Learning in Life

We have this hugely successful open program called the Big Ticket to High Performing Teams. Trainers from all sectors use the instructional design (ID) techniques imparted to construct interventions in technical, process, sales and behavioural training.
We encourage our participants not to take themselves too seriously despite the pompous sounding title of the program. The very first session asks folks to reflect on their most significant learning event ever and share it with the class. As they talk we write it down on a flip chart. Then we ask them to see any common threads. “Look deep because in the flipchart/ mirror is framed a painful truth.” Slowly everyone gets it but no one says anything; they look around sheepishly waiting for somebody else to utter the uncomfortable reality.
It never fails. We’ve done 125 plus Big Ticket programs with an average 15 participants (you do the math) and only once have i had a trainer participant cite their most significant learning being derived from a classroom event. It’s a painful but unarguable truth. All of the rest learn best from real life. 
“That means our classroom based training programs are a waste of time?” Someone will finally ask the question uppermost in every mind. Few of them who’ve just moved from an opertional or sales role into the function begin rueing their luck at having agreed to the HR guy’s spiel citing a great career in training. A discussion will start.

Let’s leave the Big Ticket participants to get on with their class while we of the real world ponder the same question. Is training really a waste of time? To answer that let me invoke the expansion of the acronym ID. It Depends. And it depends on one thing alone – how close to reality your sessions get; the methodologies have nothing to do with it. Suffice it to say that the most successful trainers are able to get a slice of life into the cake they bake in their classroom ovens. With that slice of life in it the cake looks good, certainly worth having. But can you eat it too? 

Not yet. Knowledge seeps from your head into your heart, then flows into your feet and only when you walk the knowledge does it become learning. Even the best of trainers can only help you get real world insight but to internalize it you have to practice it back in the real world. The limits of classroom training are revealed starkly when we try to evaluate its impact (an act that is surprisingly a rarity in itself). A handfull of participants actually change behaviours as a result of training, fewer still impact the organization. Interventions that include projects and coaching apart from classrrom sessions have shown better results but here too actual life and its competing priorities wreak havoc with the structure of the intervention. In the flux of the scorching growth in Eastern economies, no one has time for learning.
Isn’t that a great paradox? For it is the very same eastern philosophies which condemn us to being born again and again till we obtain enlightenment. Their contention is that the real and only purpose of life is to learn!
The only way to resolve this paradox, I believe, is to have all of life declared a learning process. Officially. The game changes. No nitpicking on what’s more important – learning becomes the paradigm in which you choose between priorities. As critical as the declaration is the need to create technologies to learn better from life experiences. We discovered a while earlier that our most significant learning events are based in life experiences. But is there a method to that learning or is it just serendipity? All the research in instructional technology today is skewed towards making the classroom a better learning space. I haven’t heard of too much work in the area of helping people to learn from real life. I’ve yet to come across processes that transform your entire world into a learning space and every experience into a potential development tool.
Meanwhile the situation back at the Big Ticket program is potentially developing into a riot. Remember we warned them not to take themselves too seriously. Well it seems they decided not to heed our warning! A heated debate has been raging sparked by the incendiary question “Is classroom training a waste of time?” Ambitions are burnt, dreams go up in smoke and reputations are being razed to the ground ( mainly ours). The new converts from operations and sales are the ones making the most telling points aginst the profession they’ve just entered.
“Hey, break it up”, I intervene before any blood is let. “When I said don’t take yourselves too seriously I didn’t mean that we make laughing stocks of each other. This debate between the world and the classroom is a waste of time. Isn’t the classroom a part of the world? Is it the walls that hassle us? Your office, your home, the factory shopfloor, they have four walls too. But we don’t think of them as apartfrom the real world? So what’s it about a classroom that sets it apart?”
Complete silence!
“It’s because we’ve positioned training to the participants as time away from real life. What if we were to declare all of life as a training program? Call everybody Learners for Life and the whole world a classroom. Won’t it change the way participants percieve clasroom training?”
Silence. And then a voice pipes up from the back, “It depends.”
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