Extreme meta-training: the importance of size

A good training session doesn’t just lump participants into groups willy-nilly, driven by nothing more than the group size and the facilitator’s ability to divide numbers in their head. Splitting participants into groups is a well-thought-through process of considering the objective of the activity and the dynamics needed to make it tick.

Here is an imagined example, a training session using different group sizes to discuss using different group sizes in training sessions: extreme meta-training!

Imagined Example

The facilitator says: Split into fours and discuss on a flip-chart the advantage of being in a group of four

Why is this better than a three or a pair?

Why is it usually better than a five or a six?

Rather than bore the crap out of each other by reading out your flip-charts to people who aren’t really listening, a more bearable alternative is:

Just tell us one thing – the thing you thought was most useful or interesting and let’s discuss it a bit … what do the other groups think?

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Three ways to learn from experience (or how to deal with idiots)

If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you
If you’re determined to learn, no one can stop you

Zig Ziglar

I am assuming if you’re reading this, you like Ziglar’s quote above, and are already convinced of two things:

  • That being good at learning is an important skill; and
  • That you can learn new stuff, despite however many years you may have accumulated

On the first point, in our fast-changing world of immense complexity, the ability to capture the right learning from our experience is more and more important – and we don’t just learn from experience automatically; it’s a skill.

The difference between someone with ten years experience and someone who has one year’s experience ten times, is that the first person learnt from that experience.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn

Alvin Toffler

On the second point, it used to be thought that our abilities and talents were static after the age of about seven: this is the fixed mindset.

There is some truth to this, it gets harder to learn as you get older because the neural pathways are hewn more and more clearly into the grey matter, but research has shown that not only are our brains more plastic than previously thought, but that learning new stuff makes our brains even less fixed and more able to learn (the growth mindset)!

This means not only can we learn new tricks, but learning new tricks stops our brains from growing old!

The quickest way to become an old dog is to stop learning new tricks

John Rooney

I have written about the importance of a growth mindset here.

To build on those assumptions, I want to share three tools I find useful for being a better experiential learner.

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If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way

We should be careful of the curse of quotes.

A good quote is a dangerous thing, its pithy cleverness can suggest a lot more wisdom than is actually present.

This is a danger much amplified by social media.

A superficial clever-sounding meme can spread like a pandemic before a much wiser nuanced opinion has got its shoes on.

To paraphrase Dan Dennett’s brilliant word deepity*, I call these truthities: “a claim that appears true because it is so brilliantly phrased, but is in fact false or misleading”

On that positive note, I present below a list of quotes that I believe are true, wise and inspiring about the world of learning:

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L&D evaluation: I wouldn’t start from here

This article builds on L&D is not about training courses, it’s about improving workplace performance

In the L&D business, evaluation is the step in the process that gets done least well.

It is the poor relation, the neglected tail-end-Charlie at the end of the cycle that feels more like a box-ticky obligation than a critical cog in the machine.

I think this is dangerous.

If we are unable to provide a professional set of results to justify the investment made in our services, we are doomed to be stuck on the periphery.

This leads to what Charles Jennings calls the “Conspiracy of convenience” where everyone is happy that the training happened and the ragtag of MI measures and happy sheet smiley faces confirm that the box was ticked properly.

As a socially-awkward INTP, I am never quite sure when I am being super clever and when I am being hyperbolic, so please tell me to calm down if this is over the top, but I believe that showing senior leaders a jumble of unimportant graphs and expecting a pat on the head is infantilising the profession, reinforcing the idea that we are not central to the organisation’s success.

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It’s not about training, it’s about performance

Learning and development exists to improve workplace performance through learning.

L&D is there to help people get better at their jobs.

It wasn’t always thought of as having such a broad scope.

It used to be called Training, and it was only about delivering training sessions. The people at the front of the room were often called Instructors; their job was to be a font of knowledge – an expert in a specific content area – and to walk people through activities designed to transfer that knowledge.

This is a familiar model based on the schoolroom – and as most of us know through bitter experience, the “sage on the stage” model is not an efficient or effective way of transferring knowledge from one human to another.

