Marching Backwards into the Future

A recent post by Bersin & Associates notes, “Approximately three-quarters of employers globally cite a lack of experience, skills or knowledge as the primary reason for the difficulty filling positions. However, only one in five employers is concentrating on training and development to fill the gap. A mere 6% of employers are working more closely with educational institutions to create curriculums that close knowledge gaps.”

Doh! These same employers slashed their work forces for a total job loss of 8,700,000 jobs since the recession started in December 2007. Only 4,444,000 jobs have been added since then, which leaves a net loss of 425,6000 4,256,000 jobs.

What were they thinking? That they could slash their “most valuable asset” and when the economy picks back up, find the knowledge and skills they require? Yep—short term thinking at its best—and of course it backfired in this complicated/complex work environment.

In a prior post I wrote about the three most important words that managers in an organization must know when it comes to learning—training development, and education.

Training is learning that is provided in order to improve performance on the present job, which means it's orientated towards the present. What these employers should have been thinking is towards the future—what skills and knowledge are we going to need when the economy picks back up? Which means they should have implemented development and education processes.

Development is training people to acquire new horizons, technologies, or viewpoints. It enables leaders to guide their organizations onto new expectations by being proactive rather than reactive. It enables workers to create better products, faster services, and more competitive organizations. It is learning for growth of the individual, but not related to a specific present or future job.

Education in organizations differ from education in schools so don't let the following definition confuse you. Education is training people to do a different job. It is often given to people who have been identified as being promotable, being considered for a new job either lateral or upwards, or to increase their potential.

The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend to always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future. - Marshall McLuhan

As we craft our learning processes we must remember the three most important words and ensure that our clients/customers also understand them. Failure to do so will again result in marching backwards into the future.



Five Years later: A Review of Kirschner, Sweller and Clark's Why Minimal Guidance during Instruction Does Not Work

After having a short discussion with Guy Wallace on his blog, I decided to do a review of Kirschner, Sweller and Clark's, Why Minimal Guidance during Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching, in which they postulate that students who learn in classrooms with pure-discovery methods and minimal feedback often become lost and frustrated, and their confusion can lead to misconceptions.

The paper caused a bit of a stir in the learning and training community when it was published five years ago, especially among those who lean towards a more constructivist approach. However, while the author's critics did raise some good points, the paper is a good reminder that learning and training professionals often carry new ideals and technologies to the extreme. For example:

  • We had the visual movement from about 1900—1950, which brought us Dale's Cone of Experience. And of course someone had to add some bogus percentages to it to make it more “official.”
  • When VCR's arrived we made training tapes of everything… even if it did not make sense.
  • eLearning was supposed to kill the classroom.
  • Formal and informal learning were supposed to be at odds which each other, even though each hour of formal learning spills over to four-hours of informal learning.
  • All learning is social! Uhh… no. While the majority of learning may be social we often still learn things on our own.

Thus Kirschner, Sweller and Clark's paper is an important reminder for us to not carry Problem Based Learning (PBL) to its extreme. That is, while it has its strengths, learners often need a more direct approach in order to build a solid foundations before being presented with PBL.

With that being said, we do need to take a closer look at the paper. For those that are interested, there is a list of papers that discuss the Direct Instruction versus Constructivism Controversy (they are located at the bottom of the page).

The Title and Paper gives Little Respect to the Constructivism Approach

With the title blaring, “Why Minimal Guidance during Instruction Does Not Work” rather than, “Why Minimal Guidance during Instruction Does Not Work for Novice Learners,” the authors almost seem to ignore that PBL is a necessity in order to promote deeper levels of understanding. They do pay some respect to constructivism, such as:

Higher aptitude students who chose highly structured approaches tended to like them but achieve at a lower level than with less structured versions

Certain aspects of the PBL model should be tailored to the developmental level of the learners… there may be a place for direct instruction on a just-in-time basis. In other words, as students are grappling with a problem and confronted with the need for particular kinds of knowledge, a lecture at the right time may be beneficial.

However, they end up admonishing constructivist:

According to Kyle (1980), scientific inquiry is a systematic and investigative performance ability incorporating unrestrained thinking capabilities after a person has acquired a broad, critical knowledge of the particular subject matter through formal teaching processes. It may not be equated with investigative methods of science teaching, self-instructional teaching techniques and/or open-ended teaching techniques. Educators who confuse the two are guilty of the improper use of inquiry as a paradigm on which to base an instructional strategy.

