As a child, I was taught my times tables with the technique known as rote learning or rote repetition – depending on who you talk to – or as I thought of it then, our class singalong. This teaching method relies heavily on the principle of memorization and repetition rather than understanding. In some circles, it is heavily criticised. But while I may agree with some of the concerns raised over this style of instruction, I can tell you that even today, many moons later, I can still with ease and expertise, recite all my tables.
Like fashion, pedagogical theory is in constant change with styles exalted one season and denounced the next. If you were to put 10 instructors in a room and ask them to create a lesson plan, you’d get 10 diligently crafted plans, and each might be as successful as the other.
For L&D professionals this lack of cohesion adds another barrier in the pursuit of learning program objectives. Getting learners engaged is a challenge in itself without the added difficulty of determining how best to present the material for guaranteed results. And then if learning fails to happen, what then is the point of offering learning at all?
Just how does the brain take in new information and, importantly, keep it there? Is there an ideal way to “teach” to ensure learning happens and knowledge is transferred?
Ulrich Boser, author of Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything, certainly seems to think so and appears to be on a personal crusade to spread the word about how best to achieve learning. As a keynote speaker at the recent Learning Technologies conference Boser spoke at length about what he considers the 10 principles that are fundamental for learning to happen. These include such recommendations as make it meaningful, brevity is key (there’s a reason emergency numbers are short), and promote feedback. For this last item, he recounted the story of a surgeon who after every surgery wrote down what he did wrong which led to a direct improvement in his performance. I’ve also read about other studies that found reflection can be more effective than practice itself.
In Boser’s mission to help people understand how we learn, he was keen to dismiss some common misconceptions about the benefits of highlighting material and also there was no evidence to suggest that learning styles make any difference.
Later, when I was reflecting upon the conference and everything that was said, it struck me that the technology we have today is seriously disrupting the way we design, create and deliver learning. I couldn’t help but then wonder, are we as a profession ready for this disruption?
During the conference, Toward Maturity’s Laura Overton and Genny Dixon presented their latest research report, The Transformation Curve, which draws on new data analytics to reveal the most effective combinations of actions, tools, and strategies to make the next step on the learning transformation curve.
The report is packed with invaluable insights, and I urge you to take a look if you haven’t already done so. When I read it, a number of the findings struck me as especially noteworthy.
- Despite the prevalence of learning in the workplace, only 11% of programmes offer learning and study skills
- Only 1% of staff are involved in learning design
- 81% of L&D professionals possess a lack of confidence in incorporating new media in learning design
- Only 30% of L&D professionals keep up to date with learning theory
- Only 5% routinely collect feedback from learners on the extent to which learning points have been understood
- Only 2% collect feedback on how the learning was applied
Each of these points is worthy of our notice, but what I want to draw your attention to is the fact that less than a third of L&D professionals keep up to date with learning theory. Surely this must be a cause for concern given how much we now know about how the brain works and why such information and research is highly beneficial to those involved in the teaching profession.
It’s a concern touched upon in research by Towards Maturity and Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) that illustrates that while L&D professionals do understand their learners and the learning process and experience has a direct link to learning success, only one in three take action.
It’s also a point highlighted by Dr. Nick van Dam, global chief learning officer at McKinsey & Company, at the 2017 MERIT Always On-Learning Summit in Portugal. “Learning is a profession with a deep science behind it – [McKinsey] would rather have people with that knowledge behind them”, said Van Dam. “We need to take L&D professionals and develop them to understand the science of learning”.
Does this mean that the role or function of the L&D professional is changing?
CIPD, in its report L&D: Evolving roles, enhancing skills, suggests yes. “To thrive as an L&D profession, we need to evolve roles and enhance skills to drive organisational performance. This requires action from every L&D practitioner, to build capability in your function and gain stakeholder commitment for learning transformation”.
Or, as one L&D Manager from the Energy sector noted, “Challenges for the L&D arena will be to truly professionalise into multi-skilled business partners that can transition from the ‘training manager’ mindset to organisational/learning development consultants”.
It’s a change that is also mirrored in changing employee expectations of L&D. Employees now want, demand even, that employers offer a more personalised approach to their development.
If the profession is transitioning, are current L&D professionals preparing for the shift? Findings in The Transformation Curve suggest a mixed response to this:
- 65% encourage staff to take professional HR-related qualifications
- 31% offer some form of online L&D professional skills training.
Yet, 65% believe their L&D staff lack of knowledge about the potential of technology
And in other research by Towards Maturity and CIPD, only 23% of L&D leaders think their L&D teams have the right skills to exploit technology for business advantage.
This mixed bag leaves us with questions and may even rattle a few cages. But I see it as the perfect opportunity to start a conversation around the subject. I’ll start by asking what can we do to ensure learning and technology work together to improve learning outcomes?
Trish Burridge is the Director of Consulting Services, EMEA, Skillsoft.