Most of us recognise the wisdom in Mark Twain’s pithy quote …

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education

… especially since the development of the Internet that has brought so much knowledge (and nonsense) to our fingertips. I have learnt far more from a couple of hours on Wikipedia or YouTube than I did in several years of schooling, with the added advantage of not being beaten up by the big boys who didn’t appreciate my thick glasses and cheeky know-all wit.

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Contracting in Learning and Development

In the podcast The secrets of accelerated learning; create the right environment with Krystyna Gadd, we talked about the process of “contracting” in training sessions and other learning and development activities.

I haven’t found a definitive definition of exactly what contracting is in this context, indeed the word doesn’t seem to even exist!

The best I could do was this from Dictionary.com, as a definition for “contract”:

[noun, adjective, verb 15–17, 21, 22 kon-trakt; verb kuh n-trakt]
 
1. an agreement between two or more parties for the doing or not doing of something specified

So, we can assume “contracting” is the act of doing that.

A reasonably good definition is this one from FacingHistory.org where they discuss various teaching strategies:

Contracting is the process of openly discussing with your students expectations about how classroom members will treat each other

I might change the words a bit for adult L&D, and include “… and agreeing” after the word “discussing”, but I think it’s good enough.

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When people have nothing left to learn

You know when you get asked a question and then three hours later you think of the answer you should have said?

Frustrating, isn’t it?

It drives me nuts.

Not to the point where I want to go on a furious rampage through the city streets, more like I want to write a terse LinkedIn post. Each to their own …

It happened the other day when I was being interviewed for TLDChat about L&D, change management and leadership development. I was asked about what to do when you’ve got a room full of leaders and you get one who thinks they already know everything and have nothing left to learn.

If this happens in real life, I’d know what to do … much as I enjoy working with open-minded professionals who love learning, when you do this sort of thing a lot, you kind of like (in small doses) the awkward buggers who make it harder. I wouldn’t want a room full of them, and would tire if they persisted for the whole session, but now and again it’s fun to test your wits against the tougher cookies.

What I said during the interview was fine, but it was incomplete and vague.

It would be misleading to suggest there’s a secret one-size-fits-all formula that always works, and it is correct that it’s a judgement call where you need to flexibly apply soft skills honed through years of thorny experience, but there is some solid ground beneath our feet here, and there are a series of steps you can take that will increase the likelihood of you being effective.

So this is what I wish I’d said …

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Making training effective: closing the habit gap

Training has a success rate of 1%

This means that of the total potential value (TPV) that could be added to the organisation if all the skills and knowledge of the training course were implemented consistently and to a high standard, only 1% is realised.

In other words: rV (realised value) is equal to 1% of TPV (total possible value).

OK, I just made that up.

Not just the numbers, I also made up the concept of rV and TPV.

None of it came from any form of evaluation or research, I just pulled it out the air – but they sound true, and that’s good enough for me to construct the following argument.

There are three internal factors that get in the way of learning leading to improved performance. For the first two, I borrow from Blanchard and Hersey model of “Situational Leadership”, the other is from observation and from Peter Senge’s rubber-band analogy about habitual behaviour.

  • Motivation (do they want to do it)
  • Confidence (do they feel they are able to do it)
  • Habit (do they default to other behaviours – do they remember to do it)

There are also three external factors, but I’m not including those here for fear of this post turning into a tome – but for completeness they are culture, management, and opportunity.

Training is concerned primarily with closing knowledge gaps, and to an extent addressing skills gaps – at least giving the learner a start on closing the skills gap.

Training can influence the motivation gap, and by encouraging action planning, coaching and practice, it can begin to tackle the confidence and even habit gap, but it’s that pesky habit gap that’s the big stumbling block.

(See here for a great podcast on action planning and other learning implementation strategies)

The Habit Gap

A habit is the default response, it’s the six-lane neurological pathway that cuts through our brain, it’s the road you travel on autopilot because you don’t notice the poorly-maintained rabbit paths snaking off to the side, paths that could lead anywhere.

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Six steps to successful training course role plays

It’s not often that people turn up to training courses eager to crack on with role playing.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a delegate arrive buzzing with enthusiasm fueled by the anticipation of a decent bit of role play.

