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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Pragmatic Learning: It's not "fun"

In the mid-nineties Microsoft invited me to see what they were doing in education. I looked at what they had built and laughed. They had animated some chemical equations. They thought that would make chemistry more interesting to kids. (They never asked why it mattered that kids balance chemical equations but knew that if they were animated the experience would be much better somehow.)  

I was reminded of this the other day when a pharmaceutical company asked us to do work for them and insisted that whatever we built had to include animation. I asked if they wanted to show a whale eating a planet or something that one could only show through animation, but they said “no, they need their training to be fun.” Of course, this animation thing is just part of a larger problem. Most training is boring.

In general, training is not fun. Actually, it is quite unusual when any formal learning is fun. When I think about learning and adjectives to describe good education, I think of profound, exciting, insightful, thought-provoking, but not “fun.” Are games fun? This is an important question for people in training because not only animation but now “gamification” is a new trend. But are “games” fun? Winning is fun. Interacting with others with whom you are playing can be fun. Games can be entertaining and sometime they are fun, but when we think about making training more effective, we need to think less about having fun and more about what it means to learn. These are odd ideas I know, but actually very important ones, so let me explain:

I play softball. Learning to hit involves many years of trial and error. I have been playing softball for more than 60 years. I am not an expert at hitting. I am not bad, but there are always people better then me. When I happen to hit a ball so well that it gets by everyone and I can get a triple or a home run, I am very excited. I am pleased with myself. People cheer for me. Is it fun? No.

It was the result of hard work, and I am psychologically invested in doing it. But as any softball player will admit, the fun part is a “come from behind” win in the last inning or laughing about the game with friends over beers later on.  Hanging out with friends and laughing is fun. I don't learn much in those circumstances however. When I learn, it is because I have a goal and have worked hard towards achieving it. It is satisfying to succeed. Of course, I enjoy whatever victory might come, but fun? NO. It is the wrong word and the wrong idea. We are confused about what learning is really about. So we create silly words, like nano- learning, or make absurd references to neuroscience and lose the forest for the trees.

When parents raise children before they go to school at 5 or 6, what do they teach them? Nothing that looks like something in a course or a classroom.  

Parents don’t put kids in classes or courses when they are little (unless, of course, they need some day care.) They do not sit them down for lessons. Nevertheless, in early childhood, children learn to speak their language, navigate their house and their neighborhood, get along with other children, operate within the family rules and structure, and they learn whatever might be of interest to them from how to play with dolls or trucks to how build a city with blocks. No lessons. No courses. 

Teaching? Mostly it occurs when they need help. My daughter said to me after coming upstairs to ask me a question one day when she was 5, “I will be back when I need you again.” (She has been coming back ever since.)

My purpose in writing all this to make a clear a controversial point. We need to stop thinking that delivery of learning is about creating “courses.”

Really? Always? No more courses ever? How will we train people? 

I don’t mean that we should never build courses, let me make that clear. So, let me start with which kind of courses should be saved and which should go. I started helping Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) with learning and training in 1989. They knew what they had wasn’t very good. They made trainees read “green books” (referred to by one and all as FGBs.) They made people attend courses who were clearly sleeping through them. They knew they needed help. They told me that they would choose to offer a course on something in say March and that the attendees would include people who had been working on that thing for six months already and some who wouldn’t be working on that thing for six more months. But they could only hold the course once a year. They figured that building an online course might improve the situation, but this kind of issue was endemic at Andersen and speaks to the first real problem in making people take courses.

The people who take the course may not need what they are being taught at exactly the moment the course is offered.

In college this is nearly always the case. We are so used to it that we expect when we take a course that we may not use what we have learned for years or ever. We make kids take algebra because “they will need it later" when hardly anyone ever does. Corporate training people ought to be smarter than that, but oddly they are not. (They all went to school so they think training should be like what they know.)

Why does this matter? Let’s think about children again. We wouldn’t offer a course about “the past tense in English” to our child who just said “taked” instead of “took.” We would simply correct them. Courses are often offered because companies can’t teach at the exact moment of need. Well, I am here to say that they can. One issue in improving training is to convert courses offered every now and then into experiences that include “just in time help”. This is very important because people forget what you teach them when they can’t immediately put it into use. A child will say “took” as soon as they are corrected. An employee will not remember what they were taught if they can’t use that information immediately. 

This leads us to a simple idea:

Eliminate the majority of courses and replace them with experiences that contain just in time help when that is possible.

Now let’s think about other kinds of courses.

There are a many courses that attempt to teach the impossible. “Leadership” courses are a good example of this phenomenon. How exactly would you learn to lead from a course? Should we talk about the ten principles of leadership?  Should we read books on leadership and discuss? All the talk in the world does not make someone into a leader. But companies do have this problem. They want to train leaders. What should they do? If they stop thinking that they want a course, it would help.

How do children learn to be leaders? All through childhood there are kids who tell people what to do and there are kids who listen to them. How does this happen? It happens very simply, actually. It happens naturally. Some kids want to lead and some kids want to follow. Some kids want to lead but no one listens to them. Others lead and are followed.  So, I am skeptical about leadership courses. On the other hand, managing a project is complicated and it would be a lot better to manage a few fictional projects in fictional situations than it would be to learn project management on the job and possibly screw up something important. Leaders do learn to lead better over time. Project managers learn to manage projects better over time. The difference is between what I will call natural skills and artificial skills.

