A great deal of time, effort, and money are invested each year in training initiatives and learning programs. But the fundamental question is: What does the organization have to show for that investment when the dust settles? One of the single greatest obstacles to such programs having significant impact is the mistaken belief that a broad, uniform one-size-fits-all approach can have the real level of impact the organization seeks and needs.

At a very high level there are two primary reasons that organizations have internal learning programs. Nearly everything we do points to either a need to satisfy compliance requirements or a need for staff to modify how they do their work:

  • Much of the “training” that takes place to fulfill compliance requirements is little more than information presentations with the only measurable result being a signature on a sign-in sheet validating completion of the training.
  • However, true learning focuses on teaching a learner something they did not previously know and then expecting them to use that knowledge. Let’s take a deeper look at that second focus area of true learning.

Changing the Tire

When I took driver’s education in high school, my dad used to frequently challenge me about what we had learned that day. My dad was not a fan of school in general; he often derided it for teaching “worthless information” which he said would not offer me any support later in life. (I tend to joke that the reason I became a teacher was that it was my personal way to be a rebel.)

But on one particular day I told him that we had learned about changing a flat tire. He asked me how it had been taught to us. My response was that we watched a video depicting different methods for different types of vehicles and that the instructor had jacks and such things in the room for us to handle. “But did you actually change a tire?” was my dad’s pointed question. I explained that the instructor said he did not want to confuse us doing it one way but then we would need to do it a different way on whatever vehicle we were driving.

My dad’s response was a very blunt, explicative-laden, expression of disgust. “That’s nonsense!” he declared. “You unscrew the bolts the same. You raise the vehicle the same. You swap out the tire the same. You protect yourself from getting hit by passing cars the same.”

And then my dad took me out to our driveway where that evening I personally rotated all four tires on the family car as he had me remove and replace each tire one at a time.

  • The first one he talked me through step by step. (Although “talked” is a generous description of his teaching style.)
  • For the second tire I was supposed to tell him every step I was doing before I did and explain why, with him adding “editorial guidance” along the way.
  • On the third tire I again described what I was doing but he withheld his critiques until the end.
  • And the fourth tire I did in silence as he stood over me, arms folded, closely watching everything I did.

It was a high-pressure experience to say the least, and one that I did not enjoy at all at the time. However, as a result of his efforts, I knew without a doubt that if I needed to, I could change a tire. I would not have had that level of confidence, nor the skill upon which such confidence was based, solely from the classroom experience I’d had earlier that day. While my dad did not care for school, he did intuitively grasp the concept of behavior change being the necessary goal.

And even though my dad had no interest or appreciation for formal education, the process he used that night in our driveway is the exact same process which can support quicker learning and longer retention of almost any task that you need an individual to learn:

Learning Step Learner Action Instructor Action
Step 1 Does each step hands-on, but with an instructor stating each step before they do it. Provide guidance for each step, including not just what needs done but why it needs done. The task is not just about following a process, it’s about understanding the purpose for doing the task.
Step 2 Roles flip. The learner is still doing the hands-on of the task, but this time the learner is verbally describing each step of the task before doing it. Enable the learner to take the lead, giving them opportunity to arrive at the right choice of action on their own. But stepping in to redirect their actions if they choose wrong. The goal here is to get them thinking through the details of the task, but also reinforce the correct pattern.
Step 3 The learner again does the hands-on of the task. Again, they verbally describe each step of the task. But this time the goal is for them to go through the entire process without stopping. If they make an error along the way, then this step starts over. Allow the learner to work through the task with them explaining what they are doing along the way. But this time the instructor does not step in if the learner does part of the task incorrectly or out of order. When the learner is done, the instructor then debriefs the scenario, pointing out any relevant errors and restarting the process, as needed.
Step 4 At this stage the learner does the hands-on part of the task, and they do it all the way through without stopping. This time the learner does not verbalize what they are doing, nor does the instructor provide any feedback until the very end. The goal is for the task to now become a habit the learner can do on their own. Observe the learner as they proceed through the task. Provide no feedback or guidance verbally or nonverbally until the task has been completed. If the learner has made any errors, debrief not just on what was done incorrectly but why it cannot be done that way. Restart this step as often as necessary.

Behavior Change Is the Goal

Unless we are simply dispensing information to be able to check a box of required content, the purpose of true learning efforts should always be to create behavior change. It may be as basic as helping workers learn about field changes to data processing screens so they can adjust their daily routine to incorporate those changes going forward. But in other cases it may be far more complex, involving the acquisition and demonstration of higher level skills.

Unlike a compliance-driven training course, a true learning course seeks to develop the learner. And unlike the compliance-driven course which can be delivered in a uniform way to a large group of passive listeners, the most effective way to develop a learner is to target what each specific learner needs based on what that learner already knows versus what they need to know.

In my story about my tire changing lesson with my dad, he worked with me one-on-one to go through that process. He knew that would work for me. However, while it might not have been a bad idea for my other classmates, it’s likely that not all of them needed that same level of instruction that I did. It’s also possible some of them would have been even worse at it than I was and may have needed more instruction.

The simple elegance of the four-step process outlined, though, is that it is not a process determined by the content being learned—it is a process determined by the speed at which the learner is comprehending and demonstrating competency in the content. As such, this basic framework is readily adjustable to accommodate the fastest learner as well as the slowest learner. It challenges the learner who walks in the door with a great deal of prior experience, but it also fully supports the learner who is starting at square one. The four-step process simply meets the learner where they are and can then be used to drive them toward enhanced skills and knowledge.

Each Learner Is Unique

Each and every person we work with to develop is unique—which is why any attempt to teach a group of people something by presenting it to them the exact same way and expecting them to apply it on the job in exactly the same manner will be doomed to fail. It simply is not realistic.

Yes, there are concepts and lessons which can be taught to groups, but just like my tire changing lesson wouldn’t have worked for all of my fellow students at that time so, too, do we need to be mindful of the individuality of our learners. How they process what we are teaching them depends in large part on their prior experience and knowledge when they start the course, and each learner has taken a different path to get there. Before we’ve even started, we have a room full of learners with different levels of understanding.

The real test, though, is not in how instructor-led training is conducted, but rather how clearly the individual learner can visualize how the new things they are learning can apply to them, in their situation, in the tasks they will be doing, on a daily basis.

Even if every learner will be going out to do the exact same type of job, no two of them will have the same workplace experience. Which means we have an obligation to not try to get them to adapt their world to canned training we’ve prepared for convenience, but rather, we need to build in customization and individualization opportunities for the learner to internalize and own what they’ve learned so they can apply it to their own specific, unique situation. Only then will we equip them to truly succeed, and only then will the organization reap the maximum fruits of our learning efforts.

Register for the next in-person Training Industry Conference & Expo (TICE) to hear Paul Smith’s session, “Driving On-the-job Behavior Change Through Personalized Competency-based Learning.”