More often they express their reluctance and terror about the very idea.

Yet, despite this widespread fear and revulsion, it’s often the bit of the course that gets the best feedback at the end of the day.

So how can we make sure the role play works as well as it can, without scaring the crap out of everybody?

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How to keep learners engaged on training courses

Everyone seems to be down on training courses these days.

I’m not.

I think a training course can be a fantastic way to learn, as long as it’s part of a bigger effort and not just a formulaic one-off isolated event with no connection to the real world.

As Learning and Development types, how we facilitate training courses is a huge part of our job, and an important way we establish credibility.

As any trainer knows, it’s not a lot different from any other type of performance art. If you go on stage and flop, your credibility is destroyed. If you kill (in the cool sense of the word), you can be seen as a credible professional, allowing you to be influential across a whole lot more than just training course provision.

But how do we do that when the average human attention span has slipped to less than that of a goldfish (now down to 8 seconds)?

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How you measure training success might be stopping you from succeeding

What is the most important thing about the training courses you deliver?

Is it that you get good feedback? You get top marks on the happy sheet? The organisation is willing to invite you back for more work?

Probably all of the above, because this is largely how we measure our success.

But it’s not how we succeed.

We succeed when people learn, and more so when they implement that learning and improve their performance, improve the organisation, improve their lives!

People learn stuff when their ideas and assumptions are challenged, when they think differently, when they change something about themselves and the way they deliver within the organisation.

Most of us working in Learning and Development are passionate about this.

We want to change people’s professional lives and improve organisational performance, it’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. We care about the impact we can have and we strive to get better, even to the point of reading a blog post like this one, just in case there’s something we can learn from it.

Yet the way we measure our performance undermines our ability to have that positive impact.

Collusion of Mediocrity

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Flipping classrooms – silly name for a good idea?

Traditional training is based on the model where an expert trainer stands at the front and tells people stuff.

This is known as “the sage on the stage” model, or, as Brazilian Philosopher and educator Paulo Freire calls it: the Banking Concept:

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.

(Source: The Banking Concept of Education by Paulo Freire)

To put it another way, an active all-knowing speaker educates groups of passive ignorant listeners.

Freire’s conclusion is that this approach doesn’t work because …

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

This conclusion is kind of what the stupidly-named “flipped classroom” idea is about: moving away from the “sage on the stage” approach of shoving facts into passive students’ memories, to a model where the trainer becomes “the guide on the side”, helping active learners to engage socially to enquire, discuss and discover in order to build genuine understanding and deep knowledge.

Learnt taught

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Creating a learning organisation

There are many reasons why the learning organization remains so tantalizingly elusive.

Like any big idea that’s about intangible stuff like culture and attitude, the concept suffers from being a bit wishy-washy and vulnerable to the told-you-so cynics who love to point out how all the stuff isn’t perfect.

It also asks people, employees and managers, to behave in ways that are not necessarily in their own short-term best interests. It requires people to be mature, professional, think long-term, share and collaborate, and create safe environments where people can make mistakes and learn.

Not only that, it’s a staggeringly ambitious vision for an organization. The standard definitions offer a glittery utopian future that few would see as undesirable, but most would fail to even know where to start, let alone be able to put together a coherent programme that would impress the finance department.

So, I thought I’d solve all of these problem by developing a three-stage definition that would also serve as a road-map.

Learning Org

This isn’t to suggest that this is simple. It isn’t. The road is strewn with obstacles, but let us not be deterred by the difficulty of the terrain, let us break it down and get stuck in …

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Social learning: three things we need when learning in groups

All you need to do to create a group is get some individual people and shove them together.

That’s it!

There is no additional ingredient required, no further information, just a bunch of individual people … and yet when that group forms, it is quite different from the sum of the individual parts.

The individuals within the group are different animals than when they’re on their own, they have different needs and will tend to try to satisfy those needs in different ways.

William Schutz came up with the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation (FIRO) theory (way back in 1958) to look at this very question.

Seeing as most training is done in groups, I wanted to see how this applies to training and what specific concrete tools we can use to help with the group-identification needs of training delegates.

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