Speaking is a natural skill. Some people are good at it and others aren’t. Anyone can get better at it over time, but I wouldn’t be a big fan of a “how to speak” course. Having someone who criticizes speeches you give is a different story however. When I was just starting out, someone I respected said to me, right after he heard a speech I gave: if you try to say everything you know in a hour, Roger, you don’t know much. I didn’t need to take a course in speaking. I needed to be critiqued just in time. As you can see, I still remember that lesson. It wouldn’t have meant much if I read it, or heard it in a lecture, or in course, but because his advice was about me and what I had just done, it stuck with me. This is how we learn — not through courses but through experiences. And, that experience is much better understood when we have someone giving us some good advice about what we just did.

So, another problem in building courses is this:

Don’t build courses that attempt to teach something that no one has ever learned from a course in real life.

Then what should we do? To foster leaders, an organization needs to look and see who is leading. Then the job of the training organization is to help people who are natural leaders lead better.  But sometimes we need our employees to do something that might not be entirely natural to them. What do we do then? We must build a situation that they can try out and help them get better at it. You can call this a course if you like, but it really is something quite different from what passes as a course in school or in training.  

There are courses that are worth building. These always have the same property. Everyone is on the same page at the same time. If an airplane manufacturer needs to teach people how to operate or repair a new piece of machinery, a course is just what they need. It should be a learn-by-doing course with lots of practice and just in time help. No one will learn to do this without a course, and individual instruction is not important to focus on when many students are in exactly the same situation and all can be handled simultaneously. Notice this means they can all practice immediately. This is what learning by doing is all about.

But, and this is an important point, this does not justify building algebra courses, or chemistry courses, or history courses. No student needs to learn algebra at a particular time. There could be a need to learn certain aspects of mathematics within the context of doing something that requires it. A short course in, say, an aspect of statistics to help someone understand how to interpret data who is actually needing to interpret data is the right kind of mathematics course. We have gotten caught up in the school model of courses where everyone has to take a course whether they are interested in learning the material being taught or not and the material must completely cover the subject area.  The fact that this goes on in corporations is nothing short of insane. Schools provide courses because the structure of the school has only so many teachers, students who need to be kept busy all day, and government regulators who like to make rules and tests.  Corporations do not have this problem, especially when the material can be offered online.   

Courses need not be administered to multitudes. One can have a course that is for one person only and can be used when needed. Such a course must be online since we can’t expect teachers to show up just when you need them. The reason to build an online course is not so you can have 10,000 attendees.   There are two very important reasons to build online courses however. The first is that is possible to do things in simulation that are not possible in a classroom. Air flight simulators are a very good way to learn to fly, for example. We need simulators for everything. These need to be on computers so people can practice all kinds of skills when they want to (or when their company needs them to). The second reason is that teachers are very important for learning, not ones who lecture you, but ones who notice what you just did and can give helpful hints or answer questions. In an online world these teachers can be readily available, If you want to design an airplane, the beat teachers may be in Seattle. It just shouldn't matter where you are. Online courses that contain simulations and give one the opportunity to try things out, learn from one’s mistakes, and practice, are the future of education in school and at work.

We can also build simulations using no computer at all. We can create simulated experiences amongst a group of people led by experts who create realistic situations and help trainees profit from those situations. The computer might very well be irrelevant. The real issue is having real experiences, and conversations about those experiences directed by an expert. 

Just doing a course all by yourself may not be the best idea. We do need help when we are learning and we do need people with whom we can discuss new ideas or problems. So, we can, and should, build courses for people who will take them when they want to, but we must provide, and this is not hard to do in an online world, connections to other people who are taking the same course, so that ideas and lessons learned can be discussed. We don’t really learn without practice and part of practice is conversation. Practice includes talking about what we are thinking.

The real issue having an appropriate vision of the online world in which education and training will eventually completely reside. Classrooms will disappear. You Tube, and TED talks, which look like the kind of replacement I am talking about, are still full of talking heads. MOOCs are still classes and lectures but without the physical room. 

So we need courses it seems, but really do we? What could we have instead? Let’s return to thinking about small children. What children have, if they are lucky, is a parent who is always around. Some kids are sent off to day care as fast as a place can be found for them. Then, they are in classroom- like situations all their childhood and are always treated as part of a mass. My main problem with courses is, of course, exactly that: Massification. This has become one of the “in” buzz words in the training world, sending exactly the wrong message. Little kids who do have a parent around also have toys, games, and trips to the park, or zoo, or store, or parties. In other words, their parents provide them with experiences, and it is within those experiences that they have questions and can initiate conversations and get help.

What this tells us is that real autonomous, motivated, learning happens when you are in the middle of doing something, and questions arise in your mind about it. This is exactly what we need to build into corporate training (and into school if they could possibly change their models.)

