Saturday, June 24

If you haven't practiced, you haven't learned anything

Let me try to rephrase this conversation a bit.

(And please, please read this post, not just the headline, before commenting.)

If you haven't practiced, you haven't learned.

To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, who said "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe,"

I would say, "Give me six hours to learn something and I will spend the last four practicing."

Now, a digression/caveat: In the same way that:

  • knowing how to read offloads memory, so to does
  • using well designed and supported applications offloads learning about processes and even simple facts (if you count the spell-checker), (having said that, there might be a competitive advantage in using a tool that is not infinitely well supported, and I can only hope my competitors are too lazy and whiny to learn how to use it well) and
  • learning basic techniques such as Instant Messaging with your network and using Google offloads having to store large quantities of "just-in-case" facts and even perspectives. [FOR ALL RESPONDERS - THIS MEANS ASKING OTHER PEOPLE FOR HELP - SORRY FOR BEING OBLIQUE]

But what is left after all of that offloading are the big skills, which you have to learn, your boss has to learn, your co-workers have to learn, your employees have to learn, your senior management has to learn, and any company in which you invest has to learn.


  • It is easy to think you understand how to do something (specifically, a big skill) theoretically. Although gaining a theoretical understanding before hand, the locker-room before the game conversation to discuss strategy, is still critical.
  • There is significant work in transferring that skill to the real world. That work includes both mapping the big skill to real life options, and then practicing that in a diversity of situations.
  • Both the mapping and practice are hard, and if not done, the intellectual transfer is stunted. In most cases, students will not do either on their own, wasting the resources spent on the program.
  • All academic programs, despite majors, teach mostly the same thing: how to behave in a classroom, how to write a paper (including basic researching and analysis), how to take a test. That is it.
  • One reason I like sims is that they can provide the mapping through a good interface, and provide a place to practice. That doesn't make it less hard for students to map and transfer, but it allows them to happen predictably and while the students are still in the program, not hoping they will do it after.


Donald Clark said...

" If you haven't practiced, you haven't learned."

I guess that would depend on how you define learning.

Clark Aldrich said...

If I could trouble you just a bit, give me an example of learning without practicing.

Donald Clark said...

One day while driving I saw an accident in which the occupants were thrown from the vehicle. I had been driving for quite some time and rarely if ever fastened my seat-belt. Since seeing that accident I have always worn my seat-belt. I tend to see that a lot of safety related issues are like this -- it is not something learned by practice but rather by something that you internalize deep within you for one reason or another.

One day I'm creating a new spreadsheet, I get stumped, so I turn to another coworker and asked him if there is an easy was to get some subtotals. he shows me, I say "Kewl" and have used what he taught me in other spreadsheets.

A while back, we started shipping some of the product that we manufacturing to another distribution center that is located a couple miles away from us. Approximately three to four trailer loads are shipped on a daily basis. Several product lines are manufactured simultaneously and then directly loaded onto a trailer as they come off the various packaging lines. The forklift operators record each pallet of material on a load-plan. When the trailer is full, the load-plan is given to a distribution specialist who enters the data into our main database and then transfers it to the other DC.

Since this was a new process they were having some trouble getting everything to match up (SKUs, quantity, weight, pallet numbers, etc.). Shortly later the person responsible for this goes on vacation and I was tasked to take care of the transfers. Trying to total everything up was a real pain in the neck, in addition, it was hard to double-check for errors. So I whipped together a spreadsheet that made the task a whole lot easier, plus it checks for errors. So when he comes back I email him the spreadsheet, turn to him and tell him to open it up. I point out a few things on the spreadsheet, he uses it and it makes his life a whole lot easier. In addition, its not long before he makes a few improvements to the spreadsheet.

So even though I like your book, Simulations and the Future of Learning, I totally disagree with your statement, "Learning does not happen when someone tells you something new" (p.85).

I know another researcher agrees with you -- Kimble defined learning as "a relatively permanent change in behavioral potentiality that occurs as a result of reinforced practice."

However, since I work in office/production-plant/distribution-center, I tend to see that in real life people learn in a number of ways -- such as listening, observing, reflection, experience, and of course sometimes practice -- I have taught people how to operate forklifts here and for several years I taught heavy equipment operations in the military, thus I do know that some tasks do indeed require a heck of a lot of reinforced practice.

Thus, I tend to agree with Marc Rosenberg who defined learning (in the context of business), as "the process by which people acquire new skills or knowledge for the purpose of enhancing performance" (e-learning 2001).

Donald Clark said...

To add to my previous comment, while the above might seem like small examples, they really add up. We have two-way radios, email, internet access, an intranet portal, phones, and our cubicles are lower than normal plus they are set up more work-group style to foster communication. Even our database program that holds all of our inventory information and runs on an IBM/400 server that was originally connected to dumb terminals (we now have software that pipes it to a window on our desktops) has a feature that is similar to instant messenger.

