Most managers will need to be involved in the learning and development of their staff. So, do you know the steps that learning follows? If you don’t, then take a look at Bloom’s taxonomy. It’s the label for a number of interconnected ideas around how we acquire mastery of any topic.
Benjamin Bloom was an educational psychologist who started work on this, with others, in the 1940s. They first published their work in 1956 and it has evolved since. But the changes have been ones of detail and its relevance and applicability remain.
The world changes fast, and to keep up, you need to be learning new stuff all the time. And some of that needs to be from a large and complex body of knowledge. Yet, as a working manager, your time is at a premium. So is there any way you can create accelerated learning?
The answer is yes. Over many years, we have accumulated a broad and eclectic body of knowledge about how we learn. It combines experience, practical psychology, and neuroscience. And practitioners bring this all together under the banner of Accelerated Learning.
Training is important. But how do you know if it has worked? That was the question that Donald Kirkpatrick tackled in his 1954 PhD dissertation. He looked at how industrial training can be evaluated and produced what is still the most widely-used training evaluation model in the world.
And, although Kirkpatrick Partners, under the leadership of his son and daughter-in-law, has modified the model to create the ‘New World Kirkpatrick Model’, it remains remarkably unchanged. It is a sign of the precision with which Kirkpatrick defined four levels against which we can evaluate training.
And, if you say ‘what has training evaluation got to do with management?’ – consider this. As a manager, you’ll be constantly training your team members informally And you’ll often be securing them places on external training – or at least signing-off on it. How can you know whether that training is effective? Simple: by evaluating it against Kirkpatrick’s four levels.
Training Needs Analysis (TNA) is now increasingly referred to as Learning Needs Analysis (LNA). This is a reflection of the far wider range of options for how we learn at work. But, regardless of terminology, just what is Training Needs Analysis, and how can you do carry it out?
At the heart of this Big Idea is a recognition that we all need to learn new stuff, to improve our work performance. Life-long learning is a good thing in itself. But as job roles change, and as we move through our careers, it is a necessary part of working life too. So, Training Needs Analysis does what its name implies: it is an analysis of the training or learning we need, to do our job (or our next job) as well as possible.
As with so much else in psychology these days, the long cherished idea of learning styles is coming under deep scrutiny. The empirical basis for the idea was always weak, and now new experiments are finding null or statistically weak results.
Yet the ready association that many trainers and educators have between David Kolb’s name and the idea of learning styles is an over-simplification of his deeper thinking. David Kolb gives us a valuable model that should be better known among practising managers, who see part of their role as being about developing the capabilities of their teams.
David Kolb was born in 1939 and went to the private Knox college to study psychology. After receiving his BA in 1961, he went to Harvard, where he completed his MA in Social Psychology in 1964, followed by a PhD in 1967.
He took a teaching position at MIT as Assistant Professor of Organizational Psychology and Management, and left there (as Associate Professor) ten years later, to take up a chair in Organizational Behaviour at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.
In 1981, Kolb and his wife, Alice, co-founded Experience Based Learning Systems (EBLS) to commercialise Kolb’s thinking on experiential learning and, in particular, his learning styles inventory.
Kolb and Fry sought to synthesise the work of many earlier thinkers and researchers into how experience leads to learning. Kolb has said that he was particularly influenced by Dewey, Piaget, and Lewin. Their model of learning is most easily summarised as a cycle, although they were at pains to point out that this is just a simplificatiion. Because things are different on every iteration, Kolb prefers the metaphor of a spiral. Nonetheless, we will follow the commoner and easier to read metaphor in the illustration below.
The principal critique of this model is one Kolb is fully aware of. It oversimplifies a complex and more messy learning process that involves other faculties, like memory, and can proceed via different routes from this cycle.
This is a fair critique. The strength of the model, however, is that it provides a helpful framework for developing workplace learning opportunities. It is very much the basis of Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT approach to instructional design.
Kolb went on to argue that we are not all equally able or motivated in the four abilities of cultivating experience, reflecting on it, generalising it, and applying our insights. Indeed, he went on to suggest that we tend to develop an orientation towards one pole of each of the two dimensions:
Experience – Abstraction (or Feeling and Thinking, in Jungian language, which Kolb seems to like)
Applying – Reflecting (or Doing/Sensing and Reflecting/Intuiting in Jungian language)
This leads to four learning styles:
I think the empirical evidence for this is based mostly on testing of the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory and I am not competent to assess its strength. However, it does seem clear that we all have two things: preferences and adaptability. You may find some colleagues have one or another learning style preference, but you will also find that we can all adapt and use multiple styles.
