A primer on learning - Nothing worth knowing can be taught

A primer on learning - Nothing worth knowing can be taught

“Nothing worth knowing can be taught”, is part of a longer quote by Oscar Wilde musing about education.

I remind myself of this quote when it comes to developing competency and skills in work.

Sure, you can teach the basics of any trade or craft but to develop that which is worth learning, you must learn by doing the work. This is done by immersing yourself in the work, and tweaking, refining, understanding nuances and developing your own style. By knowing the rules, you know how and when to break them. You become better through self-reflection, practice and engaging in the activity itself. You learn by doing the work.

It’s equine in progress, a slow and constant improvement by doing the work.

Yet, in our world of work we have a learning and training industry worth billions. There are Learning Management Systems, courses, portals, online video training and more. Yet the real development of capability is done through doing the work.

There are two main learning styles (here’s a richer and deeper article and video on the subject).

The first is information acquisition where people read, study, and consume information about a capability, skill, or trade. Then there is the more powerful approach, task acquisition, which is the act of learning by doing the thing you’re trying to learn.

Many organisations focus on information acquisition, often designed to meet HR targets that demonstrate they are “training their people”. But sitting a course and then becoming competent in the activity are two different things.

On the job training (task acquisition) is a more powerful way to learn, especially when supported by information and guided by someone who is already excellent at doing this activity.

We become better managers by managing. We become better marketers by doing marketing. Designers learn by doing the work. Musicians learn by playing their instrument. Artists learn by drawing, sketching, painting, sculpting.

In our workplaces there needs to be a richer focus around on-the-job training supported by information acquisition and guided by talented people.

As a manager or leader there is a simple acid test for whether training is working:

Are your people’s behaviours changing after the training? Are their competency levels increasing? Are they able to put into practice what they are learning from the courses and portals and LMS?

Putting people through training courses with generous budgets is a big win and helpful to keep staff engaged, but if their skills, behaviours, and capability are not increasing, it’s not effective.

Some simple ideas about training and learning

In your life:

  1. Try just doing the activity you’re learning and support this with information acquisition. Try not to believe learning is happening through information alone.

  2. Whilst learning anything there will be ups and downs. There will be a messy middle where it may feel like you’re not progressing. Try not to give up. Try to persist through.

Some elements of the activity you are learning will come to you quickly, others will take years of constant refinement and on-going practice. Management is one such thing.

Read every book written but every day, month, or year you will have more to develop. You will encounter something new or a refinement that you’d never spotted before.

  1. Try to reflect and understand the details of what you’re learning. Learning journals can be helpful to see patterns, observations or details in what you’re doing.

  2. Reflect on what went well, what came easy to you or what you’re struggling with. You’d be surprised at how often a reflection on your learning can provide an insight or key to move forward.

  3. Keep a log of progress and how you’re developing your behaviours. The curse of knowledge is an interesting concept. What we feel is easy and obvious in hindsight is always something we had to learn.

  4. Reminding ourselves that we’re still growing and doing well is important. It can be easy to become complacent or believe you’re not growing, when the reality is you likely are.

In work:

  1. As a manager or leader, you must own the training for you and the team. In many companies HR takes on the responsibility of training.

In large companies this training is often generic and middling – it must appeal to a wide variety of people and teams.

But you need training that is specific to your people, your domain, your problem set. Own your training and work closely with HR to help them provide training that changes behaviours.

  1. Ensure the classroom training provided is directed towards gaps in capability, performance, and behaviours in people.

It’s highly unlikely that everyone will require the same training. And always reinforce information-based training with on-the-job training and guidance from someone who is already good at what they do.

  1. Give people the safe space to implement what they are being taught (and remember the quote from Oscar Wilde – it will likely only be the basics that get taught).

It’s why I state in my online comms workshop that all I can do is provide the basics – it’s then on you to practice and nudge and tailor and grow.

  1. Create a safe space and solid relationship with your direct reports, so feedback about performance can be given with integrity, honesty and trust.

We get better when we get feedback, yet in many companies feedback about performance from managers is still seen as something managers cannot do.

John Wooden summed up coaching and feedback nicely. The goal of a good coach (and all managers and leaders are coaches) is to provide critical feedback without being resented for it. Nice.

That’s only possible when you have done the hard work of building a relationship (1:2:1s) and the feedback is about behaviours, not them as individuals.

  1. Recognise people’s progress with positive feedback about behaviours. Recognise, recognise, recognise – it spurs people on and shows them you care.

  2. Most importantly, measure how effective training is. If you’re doing information acquisition training which is what almost every company over-indexes on, then assess (through behaviours) whether people’s competency is improving.

If people are doing plenty of training but not becoming more competent, the chances are they’re not actually practicing what they are consuming, or they need on the job training or they need to just keep practicing in a safe space.

As a HR pro and seasoned leader and manager I can tell you that this is a real problem.

Companies are spending a lot of money on “classroom” training, yet the capability of staff is often not improving. It’s the acid test of training. Training is about shifting behaviours. And not everyone needs the same training.

And here’s a Zen proverb.

“The wheel smith can’t explain what they spent 20 years learning”

This is what Oscar Wilde was saying too. We can’t explain how to be a master at what we do. That’s a personal journey of constant improvement, refinement, style, and learning. It’s about iterating every day in a way that is personal to us. We can teach the basics but not the craft, that has to be learned by doing the work.

I always remind myself of these two quotes when I’m considering training, workshops, and capability. We must learn by doing, not from information alone.

In our workplaces we have many ways in which to help this to happen. On the Job training is the most obvious, but as a manager I’m sure there are many more ways I’ve used too.

I may, as per the Zen quote, not know how to explain that though