Learning Theories + Approaches

This blog is excerpted from episode 24 of the Performance Matters Podcast where Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson discuss the learning theories that have shaped where we are today—empowering the workflow.  

Bob Mosher (BM): Con, welcome!
Conrad Gottfredson (CG): Thank you, Bob. Great to be with you!
BM: I’m so looking forward to this discussion. Today we’re going to go a bit deeper and peel the onion back. We are often asked, “Is workflow learning based on learning theory?” “How long has workflow learning been around?” “What about the great work of Gloria Gery, Jay Cross, and Allison Rossett?” Today we’re going to put a bit of a bow around those questions and talk theory. Then we’ll really run at, not so much the definition of workflow learning, but the approaches we’re seeing that people are calling workflow learning. And get a bit into pros, cons, and what might be the best way to get into this.
Con, you’re the PhD in the room—take us back a bit and give us a little bit of a history lesson, if you wouldn’t mind, about sort of the schools of thought around learning theory and where the beginnings of workflow learning started.
CG: Sure, would love to. Back a hundred years ago when I was working on my PhD, I was introduced to the thought of applied learning theory. Applied learning theory is learning theory that has been applied in such a way that it’s proven itself. And that’s important. So, as we talk about learning theory it needs to be applicable and have some track record of being proven in the real world of the application.
I was grounded, in my graduate work, in behavioral and cognitive learning theory. Those are two of the three fundamental schools of learning theory. The third is constructivism, constructive learning theory, or experiential learning theory. The first real school of learning theory was behavioral, really, that I was introduced to. And Gagne and Briggs and others were really coming out of that school. It was all about training, right? It was all about principles tied to the things we could do that would make a difference and facilitate people learning the skills they needed to develop. All very important. It focused on behavioral psychology. Behavioral learning theory focused on training. It was out of the workflow. It was embedded deeply in classroom models.
Then, starting to scratch the surface of asynchronous approaches, cognitive theorists came on board and said, “I’m sorry, behavioral approaches are great but there are some cognitive things that we’ve got to be worrying about. In other words, you’ve got to understand things. You’ve got to know things as well as being able to do things. There are cognitive constructs that make a difference in terms of our ability to transition to performance. So cognitive theory shifted our mindset from training to learning. We began to focus on the learner and cognitive pieces—both of which are very important--the behavioral of learning theory and cognitive learning theory.
But at the same time there was this movement going on that didn’t get a lot of attention until much later. This was constructivism—experiential learning theory. The philosophy there, Bob, was that we learn by doing things in the real world—that experience is important—that you can’t have learning without factoring in that experience.
The theorists in the early days or early stages of this couldn’t quite figure out how to push learning into the workflow. But everything they talked about was grounded in what works today in the world of workflow learning. The bottom line is you don’t have workflow learning without the fundamentals coming out of behavioral learning and cognitive learning and constructivism. You just don’t. All of it has to come to bear to help us put together the kind of solution that we need to have in the world of workflow learning.
BM: So, it’s almost, Con, as if one builds upon the other as these theories matured.
CG: Yeah, it does! Unfortunately, there are people who sit in each of those camps and think that’s the camp they are in when in reality, each of these schools have a lot to offer. We draw upon the research and the work out of each one of these schools of learning theory to put together the methodology we have for workflow learning.
BM: Brilliant. So, Con, we’re seeing a lot of confusion in how workflow learning is approached. How does it manifest itself through the theories into how people are approaching it? Not only is there confusion about the definition, which we talked about in a previous podcast—by all means, give a listen—but at the same time we’re seeing confusion about how it’s done.
eLearning, for years, has been “just-in-time.” I was on that bandwagon early on, but it was not quite workflow learning in the way we define it today, as in “you learn while doing.” We confused it with availability.
CG: Yep!
BM: And because we could not send you to a classroom, we could put you in an LMS, we could suggest a learning path, we could assess and test, pre- and post, see who took, who didn’t, who completed, who didn’t, etc.  So, let’s talk through a couple of workflow learning approaches we’re seeing, talk about the plusses and minuses so we know where we might direct people. We hear this a lot, we’ve had workflow learning since forever, right? We’ve always learned while living. What would be the most dramatic of approaches?
CG: Well, it’s how I grew up on a dairy farm. I was just given assignments. It’s what we call total immersion. It’s where you’re on your own. It’s discovery learning, really. But I learned by doing without any help. I used to do this to our kids. I’d give them an assignment to go out and do something on our property. But my intent was for them to learn how to figure something out, not really to do something, but to develop the skill of figuring it out. But in many cases, we have what we call immersive learning, where you just jump in and you don’t have anybody to help you. You just learn on your own as you go and as you do. That kind of learning is inefficient in terms of skill development. It takes a long time to get to where you need to be and there’s always high risk of failure.