This is as it must be. Learning is a whole brain activity, and if, as James Zull suggests, different learning styles call upon different brain regions, then surely the best learning takes place when all are fully integrated.
Reg Revans made one of the most significant contributions to management and leadership training. His influence continues to be felt, yet his name is comparatively unknown.
Reg Revans’ early life placed him alongside genius. Born in 1907, he attended Florence Nightingale’s funeral at the age of three and competed in the 1928 Olympic Games. He went on to study physics at University College London (BSC) and Cambridge (PhD), later working as a post-doctoral fellow with Nobel Prizewinners including Thompson and Rutherford. He found them to be brilliant teachers; not through their instruction, but because of their willingness to listen, question, and discuss. The Times obituary reports that Revans recalled Albert Einstein saying to him:
‘If you think you understand a problem,
make sure you are not deceiving yourself.‘
He left academia to work, first for Essex Council (as an education officer) and then for what became the National Coal Board (as Director of education), where he started to formulate his ideas about management training. In 1955, he returned to academic life as Professor of Industrial Management at The University of Manchester. There, he developed his ideas of what became Action Learning, based on a simple principle that he held to be fundamental: the key to better performance lay not with ‘experts’ but with practitioners themselves.
At the heart of his thinking was a belief that practitioners learn best when working together to help each other with their problems, and then taking their answers away and implementing them in the workplace. Revans distinguished between two complementary aspects of learning:
Knowledge conveyed by traditional pedagogy, lectures, classes, books, videos. This is most valuable when the body of knowledge is well established, uncontested, and largely settled
Questions asked of experiences, at the right time, and considered with care, will yield new insights. This approach to learning is best suited to arenas where personal insights are most useful, where there is no fixed body of knowledge that commands a strong consensus, or where the situation is subject to constant change.
Revans designed the process of Action Learning to exploit the power of insightful questions to raise awareness and prompt meaningful action. The process is well documented elsewhere but is based on small groups (5-8 members) working together to solve real problems that each member of the Action Learning Set brings to the group. Participants focus on exploring answers to simple but deep questions like:
What do we really want to achieve
What is stopping us?
What could we do about it?
Who has knowledge (P) that we could use?
Who has an interest in solving the problem?
Who has the power to get something done?
Whilst Action Learning Sets initially benefit from a skilled facilitator, their modern incarnation as high functioning mastermind groups, learning loops and other similar structures do not always require a separate facilitator. As participants get used to the process, they can manage it themselves.
Here is a short (3 mins) video of Revans speaking about his ideas.
Argyris’ early academic career brought him into contact with the great psychologist, Kurt Lewin, and culminated in academic posts, first at Yale (1951-1971) and then at Harvard. He was a behavioural scientist who devoted much of his research to understanding organisational behaviour and learning, noting that:
‘individual learning is a necessary but insufficient condition for organisational learning’
His early work focused on the practice and development of T Groups; a form of training (the T of T Group) in which managers are able to learn through social interaction. These were popular in the 1960s and 70s for the success they had in shifting interpersonal behaviours of participants. However, Argyris and others became disenchanted as evidence grew that the impact of these interventions was not sustained back in the workplace.
This led Argyris to theorise that the way we behave within organisations is different from the ideas we claim to profess. He labelled the two sides of this distinction: ‘theories in use’ for what we do, and ‘espoused theories’ for what we say. Our behaviours – theories in use – are driven only partially by espoused theories, and to a greater extent by fears, pride, entrenched patterns and the need to conform. Indeed, he suggested that we don’t just behave as we do, rather than as we profess; but we are often unaware of the gap.
His most famous single contribution, articulated in his book, co-written with Donald Schön, called ‘Organisational Learning‘, was the idea of ‘double loop learning’.
Argyris argued that reasoning needs to take pride of place as the basis for decision-making. However, the prevailing model of learning that he and Schön defined as ‘single loop learning’ is an impoverished approach.
In Single Loop learning, we look at the results of our actions and re-think the strategies we chose.
The flaw in this, they argued, is that our chosen approach comes from a deep seated set of interpretations, assumptions, values and models. What we should be prepared to do is to challenge those and search for better, more reliable assumptions and models. This is Double-Loop learning.
Argyris further pointed out that learning comes from either a match or a mis-match. If our actions produce the desired result, then we can learn from the well-selected behaviours. If they do not, then we can learn from the mis-match either by correcting our actions (single-loop learning) or by revising the governing variables (assumptions) that led to our choice of actions (double-loop learning).
