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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Formal Learning All the Way...Baby

There has been a lot of talk about formal vs. informal learning in the educational blogosphere and when it comes right down to it, formal learning is the most effective. Here's why.

Recently, I was touring a nuclear power plant training facility and had a chance to see the room where operators are trained. It is an EXACT replica of the actual operations room in the real plant right down to the same ambient sounds.

When I visited the Johns Hopkins Simulation Center, we ran a simulation involving a patient heart attack. The actions taken by myself and others occurred in a simulated hospital room using the same equipment found in any hospital room. When pilots train, they use a flight simulator that acts and reacts just like a real aircraft complete with hydraulic movements to simulate actual responses of the plane.

When lives are on the line, the learning process is studied, calculated and formalized to a degree of realism as close to 100% as possible. In these life and death training situations, the actions of the individuals involved in the training are timed and measured against objective standards. If you don't administer oxygen within the prescribed time frame in the simulation, you know about it as you watch a recorded version of your actions as an instructor provides feedback. The fidelity between the environment in which the performance is required and the environment in which it is trained and practiced is extremely high.

The processes have been formalized, in knowledge work, many of the processes are formalized. We like to think knowledge workers spend all day "problem-solving" but in reality they spend all day finding out what procedure should be followed in what situation. Sales people have procedures for overcoming objections, managers have procedures for dealing with a crisis or an upset customer, insurance agents have procedures for handling claims, instructional designers have procedures for creating role-plays or teaching concepts vs. facts.

Formal feedback loops, reflective learning opportunities, established standards, prescribed activities are all critical to the success of the learner in the nuclear power plants, hospitals and while flying planes. The training is all formalized. Learning and expected behaviors are not left to chance, actions are parsed, best practices studied, conclusions drawn from data and the experience of experts. This is because the difference between a radioactive disaster and successfully creating electricity is formal learning events and authentic practice.

So, if you want a highly trained individual capable of performing his or her job to the highest standard, you need formal learning conducted in an authentic learning environment.

Anything less is not as effective and the performance will not be guaranteed. Without formal training if someone does something right, it is most likely by chance. Do we really expect a person to effectively sell product in a retail environment without authentic formal instruction? Do we expect a customer service employee to provide excellent customer service and use the computer system to look up critical information when the training is delivered in a classroom environment which is an environment nothing like the actual environment in which they are asked to perform. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can avoid formal learning events and we are kidding ourselves if our learning events are not as authentic as we can possibly make them. The higher the fidelity, the better the performance in the actual situation.

Do we expect college students in a economics class to understand entrepreneurship without ever having run a business? Do we expect managers or leaders to effectively operate in a crisis situation when they've only read about the five steps needed to operate in a crisis? Or discussed it in a chat room?

If you want effective, mistake free results, only formal learning events conducted in an environment as authentic as possible provide the desired level of performance and outcomes. Everything else is a compromise. Realistic, formal learning events make a difference.

If I want assurances of outcomes, I want someone formally trained.

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Damien DeBarra said...

Interesting post Karl!

At the risk of seeming contrary, isn't it true though that some behaviours, ways of acting and ways of being cannot be accurately captured in a 'formal' learning outcome? As in, doctors, police staff, lawyers and other professions are as much about shared, learned behaviours as they are about proscribed ways of behaving?

I can't help but feel that whilst your central argument is sound, there are certain learning moments that can only take place through a more informal, conversation-based approach.

Unknown said...

Damien, I can't think of any situation as you describe, but I'm not feeling imaginative these days. The reason it appears that those professions learn on the job is because they'd have to be dead to do otherwise. That doesn't mean that organized, systematic instruction is ineffective. It means that humans learn by nature of being alive.

The "informal learning" push is largely ideological, not learningogical". In effect it abandons what we know about learning from decades of study, in favor of very weak, unsupported nonsense about self-directed, automonous, antischooling agendas that started the learning slide in America in the 70's + (well and disco, too)

Anonymous said...

I liked this post a lot, but there are a couple of suppositions in the examples that you gave that I think we need to be recognized explicitly.

First, there's the supposition that there is a "right" answer, and that we know what that answer is.

Second, there's the supposition that error free performance is a worthwhile and realistic investment. That's definitely true in the cases of airline pilots, nuclear plant operators and ER staff, but it gets a little fuzzier with retail employees.

So, the formula for "a highly trained individual capable of performing his or her job to the highest standard" is presumably 1) knowing the right answer + 2) practicing that right answer in highly authentic, rigorously coached environments.

