Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

27 September 2010

Learning malpractice

Clark @ 7:26 PM

Richard Nantel tweeted about Chris Dede talking about Educational Malpractice. Unfortunately, while it does accurately characterize the education space, it is not inappropriate to apply to the workplace as well. I would extend that to Training Malpractice, but I want to take it further. Because organizations are committing crimes at more than just the training level.

Let’s start with formal learning, or training. Remember, our goals are retention over time until the learning is needed, and transfer to all appropriate situations, not just ones that are seen in the learning experience. Now, realize that one of the worst things you can do to lead to long term retention is to try to have all the learning condensed into one session.. Consequently, the ‘massed practice’ of the learning *event* is a broken model! Similarly, the ‘knowledge test’ as a form of assessment has essentially no transfer value to meaningful practice. Yet these are the trusted hallmarks of corporate learning.

But wait, there’s more! Beyond courses, there are performance support resources. Are they organized by need, so that each performer has a unique portal? Well, no. (“Portals? Yeah, we’ve got hundreds of them!”). Every unit has it’s own place to put things for others, and the poor worker has to search high and low to find resources. No wonder they give up. Worse, courses are designed in lieu of any cognizance of the resources.

And while informal learning, as facilitated by search and social networks, may not be actively discouraged, the lack of any cohesive effort to coordinate the network, let alone aligning with resources and formal learning, characterizes the average workplace. Sharing may not be valued or even punished!

The levels above this (systems, strategies) are even more broken. How, when companies supposedly believe that “employees are our most important asset”, can this wholesale malfeasance continue? Please, help right this wrong. If you need help, ask, but don’t continue these mistakes. For your company and your own self-respect.


  1. So, let’s start a baseball team. And once they’re on the field, none of the managers or coaches say a word — no signals, no yelling, no signs. Between innings, we all just sit there and stare at the grass.

    These people were all trained last spring, and they should remember this stuff. We spend thousands on PowerPoint slides on hitting, catching, and running. We brought in motivational speakers about turf, dirt, and bats. There are resources in the clubhouse they could use if they need to know about rosin or cleats.

    Dummies. Why don’t they give me some SMART employees?

    Comment by Dick Carlson — 29 September 2010 @ 5:07 AM

  2. Absolutely agree. I have been writing for months about the need to innovate on the ID side of things on my blog (www.learninghack.wordpress.com) It is unfortunate to see an industry so stuck in its ways while the customers it serves have been forced by market conditions and desire to succeed to change so dramatically. Learning has never been more relevant to business success but the organizations charged with delivering it has never been less so. If we cannot learn something new how can we claim ownership of helping others to do so?

    Comment by J. Anthony Miguez — 29 September 2010 @ 7:24 AM

  3. Knowledge tests- easily the top plague I have seen in corporate settings with VERY intense reporting requirements. And the amazing thing I see it that most of these tests require employees to memorize policy at a point in time, which is poor design because:
    1. The policies change with frequency at Federal, State, and company levels
    2. The test environment did not mirror the job environment- they are not expected to memorize policy on the job, they are expected to have the ability to look up policy where they are uncertain, and apply it

    So many tests I (am forced to) deploy are jeopardy-style exercises testing memorization of very fluid content. We have been fighting to ensure that these “knowledge checks” are only being used as formative assessments during the course, and that a more “certifying” test would require that they apply the policy as part of performing a task (with the appropriate tools they would have access to on the job).

    There is still some resistance, which surprises me- but no more than my surprise that the same people who advocate this “regurgitative testing” methodology believe that social media shouldn’t be used because of the misinformation that could be passed through the organization. Apparently, they are unaware how phones, email, or basic cooler talk has operated for some time in the organization.

    Comment by David Glow — 29 September 2010 @ 5:18 PM

  4. Our GOTS LMS system (ATLAS Pro) records every student keystroke for every course/test they ever take. The theory is that if there is a product defect or other mal-something in the purchased item(s), weapons sysytem or services and the buyer claims “I wasn’t taught that regulation”, then we can track all the way back to the student’s training courses and determine if that was the case. OR did regulations change after their course completion date and they never took the update cont ed… etc? This has happened in several past cases and was the energy for curricula changes. This can be serious, with over 135,000 students and 200,000+ CE participants.

    Comment by chrisstjohn — 7 October 2010 @ 8:24 AM

  5. @dick Carlson — your analogy is not quite a match; baseball players are highly motivated for both the learning and the applying when needed. Most corporate training assumes intrinsic motivation where none exists. Not because the learners (or rather *potential* learners) don’t care, but because nobody has bothered to make a reasonable (let alone compelling) case for how and why the stuff being taught Actually Matters in a way that’s personally relevant and meaningful to the employees.

    Oh, most courses include some kind of Why You Need To Do This, but it’s rarely motivating or relevant, and it’s done once at the beginning rather than where it’s really needed… baked into the core of every topic and subtopic. For a very long time, I felt the key to better corporate training was simply better corporate training. Today, I believe it’s motivation/relevance that matters most. And if corporate training often does a poor job at producing brain-friendly learning materials and experiences, it does a far worse job at producing a “case” for what’s being “taught”.

    Excellent post,

    Comment by Kathy sierra — 7 October 2010 @ 9:09 AM

  6. Great comments, thanks! Dick, you’re always insightfully snarky. J. Anthony, yes, it’s critically important, and so how can we stuff it up so badly?

    David, spot on about rote knowledge tests, leading to ‘inert knowledge’ instead of actionable skills.

    Which, I think, addresses Chris’ point: showing that they took the course doesn’t mean they actually know how to *apply* the regulation. Being able to blame them doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been equipped to perform appropriately; there’s a separation between showing that they’ve taken the course, and whether the course was designed to achieve capability.

    And Kathy, thanks for making a point I regularly trumpet: we have to hook them emotionally as well a cognitively. Heck, I wrote a whole book about it ;).

    Comment by Clark — 7 October 2010 @ 10:24 AM

  7. […] / information is that Quinn goes beyond the theoretical concepts (which revolve around his battle to prevent ‘ID Malpractice’) and gives practical advice about ways to actually implement more effective […]

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