I learned what I have just said from an experience (of course). In this case, we were building sales training for one of the phone companies. They were selling Yellow Page ads. We built a learn by doing course, going through many different experiences and issues. But the sales trainees were smarter than we were. When they were about to sell an ad to a doctor, they found the “selling a yellow page ad to a doctor” part of the course we had built and took it before they called on the doctor. When they were selling to florists  (who behave very differently than doctors,)  they took the florist part of the course. My team learned that we could build training in pieces, meant to be delivered just in time. 

We learned this again when we built a coaching course for IBM. People weren’t going through the entire course. They would use it when they anticipated a difficult coaching session and would find a similar scenario in the course to go through prior to their actual coaching session. You might well forget what you learned just in time, but that would be fine because you could always practice it again. One would assume that after a while one wouldn’t need to keep re-learning, but what would be the harm in brushing up on the way to making a sales call or coaching session?

Would that be fun? Suddenly fun is important in the training world as is “bite-sized nano learning", “gamification,” “badges” and many ways of all saying the same thing: Most people think that doing training is boring. And of course, they are right. But the opposite of boring is not “fun” or a “game” or “nano.”

To understand this we must think more about fun and think more about learning. I used to ask my undergraduate students, (just for fun) to tell me what they had learned that day. I never heard anyone (not even once) respond with something they had learned in a classroom. They had learned something about their friends, or about life, or about themselves. Course work was never mentioned. The stuff they told me was never fun stuff. It might be that they had learned what their girlfriend needed from them, or that they shouldn’t order the hamburger in the cafeteria ever again.  On a daily basis we learn a lot about the world we live in. It is rarely “fun” to learn it, but is often important to learn it. 

What does this tell us about training? If you have to put something in a game format in order to make someone learn it, you are teaching the wrong stuff in the wrong way. If people won’t take your course because it doesn’t have fun animated characters, it is because the material is boring, and more importantly, because the trainee has deemed it to be irrelevant to his or her success.

On the other hand, it is inherently interesting to learn something that you think you can put to immediate use. We need to understand that “interesting” and “useful" are not the same as “fun” and “badges.” We need to make sure the training itself is interesting and useful, and not worry about the trappings we surround the training with.

So how do we do that?

Let’s think about small children again. What do they need in order to learn? 

1. something they are trying to do
2. someone to ask when they need help

It is really just that simple.

In order to make learning in childhood work, we create or enable situations that are interesting or appeal to some intrinsic goal (like eating). And then we make sure help is available. We also enable discussion and approval: (“Look at what I just did. Did I do it right?”)

With this simple idea, I have told you all you need to know about training. Because if we can build “on-demand online training,” we can change the world of training significantly. This is what we have to do:

  1. We need to anticipate the needs of trainees
  2. We need to provide a way for them to satisfy those needs
  3. We need to provide people for them to discuss things with

This means that we should have:

1 experiences to try out virtually, available on demand

2. online mentors, available on demand

3. co-workers with whom to discuss experiences

Can we do this? Of course. We need to stop building courses and provide an over the shoulder autonomous entity that knows what you are working on and can offer help. That help would range from just-in-time advice, to just-in-time practice in a new environment, to more prolonged course-like material when there is something complex to learn how to do. This is what important AI would look like. We should not have courses that provide information. We should have courses that provide experiences. And we need to provide mentors and peers with whom to have conversations. Those mentors should be people until we can build good AI mentors.


Lew Perelman said...

OK, not 'fun.' Perhaps 'rewarding' is a better term.

Also, what about vicarious learning? You used to talk a lot about the importance of stories.

Ivansky said...

Thanks for the great article and the experience shared. I've been thinking a lot about learner's experience and find your insights and recommendations to be spot on. I wouldn't be surprised if this article starts a whole "just in time education" movement.

I have a minor objection: I think certain types of learning can be fun, e.g., for the sheer love of knowledge, or personal development, or picking up a new skill which will have applications down the line. Sometimes a well structured course can bring students "knowledge buzz" as they see connections between concepts that they previously didn't know about.

I wrote a reply post about this here:

Carpanta said...

Thank you for this article. I work in a company that provides training to workers in the construction sector, not only for teaching a trade, but transversal content such as health and safety or energy efficiency in their work.

It is very difficult to engage them in these two last topics, but government is very focused in skill them, because is a real need for the "figures" and "emisions".

I would like to ask for advise for this: how do you address people who are not related with new technologies and that are not very interested in something that obviously is better to know for them (to be safe, for example)?

When I read about learning, I usually find they talk about formal education or learning in a company, but always for, let's say, high profiles (sorry, I am not a native english speaker), such as managers o administrative posts. But never for workers, blue collars.

Thank you again for tha article :)

Roger Schank said...

You need to do one of two things; either bedlam virtual training and a sort of game , where they get sick (or lose) if they polite the environment or fail to keep people safe; the second option is to train them for job they won't have like emissions inspector or safety manager and have them have to deal with simulated situations and make decisions about them; the usual method of having them memorize truths is not helpful

Paul Miller said...

Most companies care more that their smart employees figure it out on their own. Those who don't get axed in the next restructuring. Make thing as data centric as possible and get rid of those who can't meet the numbers. Big data is big brother.