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I'm a geek working as a distance learning specialist for a large corporation.

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Training vs. Learning

Is it the “training industry” or the “learning industry”? (Yeah, I know there are plenty of alternates to make this even more confusing, but let’s stick to these two for now.)

I’ve seen arguments about this on discussion boards and had lengthy conversations in meetings about it. Some people can’t even figure out why the topic comes up. I grant it’s mostly a semantic issue (though not entirely, and I’ll get to that), but I think it’s an important one. Certainly not THE answer to training’s woes (not even close), but a contributor.

Here’s the main argument that I’ve heard from the “training” camp: everyone already calls it training and knows what we do, so don’t mess with it.

(Let me quickly make a pre-argument argument here: if what we do is as essential as we know it is, and yet we are at the top of the “cut” list when money gets tight, obviously there’s a perception discrepancy and we need to change the perception of what it is we do, so yeah, let’s mess with it.)

Here’s my argument for “learning”:

  • “Training” puts the emphasis on the event. It is something that you experience where information is imparted to you (i.e., you are a passive recipient of the information). It focuses on what the trainer does to you.
  • “Learning” puts the emphasis on the learner – it’s what you do (hopefully) when presented with new information. The responsibility is on the individual to be an active participant in the learning process. It focuses on what you have to do with the trainer’s help.

Some people see that shift in emphasis as a minor squabble. “Who cares what you call it? A rose by any other name, etc., etc.”

I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

It’s about setting expectations in order to influence motivation, one of the most important parts of a successful transfer of knowledge. If you aren’t motivated when you go to a session (live, online, or whatever), you’re not going to care what’s being said and could miss vital information. So anything that can help improve your motivation to learn, however subtle, is important.

Somebody’s going to say to me, “wait, you’re saying that just calling an event a learning opportunity instead of training is going to improve the event? That’s stupid.” Yes, you’re right. That is stupid. And it’s not what I’m saying.

What I am saying is that it sets the learner’s start point a little higher on the motivation continuum. That means that the trainer might not have to try quite so hard to convince the learner to be an active participant (an essential component of useful learning). Especially in an online situation, anything that helps the user engage is vital.

I’m not saying it’ll be a huge effect, but I am saying that whatever effect there is is helpful.

Now, let’s look at another aspect of the problem. I’ll restate my definitions:

  • “Training” puts the emphasis on the event. It is something that you experience where information is imparted to you (i.e., you are a passive recipient of the information). It focuses on what the trainer does to you.
  • “Learning” puts the emphasis on the learner – it’s what you do (hopefully) when presented with new information. The responsibility is on the individual to be an active participant in the learning process. It focuses on what you have to do with the trainer’s help.

Look at the terms from the perspective of the training professional. “Training” is very inward focused: what am I creating for you; what do I provide to you? (Could be that there are egos involved in continuing to use the term “training.”) “Learning” is externally focused: what do you need to do to be successful; what do you need me to do to help you get there?

Look at where the accountability is: with training, the success or failure is all on the trainer (a heavy weight to bear); with learning it’s more of a partnership, where the learner bears at least some of the responsibility for the outcome.

Within the industry, there has been a lot of talk about making training more “learner-centric.” Great! Why not start at the beginning? Set the expectation that your participants might be called on to think. Call it learning.

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3 comments to Training vs. Learning

  • Anon

    Giving a pre-test is all the motivation the trainee needs. When they find out how little they know about the topic, their motivation level will be just fine. It will also overcome the issue you spoke of with the trainer “bearing the heavy weight” of responsibility for the trainees. Any trainer worth their salt would be able to show that they did their job (difference between pre-test and post test results) and that there are other causes that there was not a change in behavior on the job.

    Learning is something that necessarily transfers to on the job performance as a relatively permanent change in behavior…there is no guarantee that a trainee will change that behavior if there are other environmental(cultural) issues in the workplace. Trainers need to know their craft and be able to communicate the issues to management, supervisors, etc. to give them an understanding of the issues. The problem is that there are too many trainers that *think* they know their job, but do not have the profound knowledge that Deming spoke of. There is one hell of a lot more to training than designing and delivering training. Those who do not understand this are the only ones in danger of being terminated, downsized, etc. Management knows the value of a good trainer because a good trainer is able to show evidence, by using Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Evaluation, of training’s impact on organizational performance.

    Reply to this comment

    Jeff says:

    I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying. I don’t see that any of it negates what I’m saying, either, but you’re saying some good stuff. Thanks.

    Reply to this comment

  • Anon

    Jeff:

    Thanks for the kind words. The only issue I would take with calling it “learning” is that what happens may very well NOT create a relatively permanent change in behavior. I certainly understand where you are coming from, but there is no way to say whether any “learning” takes place until what they have been taught is demonstrated on the job. Essentially, what I am saying is that it makes no difference if they can regurgitate material from the session in a post test…that is not a sign that learning has taken place, it is a sign that the trainer has done his job, at least in the classroom. IMO, learning has not occurred until the trainer has observed a relatively permanent change in behavior, (after the fact) which should have a positive impact on the organization. From that perspective, calling it training is more appropriate because there is no evidence that learning has taken place until level 3 evaluations have been performed well down the road. Although Kirkpatrick’s model is, in principle, something many trainers would do good to follow, I even take issue with HIS definitions of learning and behavior. However, he is essentially saying the same thing, but using different labels. I was taught by an old school technical trainer whom I think can walk on water. Therefore, I adhere strictly to the definition he taught me of learning. Personally, I cannot call anything learning until, well after the fact, we have observed a relatively permanent change in behavior. IMO, calling training “learning” takes away from the trainer’s responsibility for knowing whether or not training is the appropriate intervention and the trainee’s responsibility to demonstrate that he has actually learned something by demonstrating the same by based on future observation.

    For the record, I take the same issue with college education. Many people supposedly “learn” lots of things in college. Can they apply what they learned in real life situations? Sometimes, sometimes not. I am college educated (Said just so it is evident that I am not bashing college education, not to toot my own horn.), but I know many who are college educated who I could not even trust to go buy me a 69 cent loaf of bread at Aldi. :-)

    Reply to this comment

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