I have been reading two excellent books recently, John Medina’s
Brain Rules and Dan Coyle’s The Talent Code (see other Personal Transformation Books) , both deal with how our brain works, and there are interesting things they tell us about learning skills that we can apply to how we structure and run blended learning programs.
I have mentioned before David Maister’s article Why (Most) Training Is Useless in the context of saying that behaviour is what we should be aiming to change, and measure, not simple skill identification. The point was that it is not good saying I want to train your consulting skills if I don’t know what behaviour indicates that you are have learnt and are applying them. Maister also wants incentives made to match those behaviours, based on seeing his training undermined by the structure of the organisation’s incentives.
Coyle breaks down two ways we can affect skills development, ignition, which is a combination of incentives/encouragement/vision and deep practice, which is the focused practicing of technique at the edge of our ability, with the aim of achieving perfection in the small components of a skill, and then building into perfection in the larger components. Maister’s complaint about incentives not matching behaviours is talking to the ignition side of skill development.
Medina’s book is interesting because it gives us lots of clues about how memory relates to instructional methods, with the main points being that repetition is important, but so is learning in the context in which we want to be able to remember what we learn. In this sense it relates well to Coyle’s idea of deep practice.
This last point is the one I want to focus on. If Medina is correct when he says that we recall things more easily when in the physical/emotional context we learned them in, then most teaching is done in the wrong context!
This suggests that eLearning is best used when the skills being taught are to be expressed online, with use of much the same tools that the learning occurred on. It is one reason learner drivers are encouraged to use their own cars when learning and when going to do their driver’s test.
Classroom learning may suit well skills that need to be exhibited in front of other people, in social or meeting situations, where the ability to perform before your peers may be required (it may also help people perform better in classrooms - any professional students listening?). Even then the layout of the room may benefit from being closer to their likely environment. When Anthony Milner and I did the excellent NIDA Corporate Performance Course the format was that of a class, but the frequent practice sessions were done in front of the group with us facing them as a very real audience, an experience that made it easier to recall the skills learnt when actually presenting in front of audiences later.
One on one mentoring may be the best approach when the skill must be exhibited in the context of a personal relationship, and even then it is best done in the workplace. This is how we handle important parts of facilitator training in the Careforce Lifekeys’ courses – the small group facilitator is given the opportunity to practice their skills in the context of a one on one conversation with a trainer playing the role of a small group member.
There is one caveat to this, both Medina and Coyle point out that the ability to comprehend the big picture is a vital component of skill competency – one of the factors that differentiates experts form beginners in a particular field is that the experts have a mental abstraction that allows them to deal with the complexities of the problem domain more easily. Getting that big picture view across need not necessarily take place in the environment the skill is exercised in – in fact it may benefit from the distance provided by being away from that environment.