When we invent names for the obvious…

I have been thinking about the term “70:20:10”.

The term itself is new and has its origins in a study in 1996 undertaken at the Center for Creative Leadership in North Carolina. In just over twenty years since then, that study has spawned a term to describe the way we learn and an increasing awareness that people learn by doing and that so much of what we retain is gained outside a formal training environment. That’s true, but it is interesting that the term (and recognition of this as an issue) is so new.

Humans have walked the planet for a million years or so and other hominids for several million before that. Throughout that time we have mastered learning in a way that sets us apart from any other species, yet as far as I know, not many million-year-old classrooms have been excavated. There is little evidence that early hominids sat patiently in their cohorts while a qualified trainer explained the intricacies of fire making and warned that it will be on the exam.

The oldest evidence of formalised training is a mere few thousand years old, workplace training younger still. In fact as recently as a generation ago, almost all on-the-job training took place on the shop floor. We were mentored, apprenticed, helped and shown.

We evolved to learn by doing; it’s worked since the dawn of human time and so practical training is not what is new. What’s new is that it’s become a problem (thus warranting a name). If it’s not the training itself that’s at issue, it follows that the problem we’re grappling with is related to a very recent change in our expectations. I believe that what has changed is an expectation that training must be standardised.

Recently we have grown accustomed to managing training, formalising it, quantifying it, measuring it, standardising it. We have created structured syllabi, certifications, competency frameworks and tests. We’ve loaded them into our LMSes so we can measure success and run reports and we gravitated towards training forms that are readily measurable. We looked to formalised training and increasingly placed on the job learning in the too hard basket. As we’ve built more eLearning, scheduled classes and set exams, we narrowed our options and sometimes lost sight of what works best.

It must be said that in many cases we had little choice and much of this shift has been imposed from outside. Today we’re externally audited, regulated and subject to CPD. Increasingly mobile workforces require us to recognise training conducted elsewhere. Centralised funding sources demand increasing levels of reporting and standardisation of skills has brought both portability and flexibility. These have been positives for the community.

However, the downsides are manifest too. Quite apart from the neurological challenges that go with expecting trainees’ brains to learn in a way they were not designed for, we’ve lost the ability to provide the confidence that comes with seeing oneself try it out. We have sacrificed context – the reality that performance on a formal training environment may not be a good measure of performance elsewhere.

Then there is the cost. We spend increasing amounts on tools such as VR that promise increasingly realistic virtualised training that remains tethered to our LMSes. We add social tools to platforms to attempt to recreate the interactions, sharing, validation and exchange of ideas that once were so integral to our on the job experiences.

The challenge we face is not in creating 70:20:10 learning experiences – that comes naturally. Rather it is to adjust the paradigm in which we deliver them to one that is sophisticated enough to accommodate training in traditional forms. We cannot walk back the need for measurement now that it’s woven into regulatory frameworks, so we have to think beyond the LMS (though the LMS will continue to be important for some aspects of training) but not beyond technology altogether.

What’s exciting is that a solution in the form of xAPI is at hand. The next generation of training will be liberated from any particular teaching style. We will be able to measure practical outcomes as easily as we currently measure test scores and with the xAPI model, an organisation might have an LMS or it might not (depending on whether it wants eLearning as part of the mix).

I wonder if the term 70:20:10 will still be doing the rounds in ten years’ time?

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