The myth of a single best approach to learning

The myth of a single best approach to learning

New parents are bombarded with advice from various gurus, each proclaiming that theirs is the best approach. But for every success story there’s an equally convincing counterargument or three, all of which get lost in translation as they’re put into practice with an irate toddler. Amid all the confusion, pacifiers and iPads become the often-implemented backup plan. The situation is largely similar in the learning world, minus (largely) the screaming tantrums.

‘The end of classroom learning’; ‘informal learning is the best bet’; ‘only long retreats will transform behavior’ – there are myriad learning practitioners extolling the virtues of their particular method. Each one is rooted in sensible, scientifically-proven theory. But in reality there is no ‘best’ approach. Just as successful parenting requires many different techniques, not to mention bucket-loads of patience, in organizations one size does not fit all. The most effective and efficient approach integrates the best of all worlds.

In the early days of organizational learning, instructional design was rooted in a behavioral model. Stemming from military training techniques of the 50s and 60s, in this first-generation design, tasks – such as assembling a rifle – are broken down into their component parts, and during training instructors demonstrate how to complete them. Learning ‘happens’ during the event, which is the focus of the instructional design, while instructors carry all the responsibility – learners themselves are somewhat secondary.

We have much to thank first-generation practitioners for: objectively defined knowledge and skills; content mapping; the process of analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation (ADDIE)… That said, a straightforwardly behavioral approach places all the emphasis on the event – evident in the ‘before, during, after’ ethos that dominates most workplace training – instead of sustained change back in the real world.

Second-generation instructional design, on the contrary, puts the learner front and center. Based on a cognitive/constructivist point of view, this approach sees learners construct their own understanding of a task. Rather than reproducing what an instructor demonstrates, learners explore via real world contextualized case studies or projects, with facilitators there to provide guidance and keep them on track.

This approach offers specific, contextualized learning – as opposed to abstract principles which can be difficult to apply in real life – and means that each learner has a different experience. However it can be long-winded and handing learners control means there’s no way of knowing if they’ll ever reach the desired skill level. What’s more, such an insular model ignores a very big influence on how, and whether, learners will use their new skills back at work.

More recently learning practitioners have advocated a social approach. This third-generation model focuses on building a ‘community of practice’ via learner-to-learner interactions. There’s no explicit facilitation or instruction; learning is socially constructed, with shared understanding coming about through collaboration and joint problem solving. Technology has played a vital role in facilitating social learning; social media, blogs, wikis and forums provide ample platforms for interaction. Instructional designers’ job is to define the content areas and provide the tools that enable collaboration.

In the social learning paradigm, learners benefits from not only shared knowledge but increased social skills too – essential when collaborating across geographical and cultural boundaries. It’s an informal approach to learning that draws on the wisdom of crowds; often our co-workers are the richest source of knowledge available. But it only works when learners actively want to participate. And as with the second-generation approach, there’s no guarantee that the group will reach the ‘right’ solution.

Clearly all three generations have their strengths and weaknesses – and despite what their fierce proponents may claim, no single one is ‘better’ than the others. If organizations restrict themselves to just one of these approaches, they miss out on the rich experiences that come from integrating all three.

A fourth generation approach takes a more eclectic view – instead of adhering strictly to the principles of a certain scientific theory, it cherry-picks the best of each, based on what works in practice. But that’s not to say it’s a vague crossbreed, or a jack of all trades. There are specific principles which guide this learner-centric approach. These principles put the learner, not the instructor or event, at the center and maximize the likelihood that they’ll put new skills into action.

Distributed, bite-size learning is one key principle of the fourth-generation approach. Not only is it more cost-effective as it saves participants’ time, it’s proven to reach learning outcomes faster because of the way the human brain learns: regular and often trumps all-at-once. Distributed sessions mean that learning becomes a cycle as opposed to a one-off event. The instructional designer’s job is to move learners through the cycle: engage in the content, participate in the learning and then activate new behaviors.

To engage, learning – whether it’s instructor-led training, role play, or peer-to-peer dialogue group – is marketed with vigor to pique interest and create a buzz. Due to their bite-size nature, the sessions balance choice and scale; learners can pick the sessions that are most relevant to their needs, increasing psychological engagement from the get-go.

During the participate stage, practitioners draw techniques from all the different learning approaches, along with the latest research on how adults learn, to create content that is practical, compelling and – crucially – relevant to participants’ everyday jobs; all characteristics proven to maximize transfer.

Tasks designed to activate new behaviors are built in to the instructional design so that it’s almost impossible for participants not to apply what they’ve learned. Public commitments to taking action and follow-up sessions harness the power of social learning, while participants’ managers are also engaged and involved, helping the organization reach its desired business outcomes faster. And whatever the next experience, the cyclical nature of the program builds momentum that’s essential to prevent it from being a flash-in-the-pan.

It may not pin its colors to a single scientific theory, but the research shows that it works.

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