But it seems, at least to me, they may be doing the same, but only at the opposite end of the continuum. For example, they seem to treat their theories as laws, yet…

Cognitive Load Theory Coming Under Withering Attacks

The paper relies heavily on Cognitive Load Theory, yet we have to realize that it is still a theory rather than a law. Will Thalheimer lists several papers on his site that raises several concerns about Cognitive Load Theory. For example, even though we know that working memory can only hold about seven chucks (which actually may only be four, give or take one), using the old KiSS (Keep it Simple Stupid) principle can be just as effect because trying to count the number of chunks can be quite difficult, if almost impossible. For example, how many chunks are in Rene Descartes statement, “I think, therefore I am?”

Thus, both the authors and the constructivism movement are guilty of jumping on theories before they are fully understood. But why do we do this? Joel Michael writes in Advances in Physiology Education:

…it is important to recognize that educational research is difficult to do; this has been cogently highlighted by Berliner (8) in "Educational research: the hardest science of them all." Berliner points out that unlike a physics experiment, in which it is possible to readily distinguish between the independent and dependent variables, and also possible to isolate and control all of the independent variables, in educational experiments all of this is problematic. Researchers may not agree on which variable is the dependent variable of greatest interest or importance. There may be disagreements about which independent variable(s) are to be manipulated. There may be disagreements about how to measure any of the relevant variables. And, finally, it may be extremely difficult, or even impossible, to isolate and manipulate all the variables suspected of being involved in the phenomena being studied.”

Rather than waiting for eons to pass before all the research is available, we (the learning, training, and educational community) often jump into a new theory because will simply do not want to wait until we are dead and buried before we can fix and/or improve our methodology. With that in mind…

Evidence for Constructivism

Joel Michael continues his discussion for promoting active learning with these two studies:

1. Support for discovery learning is provided by a study in which students engaged in a course that incorporated some discovery learning exercises were tested, and their performance on questions related to topics learned through discovery learning was compared with their performance on questions related to topics learned in lecture (Wilke, Straits, 2001). The authors concluded that performance was better on those topics learned through discovery learning.

2. Burrowes compared learning outcomes in two sections of the same course taught by the same teacher. One section was taught in the traditional teacher-centered manner (control group of 100 students), whereas the other section was taught in a manner that was based on constructivist ideas (experimental group of 104 students). The results of this experiment were striking: the mean exam scores of the experimental group were significantly higher than those of the control group, and students in the experimental group did better on questions that specifically tested their ability to “think like a scientist.” Reference: Burrowes PA. Lord's constructivist model put to a test. Am Biol Teacher 65: 491–502, 2003.

While you can find plenty of other research findings on constructivist methods, the ideal that you can teach learners to “think like scientists” is fascinating because problem solving skills are extremely hard to train. That is, conduct a problem solving course in an organizational setting and you will more than likely get little or no results. It's almost as if the process must be embodied within the discipline.

Embodied Cognition

On the Brain Science Podcast, Ginger Campbell discusses Embodied Cognition with Lawrence Shapiro (both podcast and transcript can be found in the link). They note that in cognitive science, the brain is normally studied while isolated from the world and from the body. While in contrast, embodied cognition imagines not that the brain can be isolated from the body and the environment, but thinks of the body as in some sense shaping, or constraining, or involved in the very processing of the kinds of information that an organism needs to interact successfully with the world.

In the podcast, Dr. Shapiro talks about a fascinating work on the use of gesture. He notes that boys perform better in certain spatial reasoning tasks than girls. When psychologists studied this they've noticed something kind of interesting—boys rely on gestures a lot more than girls do when solving spatial reasoning tasks. Boys use gestures to work out the problem, at the same time they're talking through the problem. And often, they don't synchronize with the verbalizing. It's as if they have two different systems working at the same time—one a gesture system, and one a verbalization system. Gestures seem to be a part of the process of figuring out these spatial reasoning tasks.

