How People Learn: It Really Hasn’t Changed

Posted on July 12th, 2010.

Over the last several months I have been in many meetings with HR and L&D professionals talking about the enormous power of formalized informal learning. As we walk through out enterprise learning framework and talk with people about the need to expand their concept of training, I am reminded of the work we did back in 2003 and 2004 when I wrote The Blended Learning Book® (which is just as important to understand today as ever before).

Here are a few of the jewels I want to remind everyone to consider.

1.  Mastery Means Being Able to Apply Knowledge

As one considers all the various aspects of training and education, the ultimate measure of learning is achieving some level of “mastery.”  A “master” is someone who does not only know the basic principles and practices of a subject, they also have the ability to apply it among a wide variety of conditions.  A “master carpenter” can build almost anything.  A “master salesperson” can sell almost anything.  They have developed such a deep understanding of the material that they can apply it to a new situation and draw upon intuition, skills, and deep experience to perform well.

A simple way to think about is the following equation (from the Blended Learning Book):

MASTERY = PROFICIENCY (which comes from training) + RETENTION (which comes from practice)

The word “proficiency” means that you “know the subject” – you can pass a test and are proficient.
The word “retention” means that you remember and can apply the subject, regardless of the situation.

Fig 1:  What is Mastery (from 2004 Blended Learning Book)

So,  if you are trying to build mastery, you must find a way for people to repeat and repeat what they have learned, until it comes second nature to them.  This is why simulations, role-plays, scenarios, exercises, interactivities, group projects, and other action-learning activities are so important to learning.

This also means that “social learning” may or may not drive mastery.  It may improve and increase the speed of proficiency, but until the individual learning actually performs a task themselves, they don’t really learn it.

2.  People Learn by Doing

The second principle I want to go back to is something very simple:  people (adults and children) learn by doing.  Our brains may be able to grasp and understand concepts from books and lectures, but we cannot truly “master” a subject until we use it.  And this means making mistakes.

In fact, one of the biggest findings we realized in our brand new High-Impact Learning Culture research is that organizations which learn quickly have a vast and deep tolerance for mistakes.  Their top executives expect the company to make mistakes – and they learn from them.  They are essentially telling people to “learn by doing” – not by “thinking.”

(I recently read an interview with an Apple engineer who stated that for every product Apple ships, more than 100 different product ideas are killed before they reach the market.  This is “learning by doing.”)

And despite all the pundits talking about how the new generation thinks differently than we did, I firmly believe that the human brain is pretty much the same now as it was 50 years ago.   Despite the fact that young people text-message all day (my daughter gets the DTs when she cannot find her cell phone), they still learn things by experiencing them.

3.  The Purpose of Training and Development is to Accelerate this Process

The third principle I want to refresh is a simple fact.  You, as an HR, education, or training professional, will never truly “teach” mastery.  Your classes, e-learning programs, and collaborative learning solutions may be successful in giving people new perspectives, new skills, and new information – but they will not truly “learn it” until they “do it.”

In fact, I believe there is a fairly easy-to-understand hierarchy of how learning occurs.  (Again, from the 2004 Blended Learning Book):

Fig 2:  How People Learn (from 2004 Blended Learning Book)

Your job, then, is to find ways to accelerate and facilitate this process.

Most managers and even most executives really don’t understand this.   They have not studied L&D and education, so they expect people to just “learn it on the job.”

Again going back to the early days of e-learning, what I remember talking with hundreds of people about was the fact that good online learning does not “preach” – it “simulates.”  It gives the learner the opportunity to try things, answer questions, make decisions, respond to input, and actually make mistakes.  They then learn from these “simulated mistakes,” enabling your organization to avoid the dreaded “learning curve” on the job.

Again, applying today’s tools of virtual classrooms and social networking, what this would imply is that we engage people to breakout and try things, with a virtual coach providing feedback and guidance.

4.  Management and Leadership Drive Learning in an Organization

The final point I want to make is something I have learned over the years.  Often it hardly matters how good the course, class, materials, or instructor is.  If the organization does not support, reinforce, and enable learning to occur, many training programs are wasted.  (This is often called “scrap learning” – programs that are delivered well but lost on the organization because there is no institutional support.)

In our High-Impact Learning Culture research we identified 40 practices which drive impact.  Of these 40, only seven are actually owned by an L&D professional.  The other 33 are things that managers and executives must do.  Things like “giving people time to learn and reflect.”

I am always reminded of the most powerful business learning I ever experienced:  my 18 months of sales training at IBM (in the 1980s).  IBM not only spent the time and money to fly me to Dallas at least 6 times, the company forced me to read, rehearse, deliver, and get graded on dozens of sales calls.  The company spent the time and money to let me spend almost half my first 18 months in training (labelled a “trainee”).  They paid for high-powered executives to teach us;  and they made sure that my manager was aware, involved, and highly engaged in the process.

I learned more about sales, customer service, and business in those 18 months than most people learn in an entire MBA program.  And that experience gave me the tools and discipline to continue to learn ever since.

Bottom Line:  As Things Change, they Also Stay The Same

So my point is simple.  As you read about all the exciting new tools, approaches, and disciplines of informal learning – remember to apply the basics.   With today’s tools people can gain access to information and each-other like ever before.  But the fundamental process of “learning” remains the same.

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2 Responses to “How People Learn: It Really Hasn’t Changed”

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Think this is a great piece Josh – very true. Reminds me of a Marvin Minsky (Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT & AI pioneer) quote “If you only understand a thing one way, you don’t understand at all.” Executive and organizational commitment such as your early experiences at IBM can make all the difference in how training is viewed in a company, and how that company gets its return on (human) capital investment.

I believe the next opportunity is to take the understanding of how we learn as people, and apply that to the software we use, so that the applications we use to feed us so much data can help to intelligently supply what we are interested in and to harness our collective wisdom. I’m not the best person to explain this, but this concept is detailed in new book ‘The Learning Layer: Building the Next Level of Intellect in Your Organization”, http://www.LearningLayer.com

Naomi Moneypenny
July 15th, 2010

Absolutely brilliant! Just what I needed to know just in time! Thank you for writing such complete and concise article on this subject. This is actually the first time I’ve heard of “blended learning.” Will need to learn more about it! Fascinating!

Kim Evazians
February 22nd, 2012

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Josh Bersin is Principal and Founder of Bersin by Deloitte, a leading research and advisory services firm in enterprise learning and talent management.

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