Why delivering training doesn’t enable learning

We’ve become quite sophisticated in our understanding of what it means when people learn. Psychologists have studied humans for decades through which we’ve continually evolved our understanding of how learning occurs. Through early models we understood at a basic level that humans respond to stimuli. If you present a stimulus to a person, they will respond in some form. We learned that you can incentivise people to behave in different ways. We learned that there are techniques to improve recall of information. We learned that there are ways to reinforce what we’ve learned and help us improve our skills / competence / performance.

And one of the key things we’ve learned about how learning occurs is that it is a process and it takes time. It sounds obvious, and it is. And at the same time, it’s a core concept which most corporate L&D teams willingly forget every time they deliver a course.

Delivering a training course is a fundamentally broken practise that is inefficient and ineffective. It patently doesn’t achieve it’s main aim of helping people improve the thing they need to. What it does is give the false impression that staff have undertaken an activity of value.

Well, they’ve undertaken an activity of value, that’s probably true – but it will likely only help a small percentage of the total population going through a standard training course.

Now hold on a second you lot. I know what you’re like. You’re all “Oh but Sukh, we know training adds value,” and “Well, other trainers may not deliver great training, but I do,” and “Here we go again, Sukh’s saying training is no good”.

Training is important. It does add value. And delivered well it can be really helpful / insightful / performance improving.

But that’s not what happens most of the time. Most of the time, people couldn’t tell you what they learned.

And it’s because we’ve forgotten some fundamentals of learning. People learn through a disciplined and rigorous process. When we learn to drive a car, we have to repeatedly sit behind the wheel and learn a new set of motor coordination skills we never knew could be done at the same time. When you learn to ski, you repeatedly get on the skis to ski down a slope in a controlled fashion which is highly unusual. When you learn to swim, you repeatedly get in the water and practise the movements needed to stay afloat and to move. When you create Excel sheets, you repeatedly access and go into the programme to make it do what you need it to. A singular training course for any of those would not suffice.

Learning can’t be accelerated in a classroom environment. People aren’t wired that way, and just because we can make the ship go faster, does not mean we have helped people learn. It certainly can’t be delivered in 90 min sessions through bite size approaches.

Action planning can’t be done in the last 20 mins of the training course. Mostly because people have just about understood the core content, let alone made some insightful gains into their behaviour and carefully thought out what it means for their person, for their thinking, for their daily practise, for their relationships, for their performance. It’s a flawed and artificial way of gaining commitment and action from people who have just been overloaded with information.

I’m not saying people aren’t capable of doing that, I’m saying that we’re completely negating the whole learning process we actually go through by trying to fill peoples brains with information and have an unreal expectation that they will improve in that new way almost immediately.

This is where technology and better and advanced techniques in facilitation and design of learning can be better utilised to work with the actual process of learning. Unfortunately what this means is pretty much throwing out every rule book we’ve held dear on L&D and how we design and deliver training, starting from a completely different premise, and cultivating learning through entirely different and modern means.


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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 “Why delivering training doesn’t enable learning”

  1. Thanks for sharing your blog Sukh, you have really peaked my interest this Saturday.

    May I ask the “why” behind your comment that “most of the time, people couldn’t tell you what they learned”? Why do you feel this happens? What is missing on your opinion?

    Also I guess being clear as to whether we are talking about compliance training vs training for continuous improvements sake? I will assume the blog references the latter.

    I feel that training, with the right learning environment (confidentiality, openness and trust) and effective follow up processes, DOES enable learning.

    For me learning is all about the ‘why’ are delegates turning up in the first place. If we do not understand that and I mean their why (desired learning outcomes/why they ‘think’ they are there), not just the organisations why for arranging the intervention in the first place (sheep-dip/compliance approach), we are already on the back foot.

    My first formal training in the HR/L&D/OD world 4 years ago was my level 5 Cert in L&D which I achieved via CIPD Training and I must say I found it extremely helpful especially around some fundamental steps such as the simplicity of carrying out a learning needs analysis and trying, as best as possible, to measure some form of transfer pf learning through the likes of Kirkpatrick.

    For me, and this has been evidenced by my most recent self awareness and assertiveness learning module, the following are key to ensuring that training does enable learning:

    – Delegates are being asked in advance what they want to get out of a training or learning experience
    – The summary of desired learning outcomes is communicated clearly at the outset and on closure of any sessions
    – The session(s) are tailored / designed with a suitable level of flex/delegate leadership of the session to ensure that everyone can leave with actionable insight, which is followed up and tracked
    – That the learning environment is made ‘safe’ / confidentiality is confirmed for all delegates to bring their ‘whole self’ to the session
    – That ALL delegates, not just the domineering/loud ones, contribute (requires quality facilitation)
    – That delegates take ownership for actioining learning and that any agreed/communicated learning takeaways are also followed up/embedded into the continuous improvement process, whether that be owned by L&D and/or line manager as well as learner
    – Experimentation of different facilitation methods e.g. I have not used anything but the above process, none of which is tech based, and this has been further improved through the use of a “Hackathon” approach, which does have tech heritage but is still a non-tech facilitation method, following attending one of Perry Timms recently.

    Interested in any further discussions or challenges around this topic, especially my own perception.

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