The learning curve is really a staircase (with a trap door in it)

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Written by Grant Cullen on 19 September 2017

In my 20 years plus as a trainer, I’m continually frustrated that learners don’t translate learning value into workplace value. Often delegates tell me how much they have enjoyed a training event (even one of mine occasionally!) and how useful the learning was.

A few weeks later it’s all forgotten and nothing of any significance has changed for them. The training has therefore been largely a waste of time. Forbes recently published an article estimating that only 10% of business training actually produces any real value.

The problem becomes clearer if we look at the learning journey from ignorance to mastery in terms of a staircase. Each stair represents a step in learning and relies on the learner completing the previous steps. The bottom three steps are information, concept and knowledge.

Our senses need to be exposed to information first so that our brain can start to organise it coherently into a concept that makes sense. Knowledge is achieved when we can recognise and understand concepts consistently.

The only way to make learning stick is for our brain to make a pattern of it that persists. The pattern making is called neuroplasticity and our brains are excellent at it.

So, learning to tie a shoelace might start with information about shoes, laces and eyelets that we can arrange into the concept of a shoe with laces. Being able to pick out the shoes with laces from a bunch of random shoes will show we know what a shoe with laces is.

The only way to make learning stick is for our brain to make a pattern of it that persists. The pattern making is called neuroplasticity and our brains are excellent at it. Unfortunately, our brains are also very efficient and will only keep the patterns that we use. ‘Use it or lose it’ is definitely a brain thing.

The next three steps in the staircase are application, practice and feedback. We need to find an application for our knowledge that we can practise over and over to get our brain to start hard-wiring the learning pattern. Feedback tells us if we’re doing it right.

Too often in business training, the trap door opens between knowledge and application. The learner leaves the training knowing what to do but the opportunity to apply their knowledge doesn’t happen. Their brain doesn’t hard-wire the learning and the pattern disappears.

They fall through the trap door. This is called forgetting.

By applying knowledge, the learner can complete the staircase. So, with practice and feedback, knowledge can turn into skill which, with further practice and feedback, can turn into mastery.

In organisations, most learners need management support to get up the staircase to mastery and avoid the trap door. This is part of a three-way learning partnership involving learner, trainer and learner’s manager. The learner commits to the learning and focuses on specific learning outcomes they want.

The trainer facilitates the learning by providing clear and engaging learning experiences. The manager creates opportunities for the learner to apply their learning in the workplace and provides feedback, say through coaching, on progress the learner is making.

Unfortunately, management lets the learning partnership down too often by not getting actively involved in the learner’s journey. I was recently involved in a transformation programme for a manufacturing company which involved uplifting management capability.

The senior divisional leaders were nowhere to be seen and left their middle managers struggling to apply the management principles we had trained them in. After nine months, the whole transformation was left hanging by a thread.

Contrast that with another programme I delivered to develop a coaching culture at a specialist chemical company. From day one, the chief executive was front and centre of the programme. He attended every training session and took full responsibility to drive through the learning. The commitment to the programme by the whole management team was 100%.

I find most people like learning stuff. Apart from making them better at their jobs it gives a sense of achievement and builds self-esteem and self-worth. Also, we’ve probably all seen Dan Pink’s video citing mastery as a key motivator (along with purpose and autonomy).

I believe our responsibility as trainers is to do our best to get managers of learners playing their part in the learning partnership. I routinely insist on speaking with learners’ managers to challenge them to support their people proactively.

By creating opportunity for their people to apply and practise their learning within a feedback framework they will get more capable, more productive and more motivated team members who can actually make their management lives just that bit easier.


About the author

Grant Cullen is a consultant with CAKE People Development.

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