Combine all the above with a climate of sharing and learning gets done without any real practice. The Labor department reports that 70% of learning in the workplace is informal, while others report 80%. I would guess that it is at least 60 to 70% in our department.

However it would vary in our plant. Since we manufacture a food product that is produced over several lines, there is probably more formal than informal learning in the production department due to the processes that have to be followed.

And I'm not real sure if anything should be changed for the most part (as far as informal and formal learning) -- the training is needed and the informal learning that takes place seems to work pretty good (although I just observe and participate in it rather than study it to improve on it).

Stuart Kruse said...

I have to say, I think Donald has nailed it here. Good counter examples. I believe it is terribly important that we move away from these 'learning is all about 'x' arguments or 'this is the BEST way to do e-learning'. It is far more interesting to explore how we can support the many different ways of learning and how we can use different learning approaches to improve performance in the workplace. Like any area of complex human activity, this is a DESIGN challenge, not an engineering challenge with one 'correct' answer. That is why we are learning 'designers'. See:


Clark Aldrich said...

Seat belt example first:

First, motivation (and honesty) is quite important for behavioral change to occur. But if it were enough, we would have no need to train airline pilots in flight simulators. Pilots are highly motivated not to crash. Or we would not need law school, because plenty of people are highly motivated to become lawyers. There would be no need for executive programs, because everyone who goes are already highly motivated to get promoted.

Second, when things are easy to do, but not necessarily salient (brushing our teeth, listening to our co-workers), ultimately we need to proactively develop good habits (just as we also develop bad habits). We can use the burst of motivation to shift habits, but sustainable habits come from, well, praticing.

Clark Aldrich said...

Spreadsheet example:

First, I agree with you, which is why I started the post by writing: "learning basic techniques such as Instant Messaging with your network and using Google offloads having to store large quantities of "just-in-case" facts and even perspectives"

Thus, you can ask your network not only, "how do I do x," but also, "is the movie Superman Returns any good" or "Is that VP at IBM as smart as she sounds?"

Although, again, I would suggest that learning how to use your network is a learned skill, and the more people do it (ah, practice), the better they are at it.

Unknown said...


I think the danger of your position is that you seem to be asserting that all learning requires practice.

Donald shows examples that are clear and difficult to refute. I'll add that Bandura's process of modelling is a way to learn that does not involve practice - watching something many times is a tried and true method for learning.

Maybe the real challenge is that you are focussing on skills, and learning knowledge is fundamentally different than learning skills?

Clark Aldrich said...

The first half of my orginal post is dedicated to the observtion that we have access to more information at our fingertips than ever before, and we can look up stuff instantly, use more powerful applications that help us along, and talk to people from all over to answer our simple questions.

These offload are need to learn lost of little facts and even opinions.

If people here want to restate that with every response, fine by me, but please don't say, "you forgot about ..."

One might say that Learning to do all ot the abover is a skill (or metaskill) that needs to be practiced but that is beside the point.

Towards the second part, now we are talking some substance, and that is great. Here are some hypotheticals: would you want your driver to have learned driving just by watching other people? Would you want your doctor to have learned examining by watching other doctors? Would you want the person in charge of your projet to have just watched other people manage projects?

Donald Clark said...

But on the other hand, do you want your organization waiting around for weeks, months, or sometimes even years for the training department to solve your learning needs?

Clark, in your book you tell the story of two women who attend one of your early leadership symposiums and are partnered on a simulation. The more aggressive one insists on going first and she does terrible. The other women watches and apparently learns from her partner's mistakes for she winds up scoring a 90 on her first try.

Sometimes we can learn plenty just watching. . . thus, do people really need to push buttons and use joysticks all the time in order to learn or can we at times use our other senses? Or are our other senses just plain useless when it comes to learning?

Peter Isackson said...

For my money, I wouldn't want to have a doctor who learned only through simulation or even only through practice. But I do think it would be progress if doctors spent more time observing other doctors. Many of them probably do anyway -- when they can -- because they sense that they have things to learn from others and many of those things (e.g. attitude, diplomacy, tone of voice) simply are not formalizable. But please don't tell me those things are unimportant or secondary!

More significantly, however, it seems to me that a good part of practice is in fact watching other people. Some of it is interacting, but a lot of it is watching as well. And watching doesn't result only in memorizing sequences of actions; it also involves measuring attitudes, assessing strategies, gauging the efficacy of improvisational moves, appreciating risk (without necessarily calculating it), hypothesizing about social and professional roles and factors of identity (a basic and universal human skill that is rarely talked about in training), understanding the scope of decision-making, etc.

