Out of the Woods!

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Why debate the effectiveness of different learning formats when all the reliable gains arise from improved efficiency?

Earlier today, someone I respect immensely reached out via LinkedIn mail to make the following comment about one of my LinkedIn Posts:

'Ironically, the reality is that ultimately we all learn in a blend that is so situational.... and yet learning format advocates fall in love with their choice and look for "evidence" to promote it. 🙁 ‘
Elliott Masie
Elliott Masie
CEO at MASIE Productions

The irony was not lost on me. Learning professionals have spent too much of the last 30 years arguing fiercely about which method of learning is most effective!  

Sadly, there is little validated peer-reviewed research to prove that any one method of learning is significantly more effective than another! Run a search for yourself on the DETA database and you will see what I mean!  

Carrying out studies into relative effectiveness is really hard due to situational variations. Over many decades, the results of these studies indicate changing the medium of learning makes ‘no significant difference’ in terms of effectiveness. This leaves lots of scope for argument, but little scope for progress! 

A little earlier today I received the following comment on the same LinkedIn post  from another figure whom I also greatly respect:


'Plato said we learn by doing; that is the only way we learn; if you want to build training have people do what you want them to do; throw them in the water and make them swim; when they start drowning, pull them out, hint to them what they did wrong and throw them in again.'
Roger Schank
Founder and CEO at Socratic Arts

That great comment essentially inspired me to write this blog post.

No-one  would ever dispute that ‘learning by doing is a very effective learning strategy, ideally with a personal tutor to guide you, keep you safe. 

The key challenge lies in offering ‘learning by doing’ at scale in a way that is economically competitive with other formats. Setting up the necessary supervision takes time and money, more resources are wasted due to errors, there is inevitably some risk. The list of issues goes on.  

Virtual Reality learning may well have a part to play in relation to restoring a degree of competitiveness to ‘learning by doing’. However this is because simulating learning related assets, tools and environments improves efficiency and economy, not because the medium is inherently more effective than doing the real task in the real world.

In organisations, as in wider society, learning effectiveness is very rarely the sole consideration.  Whilst it it is hard to prove that one learning format is significantly more effective than another – it is really easy to show that one format is much more efficient than another! This is where ‘learning by doing’ has traditionally struggled to compete.

The sweet-spot we are all seeking sits at a point-of-tension between learning efficiency and learning effectiveness. A place where the solution is effective and at the same time efficient enough to be economic and agile!

So why do does everyone obsess about learning effectiveness and talk so little about learning efficiency?

Into the woods!

Before formal learning developed all learning experiences were probably accidental and they involved ‘learning by doing’ at the pace of daily life.  A situation that  Plato and Roger Shank would  heartily approve of!

Children got randomly lost in the woods and found that nettles sting the hard way. If they were lucky nothing worse occurred and they found their way home, having learned valuable lessons in local geography and botany. This was no doubt highly effective as a learning experience, but really inefficient and quite dangerous.

There are clear evolutionary benefits from recycling and sharing other people’s learning experiences. Anecdotes, old wives tales, folk and fairy tales were arguably designed to keep wayward children out of the woods or make them a little wiser if all else failed.  More members of the next generation no doubt survived to adulthood as a result!

Modern education was built on the notion of learning acceleration. In other words, artificially accelerating the slow, unpredictable pace of individual learner experience. Rather than leaving things to chance, we design and assemble structured learner experiences, forming a constructive gradient that the learner can climb. We pack the learner experiences tightly into our accelerators, compressing them so that attitudes, knowledge and skills can be acquired in hours days, weeks or months rather than by chance over years or decades.

However, when learning became ‘an industry’ in the 20th Century, different commercial factions soon developed, each with investments in their own pet learning technology, format or medium. They were desperate to show that, irrespective of whatever concrete benefits their solution had to offer – theirs was more effective than one or more competitors. A long and sterile debate began!

The No Significant Difference database was first established in 2004 as a companion piece to Thomas L. Russell’s book, ‘The No Significant Difference Phenomenon’ (2001, IDECC, fifth edition). This was a fully indexed, comprehensive research bibliography of 355 research reports, summaries and papers that document no significant differences (NSD) in student outcomes between alternate modes of education delivery. The position on this has not changed markedly in the last 16 years!

Out of the woods!

Organisations have spent much of the last couple of decades stripping out the cost and inefficiencies previously associated with travelling to face-to-face courses. Remote, self-paced forms of digital learning are now the default choice of learning accelerator for many distributed organisations. A job well done!

However, we have now soaked up those efficiencies – so where next?  Where and how will the next step-change in learning acceleration occur?

In a quest for increasing business agility employers find themselves driven to seek, adopt and implement innovative new forms of learning accelerator.

This is arguably where reliable future gains lie – not in squabbling over debatable gains in relative effectiveness but in seizing new efficiencies in learning acceleration.

We are all cooking up solutions but we are not out of the woods yet. I will highlight some of the most promising learning acceleration solutions in the coming weeks!

Bushcraft ID 163926338 © Kyle LaPointe | Dreamstime.com

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