As Designers of Learning Experiences - Training and Development

In T&D for small shops, the entire staff works to create lesson plans, produce learning materials, and write role-playing scenarios, case studies, and simulations.

When the T&D department has a fairly large staff, the director may be only an observer or advisor in the selection of learning and teaching methods. But even then that manager must know enough to effectively counsel the staff members who do make the decisions and must also possess a wide knowledge of learning methods and some idea of when each is likely to be productive.

There is such explosive expansion in the knowledge about how people learn that many T&D managers find they must hurry just to fall slightly behind the times!

One of the fundamental tasks of the design process is conducting a needs assessment—determining which skills or competencies are required and which skills the employees are deficient in. The skill gaps that the needs assessment identifies become the focus of the learning experience—the springboard for the instructional design.

Most modern organizations need a sizable number of instructional methods. Why? One of the primary reasons is that learning styles vary—as do teaching styles. What may be effective for one scenario may be totally ineffective in another. The objectives are so varied that a limited inventory of learning approaches is invalid. Then, too, the physical distribution of the trainee population may require that some programs be administered to individuals, others to large groups.For individuals, programmed instruction or auto instructional and highly mediated programs are useful. Certain objectives may be achieved only in the group mode. Examples would include interpersonal skills, team building, and the manipulation of sophisticated heavy equipment. Team-building skills don't come very easily in programs where the learner interacts only with the printed page,a computer, a teaching machine, or even just one instructor. Handling a heavy piece of machinery can't be mastered from the printed page.

Some training is more effective when the learners are sharply removed from the workplace, able to introspect, analyze, and synthesize without the pressures or interruptions that go along with the office or the shop. Other learning outcomes are just plain impossible to achieve away from the real-world environment. If overcoming distractions is one of the learning objectives, what better place to face distractions than the busy office or the noisy shop? Such learning experiences should not be scheduled at Valhalla on the Hudson or Cozy Nook in the Popcorns Ocean Beach by the Pacific.

There are three distinct domains of behavior in which trainees must be asked to grow:

  1. Cognitive or mental skills may actually be best acquired through reading, lectures, or demonstrations. But the word "demonstration"implies some step-by-step process or skill, which the learner must acquire and then perform back on the job—and we can pretty well rule out reading or lecture as the total learning experience!
  2. Psychomotor skills involve using the arms, the legs, the torso. For the mind to direct reliable performance by these parts of the body, some practice or drill seems mandatory. Psychomotor growth often relies heavily on On the Job Training (OJT), in which instructors "tell and show" the task one step at a time, learners "doing and reviewing" that step as soon as possible.
  3. In the affective domain, learners are expected to grow in the realm of emotions or feelings. Such new awareness or control of emotional energy can hardly result from a lecture or reading assignment, no matter how inspiring. (Not that inspiration is impossible; it's just never been an effective method of producing lasting on-the-job changes in affective behavior.) New research in personality and dispositions, the use of music and metaphor, controlled environments and right brain/left brain dominance studies offer new excitement in creating affective growth. (They also offer still more evidence that T&D managers always have something new to learn!)

Professional designers of learning experiences know when to use which method, how to effect necessary compromises between the most desirable method and the one the budget can afford—or the environment accept.

They provide for try-out when skill is demanded, for participation when current emotional or intellectual biases would block acceptance of new ideas or new technology.They can arrange furniture so that it is conducive to proper communication and to an environment that properly stimulates and controls the things trainees say and do. Even if T&D managers don't get directly involved in such designs,they need to counsel their staff members who do get involved.

Effective leadership from the chief T&D manager is critical. There is the ever-present pitfall of faddism in training methodology. There is no absolutely fool proof certain theory about how adults learn; there is a great deal of exciting experimentation with new methods. Therefore, a brilliant success with one method can cause T&D specialists to become addicted to that method. They soon ardently advocate using it for all learning objectives in all learning environments— even when it is terribly inappropriate. But it is important to match the methodology to the learning variables. The effective T&D manager is able to counsel staff members in the proper selection to the proper match of learning objectives,trainee population, and organizational environment.

To counsel wisely, T&D managers also need to be well informed about current learning theory. But learning theory concepts aren't easily acquired. For one reason,the knowledge explosion has hit the field of learning theory just as it has hit other fields of human inquiry. Perhaps a bit more. Yet for consistent training policy and for effective adaptation into individual training programs, the T&D manager needs a grasp of all these concepts. Conscientious T&D Specialists develop a personal theory of how people learn, and they expand it as new research and theories become available.

As designers or as managers of the design process, T&D managers need knowledge,experience, and a value system of learning/teaching methods. Nowadays,methodology will probably reflect a unique blend of several theories about how people (adults in particular) learn and change their on-the-job performance.

Regardless of what the training content is or the methodology used, the training will not "stick" unless the designer addresses the issue of transfer of training. Transfer refers to how well the learners apply the newly acquired knowledge to their work. Conditions before and after the training (pre and post training conditions in T&D jargon)greatly affect transfer results, and T&D managers must address these issues.


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