Hmm...I hadn't really considered it exactly this way before, but it seems like a lot of informal learning efforts (wikis, blogging, social networking, etc.) are a cost-distributed way of crowdsourcing #1 (knowing the right answer). Whether that's effective or not probably depends on a lot of variables (size and engagement of the network, effectiveness of correction mechanisms, knowledge base of participants), but it definitely implies an acceptable accuracy rate of much less than 100%.

Standard risk management looks at probably x impact. In the examples you gave, where the impact is death and disaster, a huge formal investment has been made in knowing the right answers for as many variations as possible.

Maybe in situations where the risk is less dire, it's acceptable to trade off accuracy for breadth and availability? I'm not necessarily advocating that -- just thinking out loud.

I just blogged about creating instruction for fraught decisions ( and think this is related. Maybe it's a matter of having some standard questions:

1) How important is accurate performance? (How important is it *really* - not just the kneejerk "Of course it's important!)
2) How confident are we that know what accurate performance is the majority of situations?
3) What's an acceptable standard of performance before somebody can go "live"?
4) How do we scaffold the gap between current state and acceptable performance (for example, if we decide 80% is good enough for an employee to go "live", how do we scaffold the other 20%?)
5) How changeable are the circumstances, and do we have the infrastructure to keep the formal knowledge base up to date on those changes?
6) Do we have a process for learning from the informal knowledge base, and incorporating that into the formal knowledge base and training?

Lots to think about -- thanks for such a thought-provoking post! For the record, I think you are completely right about formal training being necessary for effective, error-free performance. I'm going to be mulling this for a while...


jay said...

Good Lord, Karl. Let's add a few qualifiers to your claim. What's best depends on the context. And all learning is part formal and part informal.

Do you really think formal is the best way to learn to kiss? To walk? To talk?

Karl Kapp said... had me at "kiss."

Your walk, talk and kiss examples underscore Damien's suggestion that "some behaviours, ways of acting and ways of being cannot be accurately captured in a 'formal' learning outcome?" which I agree is true...but most workplace environments want people to learn certain processes in certain ways with little variability. They want, need and demand "formal learning." And we do know, as Robert indicated, that well design instruction does positively impact behavior.

Not that standardization is all good or all necessary. But many organizations value standard and formal processes.

Creative organizations value non-standard approaches and ideas. I think those organizations thrive with informal learning but, even then, it needs to be based on a shared formal knowledge, otherwise mis-communications occur.

The usablelearning indicates may be that "it depends" but what I see too often is the sacrifice of true learning design for an "informal approach" which turns out to be code for "learn on your own with no help from management...just ask your peers." While some peers are a wealth of knowledge, many are not.

I also see a kind of hierarchy from formal knowledge and learning to informal. The more novice a person, the more formal the learning needs to be. Experts have a framework and need to network to go beyond standard answers and approaches while novices cannot without the help of formal learning.

Damien DeBarra said...

I'm reading Clay Shirky's new book, Cognitive Surplus, just now and after reading the following quote this morning, found myself thinking about this debate. This is from Shirky talking about the classic 'Well, you wouldn't want a brain surgeon who learned their craft from Wikipedia, would you?' argument:

“In fact, were this preference for the professional universally applied, we would all be patronising prostitutes - they are, after all, far more experienced in their craft than most of us ever will be. By comparison, people in love are amateurs (in the most literal sense of the word). But here intimacy trumps skill. For similar reasons, I sing “Happy Birthday” to my children, even with my terrible singing voice, not because I can do a better job than Placido Domingo or Lyle Lovett, but because those talented gentlemen do not love my children as I do.”

Steve said...

Hi All,

The debate around the professional element of learning is interesting... As a man who served 24 years in the Military I found informal learning to be 'in many ways' more valuable than the formal. I found that the informal team leader type of coaching and mentoring without direction, to be useful in the contextualisation of a subject. Often young soldiers would understand 'it' before they had received any kind of formal training.

Informal learning was so important that coffee breaks were made compulsary... The reason for this was not (as some may believe) to dodge work, but had been designed to allow converstaion to take place and for individuals to gain the informal learning that took place in those discussions.

I believe we are all correct in our assumptions and theories around learning, however it is prudent (in my opinion) to believe that all learning has room for both formal and informal learning.


Allison said...

Lovely post, Karl. Provocative indeed.

Must we go one way or the other? How about balance or better, how about tailoring to the circumstances?

Seems to me that the literature (loosely defined, of course, to include blogs, the twitter world, etc.) is currently over the moon for informality. Your posting encourages, I hope, consideration of the value of formal methods too, in concert with the informal.

Hard to imagine that you or any of us who see the benefits of formal (dare I say "planned") strategies would sniff at the value of discussion boards, blogs, wikis, feeds, coaching.... or any approaches dubbed informal.

False dichotomy, I think.