Models, theories and modern learning design

Models and theories are the traditional backbone of L&D. They’ve very much been our go to points for designing solutions, and offering solutions to clients. Most internal people trained through traditional methods will have learned a complete range of models and theories to help them make sense of the human condition and to help them deliver training. Most train the trainer type training, facilitation skills type training, and e-learning design and development revolve around designing against a model or theory.

It’s just the way we were taught how to do things. I think back on all the many different models and theories I’ve had to learn about in my years as an L&D and OD leader and there have been a lot.

And, as Ross Garner said in a recent podcast, no models are perfect representations of the world – even a map is flawed.

Which is probably the one key insight I was never really taught to appreciate in my early days.

And from what I’ve experienced over the years, it’s never really something we’ve been given permission to challenge or understand in other ways.

So, I’ve been adapting my practice to be something less lead by models and theories, and more lead by learning needs and outcomes.

See, what I’ve learned is that models and theories have a place in creating insight into the human condition – but only if you become a practitioner in that world. If not, then why learn about such things at a cursory level? Because that’s the problem most L&D professionals face. We don’t know the depth needed for most models and theories for them to be truly of value to the people we’re meant to be working with. Instead, we’ve just presented a 2×2 grid, or a series of concentric circles, or venn diagrams, or listicles, and using those as premises for where the discussion goes next.


And this is important.

What we know about modern learning means that most of those models and theories are suddenly irrelevant.

Don’t go defending everything you know about the world just yet.

Here’s what we do know about modern learning:

  • because of the ease of technology, and the rapid creation capability of technology, we can create consumable content in minutes as opposed to weeks
  • people really value face to face time when it comes to learning together
  • digital UX means most e-learning is awful to use
  • most people at work want a resource or content to help them do something now, not learn how to do it in 2 months time
  • we can help identify solutions that solve business needs which include a range of options
    • that can be as simple as clear communications
    • it can be as complex as needing a change programme
    • it can be as easy as creating a one page reference guide
    • it can be as involved as needing a development programme

Models and theories may form a part of modern learning solutions. In all likelihood, it’s more about being able to identify relevant solutions for the problems at hand. When I talk with business leaders about what they’re looking to resolve, the elements of the solution I normally propose are:

  • do the working practices support the proposed change?
  • what’s already in place that helps achieve the same outcome?
  • what’s the outcome required?
  • what does the L&D piece actually look like?
    • does it need to be e-learning?
    • could it be video based?
    • what will face to face add?
    • could it be curated resources from online content?
    • is there a compliance need that has to be met?
  • does the team have the capability to get to the end point?

More so – far more so – has been my capacity and capability to enable conversations to happen. Those conversations need to happen in different ways for different people, and in different ways for different teams. As the very wise Julie Drybrough once said “if you put a group of people together, they can’t help but learn from each other”.

I never really learned how to do that – not even through facilitation skills training. It was something I learned about how humans work best together. I attended an absolute range of learning events to really experience the multiple ways we design for conversations to take place. Digital means have enabled some of those conversations to happen in completely new and absorbing ways. This – again – changes human behaviour. So we continue to learn about how people converse with each other, and therefore how they learn.

In this new world of L&D, where modern learning is as much lead by digital means as it is by dialogic based means, we should all get very comfortable with the idea that our go to models and theories may need desperately updating, some have no relevance in digital solution design, and some work just fine and we need to develop better insights into them to be relevant for the face to face sessions we hold.


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.

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