They also discuss the study of kittens moving around their environments by pulling carriages with other kittens in them. And the ones in the carriages presumably see everything that the kittens pulling them see, but because they don't actually employ their motor systems to move them around the environment, their perceptual systems don't develop properly. The idea there seems to be that part of what's necessary for perception is actual exploration of the environment; not just being a passive recipient, like these kittens conveyed in the carriages are.

Thus rather than focusing on pieces of conceptually unrelated pieces of information, such as practice first and then learn problem solving second, perhaps we should be focusing our learning processes on entire ideas and concepts whenever possible.

I would interested in your thoughts on the subject by leaving a comment, creating a blog post, or through Twitter (I'm @iOPT).


Training at its Basic is a Positive Impact Caused by Learning

The WSJ recently ran an informative article, Lessons Learned that discusses the importance of the need to create a workplace environment that actively encourages people to change. They start their article with the statement, “With some studies suggesting that just 10% to 40% of training is ever used on the job, it is clear that a big chunk of the tens of billions of dollars organizations spend annually on staff development is going down the drain.”This is actually a myth as some studies suggest the transfer rate is actually around 60% as the the study the WSJ used is based on extremely faulty research (see Myth - 10% of Training Transfers to the Job). However, 60% is still too low of a transfer rate, thus we know we must use a better method for designing our learning processes.

To ROI or not to ROI?

Looking Backwards in Time

The article notes that an effective post-training follow-up activity is the performance assessment—“When employees know that they are going to be observed and given feedback on their performance, the motivation to use newly learned skills and knowledge increases.” This means you must know what you are going to assess before you design the training, which in turn means the learning process must be based on a goal achieved through backwards planning that will have a positive impact upon the organization.

Does this mean you need to perform a ROI? No. Learning and Training departments normally only need to provide an ROI if they are the initiators of a learning or training process. For example, if you presently outsource your Microsoft Office training program and you want to bring it in-house because you believe you can do it cheaper and better, then you should provide an ROI to show this to be true. If on the other hand you will provide the training for the users of a new computer system, then it is up to the original initiators, normally the IT department, to provide the ROI.

In other cases... it depends. For example if a manager comes to you for a request for training that will eliminate a problem in her department and you determine that training is indeed the answer, then you will have to decide if an ROI is needed or not. In many cases the manager simply wants the problem to go away. And yes, training may be more expensive than solving the problem, but this frees the manager to help grow the organization rather than spend her time putting out fires. You are really investing in her—by eliminating the problem you allow her to spend more time growing the organization, thus the training will pay off in the long run. One rule of thumb is to provide an ROI whenever possible to show that your efforts have a positive financial impact on the organization, but always keep in mind that even if the cost savings are not there in the short turn, it could pay off in the future.

Getting the Impact out of Training with Agile Design

So why you may or may not have an ROI, you still need a positive result or impact. Nadler defines “training” as learning that is provided in order to improve performance on the present job (1984). Most definitions closely follow Nadler on these two points: 1) training always involves learning and 2) performance is improved. Thus training is basically a positive impact caused by learning. If it does not follow these two points then that means you are doing something besides training. It doesn't mean its wrong or right, but it is simply not training.

While the author of the WSJ brings the learners more into the learning and training process, there is still another step to go—include them in the design. Rittel (1972) noted that the best experts with the best knowledge for solving wicked problems are often those affected by the solution; in this case it is the learners themselves. Yet, the only time we normally bring them in is to be guinea pigs for testing our learning process. While you might not be able do bring the entire population of them in on the planning stage, we do need bring in enough learners who will actually represent the population.

This is the heart of Agile Design. The learners are the real stakeholders, even if you or the managers don't agree to what they are saying, you need to listen, guide, and act on their needs and perspectives so that they take ownership of the learning and performance solution. In addition, they gain metalearning and metacognitive skills.

This is true “Learner Design.” Simply designing a learning process for them is andragogy or pedagogy design. True learner designed process involves the learners. Change works best if the people it affects are involved in the process. Learning is no different if you want to change performance on the job. Involve the learners so you not only make them part of the change process, but also as Rittel noted—they are often the experts who can provide good advice.


Nadler, Leonard (1984). The Handbook of Human Resource Development. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Rittel, H. (1972). On the planning crisis: systems analysis of the “first and second generation.” Bedriftsokonomen. No. 8, pp.390-396.