Learning is complicated

This tweet from Don captures something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.

There is a lot of stuff being written about learning solution design, effective training models, top tips for learning, micro-learning and variations of these. It’s all good information for learning professionals who want to understand how learning solutions are being designed, and the variety of methods people can use to deliver those solutions.

My concern in these is that we’re desperately trying to reduce the learning process down to simple, bite size chunks of information. And, as Don says above, humans are complicated. The process of learning is complicated and more often than not, we in L&D try and dumb down our audiences.

What do I mean? I mean what we do is we take really helpful and insightful models and theories and whittle them down to understandable chunks of information for the masses.

The thing is, as humans, and as social beings, we can’t help but learn pretty much every moment of every day. Humans excel at taking in information and doing something useful and productive with it. We think at speed and act at speed.

The workplace is a fast moving place. Products are being developed, processes are being refined, skills and knowledge are being honed, all in the pursuit that we can have efficient and profitable organisations. That’s not always the outcome, but it’s nearly always the intention.

When Nick-Shackleton Jones says we should focus on ‘resources not courses’ he’s onto the crux of what learning is about in the workplace. People don’t have time to ‘learn’ at work. Not in the way the human learning process takes place. The learning process takes time, commitment to learning and development of thinking. As much as we might rail against the education system, what it understands well is that people need to be immersed in a subject in order to learn it and become knowledgeable in it. Expertise develops when you go beyond that initial process and focus intently on your subject matter. That’s what learning looks like.

On a side note, it’s also what grates me about modern political commentary by the ‘what do experts know brigade’. We have such open access to information and knowledge that we can know about most things within minutes. That’s just a cursory level of knowing though. The learning only happens when we take the time to understand the nuances of various subjects, the implications of certain choices, and the research into what can and can’t work. That’s how we learn. The biggest downfall of open access to information and knowledge is that people aren’t given the skills to know how to explore a topic further, relying almost exclusively on short articles and the likes.

Back to the ‘resources not courses’ mentality – what this drives is that we help people at work perform – because that’s what they’re paid to do. Building in learning into that process is obviously an element of how that happens, and that’s where the role of L&D if fundamentally changing.

Learning is a process and combination of exposure to content, awareness of self, reflection, hypothesis making and testing, research and evidence gathering, action and challenge. If you think about your typical training course – be it digital or in-person, that’s not what we help people with. I’m not bashing training courses. They play an important role in the learning process. They’re just largely inefficient because that’s not how people actually learn.

My call to action for L&D practitioners is to better consider how we describe the work we do, and not over-inflating nor over-conflating what we do. Humans are complicated. Psychologists, economists, philosophers and essentially anyone interested in the human condition are still trying to better understand what it means to be human. We know a lot about the human condition and accordingly about the human learning process. What we’re also learning is that there are a number of models and theories we need to know about in order to support the learning process. It’s a fallacy to think one model or theory has any more prevalence than another.

When it comes to workplace learning we need to bear in mind that we’re only ever concerned with an aspect of human learning. This is no reflection on how skilled a trainer, facilitator or learning solution designer you might be. This is an acknowledgement that all we’re really doing in the workplace is enabling people to perform better.


Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

One thought on “Learning is complicated”

  1. Really good post, something that I have been churning away in my brain too. Currently on a path at the moment to develop leadership capability and ‘turn people around’ to be the leaders we need in our business. There has been lost of chatter about making it ‘simpler’ sure I can make the information simple, or finding the information more straight forward….

    I think L&D practitioners (whatever the speciality) can go a long way to create the conditions for change or learning, but you can’t force someone to learn anything…. they have to want it, no training course creates any real or lasting change… that’s what I think anyway ..

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