Learning: it’s complicated

Thanks to David Glow, whose mention of it I happened to notice on Twitter last night, I found a blog post by Steve Flowers that I hadn’t seen: Just a Nudge–Getting into Skill Range. He’s talking about skill, mastery, and the (ultimately futile) “pursuit of instructional perfection.”

Steve starts with a principle from law enforcement: only apply the minimum force necessary to produce compliance.  (This is why those “speed limit enforced by aircraft” signs rarely mean “cops in helicopter gunships”). Then he works on a similar principle for, as he puts it, instruction performance solutions.”

Trying to design training / instruction for skill mastery can hinder–or defeat–the learning process, he says. That’s because mastery, in whatever form reasonable people would define it, is likely the outcome of a long period of practice, reflection, and refinement.

“Mastery” sounds good, which is why the corporate world is hip-deep in centers of excellence and world-class organizations.  A lot of the time, though, “world-class” is a synonym for “fine,” the way you hear it at the end of a TV commercial: “available at fine stores everywhere.”  Meaning, stores that sell our stuff.

He’s not saying there’s no place for formal learning, nor for a planned approach to helping people gain skill.  What he is saying is that we need “to design solutions to provide just the right nudge at just the right moment.

Most of the time, we don’t need mastery on the job, he says, and I agree.  We do need competence, which is what I believe he means by helping the performer move into a “skill range” — meaning the performer has the tools to figure out a particular problem or task.

From a blog post by Steve Flowers
(Click image to view his post.)

I’ve been mulling some related ideas for some time but hadn’t figured out how to even start articulating them. One theme has to to with the role of job aids and other performance support–things that Steve believes strongly in. I despair at the server farms full of “online learning” that shows (and shows), and tells (and tells and tells) while failing to offer a single on-the-job tool.

Listen: the only people who’ll “come back to the course” for the embedded reference material are (a) the course reviewers, (b) the utterly bored, and (c) the utterly desperate.

A second theme has to do with the two different kinds of performance support that van Merriënboer and Kirshner talk about in Ten Steps to Complex Learning. In their terminology, you have:

  • Procedural information: this is guidance for applying those skills that you use in pretty much the same way from problem to problem.  That’s the heart of many job aids: follow this procedure to query the database, to write a flood-insurance policy for a business, or to update tasks in the project management system. You can help people learn this kind of information through demonstration, through other presentation strategies, and through just-in-time guidance.
  • Supportive information: as vM&K say, this is intended to bridge the gap between what learners already know, and what they need to know, to productively apply skills you use differently with different problems.  “Updating the project management system” is procedural; “deal with the nonperforming vendor” is almost certainly a different problem each time it arises.  (That’s why Complex Learning uses the somewhat ungainly term “non-recurrent aspects of learning tasks.”) Types of supportive information include mental models for the particular field or area, as well as cognitive strategies for addressing its problems.

As the complexity of a job increases, it’s more and more difficult to help people achieve mastery. That’s not simply because of the number of skills, but because of how they related, and because of the support required.

Rich learning problems

Part of the connection I see, thanks to Steve’s post, is that the quest for perfect instruction ignores both how people move toward mastery (gradually, over time, with a variety of opportunities and guided by relevant feedback). In many corporations and organizations, formal learning for most people gets squeezed for time and defaults to the seen-and-signed mode: get their names on the roster (or in the LMS) so as to prove that learning was had by all.

We focus on coverage, on forms, on a quixotic or Sisyphean effort to cram all learning objectives into stuff that boils down to a course. I’m beginning to wonder, frankly, whether any skill you can master in a formal course is much of a skill to begin with. At most, such a skill is pretty near the outer border on Steve Flowers’ diagram. So the least  variation from the examples in the course–different circumstances, changed priorities, new coworkers–may knock the performer outside the range of competence.

(Images adapted from photos of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway from Wikimedia Commons.)

One thought on “Learning: it’s complicated

  1. Dave , I work as a field rep for the Mn Dept of Labor /Apprenticeship Division. We are doing a newsletter for our website and if possible, I would like to interview you on the subject of on the job learning. We have about 6500 registered apprentices in Minnesota predominantly in the construction trades but also in health care , manufacturing, utilities etc. I thought it would be good for our audience of employers to hear from someone like you. I have read your Whiteboard for a long time and much of
    what you talk about is relative to apprenticeship. Can you let me know if an interview would be possible and anything that would be good for me to do in preparation. Thank you, Rich Davy 651 284 5199 (w)
    612 382 2980 (h)

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