You can learn more about Argyris and Double Loop Learning on the excellent infed website.
You may also be interested in the following pocketbooks:
There are lots of models for how to improve learning and, in the management training arena, The Kolb learning cycle and the work of Peter Honey and Alan Mumford on learning styles are well known. Less so is the work of American educationalist, Dr Bernice McCarthy.
McCarthy taught at all grade levels, including special education, and went on to study for her doctorate at Northwestern University. There, she developed her model to help design instructional programmes for all types of learners. She drew on research by Carl Jung, Jean Paiget, Lev Vygotsky, John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and David Kolb to create a system that moves learners through the complete learning cycle using strategies that would appeal to all learners. Her business is called About Learning.
McCarthy developed her system to format a lesson according to how the needs of learners changes as they go around the learning cycle, so she called it the 4MAT System (get-it?). The 4MAT System began in education but she quickly spread it into adult training in the corporate and government sectors.
Relationship to other models
4MAT shares with Kolb the idea of a learning cycle with distinct modes of learning at each stage. It also recognises, as the Honey and Mumford model does, that we each learn in a number of ways and that we may have preferences for one or more styles.
The 4MAT System
The 4MAT System is based on two continua: perceiving and processing. The processing continuum ranges from reflection to action; whilst perception runs from direct experience to abstract conceptualisation.
We want to understand meaning and purpose, and the instructor’s role is to make connections between the material and the learners, to engage their attention.
Only when we are satisfied about relevance are we ready to know ‘What?’ At this stage, the trainer provides information and satisfies our desire for facts, structure and theory.
These first two phases represent instructor-led learning. Now the learner takes over.
Once we have the knowledge, we ask ‘How?’ and we want to understand how we can apply our new insights to the real world. We focus on problems and how we can use our learning to solve them.
Finally, we want to try it out, so we ask questions like ‘What if?’ ‘What else?’ or ‘What next?’ This is when we engage in active experimentation, trial and error, pushing at the boundaries – learning by doing.
Good instructional design challenges learners to reflect on the outcome of their trials and ask‘Why?’ about the results.
Why did it not go as I expected?
Why did it seem harder than it should?
This is the entry into another cycle.
So here’s the deal
The 4MAT System is helpful in designing training, planning a coaching process, and influencing.
The correlation between management performance and organisational performance is taken as an article of faith in many quarters – not least in the training and development industry.
Management Pocketbooks has a vested interest here, too. If Pocketbook readers did not believe that reading the books and learning about management would improve their management skills and that this would improve their organisation’s performance, then Pocketbooks would become redundant.
Investors in People
Another organisation with a vested interest is the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). This is a non-departmental public body (NDPB) that describes its mission as being to ‘raise skill levels and drive investment, enterprise, jobs and growth.’
One of the tools they have to achieve this is the Investors in People (IiP) standard. This is designed to improve business performance – but does it? Like most external standards, achieving IiP accreditation is a costly and time-consuming process.
So IiP commissioned Cranfield University Researcher Professor Mike Bourne to discover whether IiP accreditation really does return a value to businesses that invest.
To do this, Professor Bourne and his team considered two questions:
The relationship between IiP accreditation and management performance
The relationship between IiP accreditation and business performance
What the team found was this:
IiP improves managerial performance
IiP improves the financial performance of the sponsoring firm
The figure illustrates the relationships that Professor Bourne’s team report. Notice that their research seems to show that managerial capabilities and performance do indeed drive reported performance – as measured by profits recorded in Companies House data.
So here’s the deal
One must always be sceptical about research that supports the agenda of the sponsoring organisation (IiP in this case) and where the results are not published in peer reviewed journals. And I have not taken the time to thoroughly assess the research methodology, nor review the extensive statistical analysis. The researchers are clear in their reports that, while they assessed IiP, it is simply one example of a ‘commitment based HR policy’.
This is to say that their research evidence shows that systematically committing to your staff improves their capabilities and performance and that these lead to measurable financial improvements in performance.
Kirkpatrick Level 4
Last week’s Pocketblog talked about Kirkpatrick’s four levels of learning. Trainers have become adept at measuring and demonstrating levels 1 and 2: How do participants react, and what do they learn? However, the value of training is in levels 3 and 4: How does training affect behaviour and what results can the organisation measure?
Professor Bourne’s work has shown that the linkage from level 2 to level 3 to level 4 is a genuine one, which he and his team have validated statistically.
This just leaves one problem:
Most trainers stop at Level 1: ‘Happy Sheets’.