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The Learner Lifecycle -- fulltext
Saturday, August 06, 2005
To everything there is a season. We are born, we play, we work, we teach, we die. As time goes by, we change how we learn.

A baby’s every waking moment goes into figuring things out. Child’s play for pre-schoolers is learning in disguise: They devote their time to experimenting and understanding their world.

School children attend formal classes and do assignments to lay a foundation for learning the three R’s, cultural memes and social norms. Few would argue that children should have to invent, say, multiplication rather than have it taught to them in school.

School children weave a mental tapestry of understanding, whereas adults patch holes in the fabric.

Upon escaping the confines of school, people go to work. Just as the high-school graduate descends from the top of one heap to the bottom of another as an entering freshman, the college graduate starts over as a new hire.

Careers are front-loaded with formal learning: orientation sessions, workshops on fundamentals and certification programs. Everyone is a novice in some areas and an expert in others. Workshops, courses and other formal instruction are appropriate for the newbie who needs the 20,000-foot view as a landscape for connecting and making sense of details.

Over time, informal learning becomes more prominent. Mid-career workers rarely take workshops. Collaboration, search, small-chunk simulations and other informal means are more appropriate to their needs: fine-tuning and improvising from what they already know.

Most people arrive at adulthood having built the foundational skills, mental models and working knowledge they need to get along in the world. Adults learn when they need to solve pressing problems. They don’t have patience for superfluous material or rehashing what they already know. Curriculum is for kids—exploration is for adults.

Veteran workers who are savvy in the way things work are most organizations’ top performers. In the factory, the best worker was perhaps twice as productive as the worst. In the knowledge economy, the best worker is hundreds of times more productive than a mediocre peer. Top performers justify special handling.

What portion of your workforce is made up of green recruits? What fraction already knows the ropes? How many are top performers? If you’re like most organizations, your old hands outnumber the new recruits 10 to one. The western world’s workforce is aging. Yet all too often, trainers treat learners as if they were all the same.

Part of the reason organizations overemphasize training novices is an inheritance from the DNA of instructional design. Back up 60 years: The United States enters World War II with no standing army, and suddenly, millions of civilians need to learn how to fight. This sowed the seeds of what morphed into instructional systems design (ISD) in the ’50s. The core methodology of ISD, the ADDIE model (analyze, design, develop, implement and evaluate), had a great run at elevating novices to basic competence.

Winning World War II was such a success that corporations followed the military’s example. Command-and-control hierarchies were run by officers who developed strategies to battle the competition. But times have changed, and models that once helped companies succeed now hold them back. ADDIE is not the best way to help top performers learn. ADDIE starts with a needs analysis, but experienced workers do better when they define their own needs. They can identify with Winston Churchill’s statement: “Personally, I’m always ready to learn, although I don’t always like being taught.”

Ted Cocheu, CEO of Altus Learning Systems, has been instrumental in raising my consciousness on these issues. He asks why companies put most of their training budgets into courses, workshops, learning management systems and other things that deal primarily with getting novices up to speed. Doesn’t it make more sense to invest in communications infrastructure, putting resources at workers’ fingertips and facilitating collaboration? Helping experienced workers do their jobs better has a higher payback than introductory courses.

CLO magazine, August 2005


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