Without practice, the process will always be incomplete. But without observation, it will never make sense.

I've always believed that, whatever the learning problem, we need to do more basic work on perception skills. I suspect that the difference between bad performers (in a job skill) and good or great performers correlates pretty closely with more or less developed perceptual skills. In our highly pragmatic culture focused on action and procedure, formal training rarely even recognizes these factors. And a case could be made, Clark, for the idea that when they exist they are developed essentially through practice, supporting your thesis. But all this happens below the level of consciousness and at a level of human and social complexity that cannot be planned, programmed or otherwise formalized.

Clark Aldrich said...


I agree that waiting around for training to create or procure a great course is a waste of time.

When discussing the concept practicing, I in no way think the concept is tied to simulations. They are simply one arrow in the quiver.

Thus one sees or hears the right behavior (or the wrong behavior) and then practices to own the behavior, and ideally try is over a range of increasingly complex and challenging alternatives.

If we are talking about such simple processes that a poster can demonstrate the one right approach, what I am saying is less interesting. As we are looking at increasingly powerful and complex approaches, again the big skills come to mind, my statement that practice is necessary is more meaningful.

Clark Aldrich said...


I agree with what you are saying. I am suggesting that practice is incredibly important, and the practice needs to be built into most if not all training. I am not suggesting it is the only thing, nor that simualtions are the only practice option, nor that a wide variety of other techniques might not also be critical to a good learning program.

Clark Aldrich said...

I think a great example of watching then practicing is driving a car. We all spent years watching other people drive cars before we try it ourselves. On one hand, all of those years are incredible important to get a sense of the rules, the feel of success, the expectations. On the other hand, sitting behing the wheel ourselves is a whole next level.

Unknown said...


I hear your amities abut the offload opportunity, but I think that and you position that learning equals practice narrowly defines important concepts.

The offloading opportunities do not replace learning. I would argue that they are, in fact, just different way to learn. Eventually, may if the data points that are external will he internalized and consequently learned. Pushily there aside in your discussion of learning is problematic, even if it is only a semantic problem. if its not semantic, the issue for me is that you focus on skill to the point that it seems you dismiss education/training for knowledge or attitude change. For me, these two are incredibly important pieces of building organizational capability, which I think is the future of T&D.

To address your observational learning point, I arm currently researching teaching hospitals and can say unequivocally that doctors do lean by watching. Not solely watching, but it is a huge part. of their first year or more after med school. At that point, they have leaned quite a bit. Practice enables them to learn more.

As I wrote I realized that's the big challenge for me. Your title asserts "no practice = no learning". That declaration preempts any meaning you do later. To ml. leeway involves practice, observing reading I or discussing. Any of there methods are valid for burning. Depending on how you need to exercise the new leaning you likely need multiple methods.

Stuart Kruse said...

This thread reminds me of the value of apprenticeships with regard to their role in combining watching, doing, enculturation, reflection, development all all these different forms of knowing and learning. I often think a kind of tacit/implicit apprenticeship goes on when people learn on the job purely as a function of 'being there'.


Clark Aldrich said...

To clarify -

If there is no practicing, there is no learning.

Learning does not equal practicing. Practicing does not equal learning.

But practicing is a sine que non of learning.

Unknown said...

In reaction to your summary - you're undermining your ability as a designer if you think that people can't learn without practicing.

Clearly, this is part of your core philosophy on learning. You are missing a lot of learning if you define it narrowly that if it doesn't involve practice it isn't learning. And in missing those learning opportunities, you miss design opportunites to enahnce learning.

Practice isn't sine qua non to all learning. Essential for some learning, but not all. Helpful in any behavioral situation. But thier is knowledge adn additudinal learning that happens where practice is not the essence, just a beneficial addition.

Clark Aldrich said...

I will go one step further. I will say that both academic and corporate instructors have a bias against practice because it is not easy given their models. There is an almost overwhelming bias for, say, college professors to be able to stand up on a stage, talk about Russian History, or for a corporate instructor to talk about Ethics, perhaps show a video clip, ask students to read a chapter, write a few paragraphs, and calls it "learning."

Anonymous said...


Clark, they call it learning because it is. How do you practice Russian History? How do you practice ethics, without being in an ethically challenging position. These are things that you can learn without practicing them.

Lecture, practice, role play, simulation, debate and any other learning method you can concieve of has a place in learning. The key is to find the appropriate methodology for the learning outcome.

Peter Shea said...


Taking my cue from Joe here, how would you recommend overhauling the academic model where many of the courses (such as Joe's example, Russian History)are not primarily skill-development based?

I ask the question seriously. I am planning on working with developmental college students who frequently drop out of school because the existing information-transfer model of education offers them little.

Pete Shea