Bored doctors or well-trained doctors - your choice - The systems thinking and training blog - Bryan Hopkins

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Bored doctors or well-trained doctors - your choice

Published by in Training design ·
A few days ago a friend of mine who works as a doctor in a local hospital called by for a cup of tea. She was just on her way home from a training course where she had been all day. Always interested in other people's experiences of training, I asked her how it had been. "Really boring", she said, "Just listening to somebody reading off slides all day."

I always find comments like this somewhat depressing. How is it that organisations these days can still think that it is cost-effective to take highly paid people, sit them in a room and make them listen to an expert talking on all day long. The direct and opportunity costs of an event such as that must have been considerable, and with the overall effect being to bore the participants.

My experience in quite a few organisations who rely on this type of training delivery is that they still think that the information transfer model (or what I call 'information dumping') is the best or only way to communicate content. I guess that a major reason why this happens is that people are familiar with lectures from their university days, where a person with all the knowledge attempts to transfer this to people with very little knowledge, like pouring water into an empty vessel, as the analogy goes.

The difference with training professionals is that they already know an awful lot, and really need to be able to integrate new information with what they already have, to refine their existing mental models.

Probably many of the people who are called on to deliver training of this sort will never have studied ideas about cognition, so concepts such as Kolb's learning cycle will be unfamiliar to them. The diagram below is a representation of Kolb's theory, and its familiarity to learning professionals means that it needs no explanation.

However, from a systems perspective one of the things that I have noticed about how this is normally presented is that it is portrayed as an individual activity: each one of the four stages is described as something which goes on inside one person's head. However, this is not what really happens in reality, because if it did there would quickly be no learning because each of us would eventually run out of the energy and inspiration needed to reflect and develop new conceptualisations.

Instead, what happens is that as we work round and round the learning cycle we draw in ideas from the world around us, in particular from other people. This new energy coming into our learning cycle is what enables reflection so that each iteration of the cycle improves our mental modelling. We can therefore represent what is happening as a networking of learning cycles, as in this diagram.

This is essentially the idea of the social construction of understanding, an idea attributed to the Russian psychologist Vygotsky. He reasoned that children learn by conversation and negotiation, which leads to a shared understanding of how to behave and how to do things.

This, I think, is why trainers who can let go of the control of the PowerPoint presentation and let people talk about stuff will usually get better results. I'm sure my daughter would have had a much better learning experience had she been able to engage with the trainer and other participants in discussions where she could talk about things she did not understand, listen to other explanations and so end up with a much better understanding of the subject.

I would certainly feel more comfortable lying on a hospital bed feeling that the medical staff looking after me have had the chance to really get to understand their subject, rather than having spent days being bored stiff by PowerPoint presentations.

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