ltd. He holds a degree in psychology and management, is Chartered MIPD and MCMI and can be contacted at barryj@learn


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