Sunday, June 5

Living by Eating

How many times have you or someone you know do something over and over again, yet learn nothing from it? If you are like me, then at least a few times.

On the other hand, Elliot Massie once said something to the effect that if you hand a salesperson a crumpled and smudged fax that explains how to increase her sales and thus increase her commissions, then more than likely, she will learn how to increase her sales. So did she learn by doing? If you call reading "doing" something, then she "learned by doing." If I turn an idea or thought over in my head (reflect) and learn something new, am I'm doing something or am I'm doing nothing?

In the July 23, 2004 edition of Science Journal, it was reported that information is obtained by two means; 1) trial-and-error tactics and 2) watching others. So if we watch someone do something and gain information from this act, did we learn by doing?

So when we say we "learn by doing," what exactly do we mean? Is it the same thing as saying that we "live by eating?" Or does it mean something more specific?


David Grebow said...

I think it has formerly meant actively doing. I think now, with current research, it can mean actively doing or passively doing.

A good example of both actively and passively doing is Lance Armstrong. He ride the hills = active. He envisions how he will ride the hills - passive.

The discussion is, I think, splitting hairs. Doing involves the mind where learning takes place and we're finding that active or passive works. They may work best when combined. Or the timing may play a role. Lots of research to be done.

One thing's for sure. There IS a process that the mind uses to learn and we can enable it or disable it. Learning about the learning process should be a top priority for anyone who needs to help others learn or wants to transmit knowledge.

Yet how many people who self-identify as being in this group study say, any of neurosciences. Maybe they have mastered the Art of Learning? The rest of us need to find the answers, and creatively adopt and adapt what we've learned.

Clark Aldrich said...

Wow. So it was Elliot Massie who suggested people can learn from reading. He's good.

Having said that, I think your point is well taken. The phrase "blended learning" became useless as it
a) Was taken to be always good,
b) Meant everything.

"Learning By Doing" could easily follow the same trap. One can learn by doing many things. And, as Jay Cross reminded me, some people decide to do things by gut feeling, which might be a great example of learning by not doing!

In my book of the same title, I suggest formal learning programs get the right balance of:
* Simulation (representing reality)
* Game (to motivate) and
* Pedagogy (to explain).

The premise of the book is that many programs go too far on the third area, pedagogy, and not nearly far enough on the sim and game elements (in that order).

As one keeper of the phrase, I hope it doesn't get killed the way "blended learning" was.

Anonymous said...

Hi Clark,
Actually, I believe Elliot Massie already realized that we already knew that people are capable of learning from reading. Rather, he was suggesting that leaning can often be accomplished via very simple methods, sort of like what Richard was speaking of in his post .

And secondly, that the amount of design and development that needs to go into a learning package often depends upon the motivation of the learner. For example, in this case, the salesperson has a strong motivation to learn the new method of selling (it will increase her commissions), thus a simple fax is all that is needed. However, when motivations are not as strong, then a lot more effort has to go into the design and development of the learning package. For example, when Mobile engineers discovered a way to save the company a bundle of money, a memo went out to the field, yet the adoption rate remained rather low – there just wasn’t a lot of motivation for change. What was required was viscosity rather than velocity.

Clark Aldrich said...

So you have just taken a new job. You quit your old one and move your family across the country. You find out when you arrive that you have a new boss. This boss has no experience, no skills in relevant areas. But he is highly motivated, and has a crumpled up fax. How good are you feeling?

You are about to fly to Tampa, Florida. Your pilot, as of yesterday, worked in the local Wal-Mart. But don't worry. She is highly motivated, and has the crumpled up fax.

I believe we should always aim for as simple as necessary, but not more so. We should also, when there is a conflict between time and completeness, go for timely over complete.

And yes, the motivation of a learner is of huge importance. The more motivated they are, the less you need to add game elements, quid pro quo, and mandates.

To go back to the pilot example, there is a great deal of training necessary, including simulations and experience, to make a good pilot. There is also a crumpled up fax that contains a recent radar image of a huge storm that is given to the pilot at the last moment that could save everyone's life.

Given all of that, I am fairly happy with the amount of "crumpled-up faxes" that most people, including my managers and CEOs, have received, from IT, from HR, from the media. As for help with their project management skills, I wouldn't mind a bit more.

David Grebow said...

I thought what Donald said was very interesting. Viscosity. Try this one on Clark.

Your a caveman. You're about to be jumped upon by a saber tooth tiger. You have a crumpled up fax that tells you where to run to save your life OR a PC with an engaging Saber Tooth Sim on it that invites you to learn how to save your self by playing the game.

Fax and save your life or Sim and lose your legs?!

OK, so I'm being a bit off-the-cave-wall. The point is that motivation moves the synapses to learn faster than anything. Motivation and a great Sim = best of all worlds. Lousy motivation and the best training = nada.

No viscosity. Nothing sticks to the insides of the brain.

So why are we focusing on effect rather than the cause? Is the cart (what we do) suddenly more important that the engine (the motivational level of the student?). What would it mean to do a great job motivating the student to learn, like a great teacher manages to do? Who really cares (except us who get paid for making it, going to conferences about it, writing books about it, blogging about it) whether the tool is simple or Sim?

Sorta like Bill Clinton might have said "It's all about the student, stupid!" I think we forget that too often. Anyone else agree? Disagree? Not care one way or the other?

jay said...

Uh, Knowledgestar, cave men couldn't read, so the fax won't change the situation at all.

I'd like to add something to Don's original scenario. Acting on the fax was not the learning. The trial-and-error that followed was the source of the learning. That's what sticks. Learning requires both doing and practice.

Bill Bruck said...

Clark -

I'll need to read more of your stuff to better understand your three points, but/and I hope you won't mind a couple comments even though I haven't purchased your book.

First, you define pedagogy as explanation, when you contrast it with sims and games. I always thought of it as the art and/or science of instruction/teaching, or more generally choosing the right strategies for teaching. (See the wikipedia article which parallels my thought.) Thus pedagogy (or andragogy if you prefer) would encompass all three of your categories, plus others TBD.

Second, the way you've set out your three strategies assumes a situation where the learner has little or no intrinsic motivation to learn what is being taught. I believe that's the point of Elliott's crumpled paper analogy. I would argue with him and others that when there's a clear line of sight to learning and something that's "in it for me", content doesn't need to be compelling, and that in your example motivation doesn't need to come from games.

There's an implication of this that hasn't been fully teased out in the other comments. If learners are not intrinsically motivated to learn what we're teaching them, do we need a different type or level of intervention, other than to make the content compelling?

Third, in our work, we find that practice with feedback and coached skill application over time are critical pieces to mastering complex new skills. I notice you didn't even mention them. Perhaps we're thinking of different types of learning situations, though.



Bill Bruck (Q2Learning)
Collaborative Learning Blog
Join our CoP at

Anonymous said...

Interesting debate. Taking the view of the sales girl and having been a learning sales girl for many years I pose the following. There are several levels to her learning. 1. firstly on picking up the crumpled fax she learns that faxes are a channel for receiving sales tips/learning 2. on executing the advice she learns that selling this way works for her (or not) and 3 as a result of what happens in point 2, she will make a mental bookmark about whether to trust crumpled faxes.

My thoughts, she is more likely to be motivated to learn someting new if the fax is from a source she respects as being an expert in this area - someone she can learn from.

Also, if the fax represents a shortcut to closing the sale and it works, she'll use it again and share it with her friends who are of course all sales people!

Anonymous said...

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