BM: But there are positives, to your point, around critical thinking skills, problem solving, maybe building confidence, how courageous I might be as a thinker or a learner. But, particularly in the professional environment, not really the best way to go. So, let’s talk about when others get involved. There are really two approaches that we’ve seen where we assign someone to guide, be present, or periodically be present.
CG: For centuries we’ve had the apprentice model, right? This is the model where you apprentice to someone and you’re right at their side. Great artists were apprenticed. It’s very costly to scale today and does take time for people to become proficient in that model. It’s why we moved to these other models that we have today, why we moved to classroom learning. The apprenticeship model—you just couldn’t afford to scale it.
So, we’ve modified it to this sporadic on-the-job coaching model. It is sort of like apprenticeship, we have coaches and send them in. The coaching model can be very effective in learning New, or learning things for the first time. It is, however, tough to have a coach there at the moment of Apply, Change or Solve. It’s very difficult to have them there at all the times they might need to be there to support people as they do their jobs.
BM: Also, how do you ensure that every coach is caught up in the world we live in today with its rate of change, with what’s the latest SOP, the latest regulations, all these kinds of things so that people are most efficient.
Frankly, Con, I think the thing I’ve taken as far as workflow learning is concerned, we want independent learners. We want people who can stand alone in their ability to perform and continue their growth. And the danger of apprentice and coaching programs is that unless the coach has coached really well the ability for a classroom or formal environment to intentionally remove the mentor, remove the coach, remove the master, remove the instructor, so the student stands alone, that’s a tough skill.
CG: Yeah. Coaching is the most misused tool that we have in our tool chest. If we designed it properly and we support coaches properly, it could be so powerful. Yet, we have them doing work that could be—and should be—done in other ways. They need to be targeting those skills where the critical impact of failure is significant to catastrophic. They need to be working on higher order skill sets, helping people to move and transition to higher order thinking and higher order performance, not down in the nitty-gritty workflow.
BM: You know, so often we pick those roles by ability. We pick those roles by seniority. We assign a senior salesperson to a junior salesperson. Then the problem is that in many cases, it’s not just the content. Or the journey to the content. It’s the dependency that they are left with or not left with. It’s their ability to do cognitive apprenticeship and scaffolding—all these words we use in education that are all about ultimately moving the performer to being self-reliant. And to your point, Con, the people who step up—God bless them—and volunteer, which is another problem—getting people to even want to do it—are often not the folks that are in the right place to instruct in a way that workflow learning would actually be maximized.
CG: I agree. Then, as you mentioned as we were beginning this discussion, there’s the whole eLearning, asynchronous learning, "just-in-time"—and we’re seeing tools out there that can give you immediate, instant access to asynchronous learning resources, but you still have to stop your work to learn with those asynchronous learning tools. So, while it might help, it’s very wasteful. If I must move through a 30-minute eLearning module to get to the nugget that I need, I’m stopping work for 30 minutes.  Maybe it’s helped with microlearning. I’m a proponent of microlearning to a degree. The problem is that I must get to the right microlearning piece at the moment of need and really, many times, I don’t even need to do that. I can just get the help I need when I need it with a true EPSS.
That’s where the real power of workflow learning is unleashed. Microlearning can carry the day just so far. But it’s not where workflow learning can and should be. It’s when you have a digital coach or EPSS in place where I can get down to 2-click/10-second access and follow that task. I am learning in the flow of work in an adaptive way. As we’ve talked about, once I’m doing that, there may be a call to drop down to a microlearning element because of the nature of things. But I don’t always have to go there. That should not be my first step in workflow learning. It should be a step I take when I can’t get there in other ways.
BM: All the great work, Con, you have done around workflow learning and the EnABLE methodology is based on sound research. But what I love about where you’ve brought us and where workflow learning is today is that it really is a defendable amalgamation of the best work in our industry. We can bring it all together in the workflow in a way we’ve never been to do before.
Brilliant, my friend. Well, as always, it’s terrific having you here.
For Con and Bob’s entire discussion listen to the entire episode and don’t forget to subscribe to The Performance Matters Podcast to stay up-to-date on all the latest conversations and guests in The 5 Moments space.

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