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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The different modes of learning

I've been thinking about this topic a lot over the last couple of months. It is a topic that I'm figuring out with my team. I'm just going to throw it out and see what the feedback is like.

I’m going back to my college days for this the first part of this essay. What I want to discuss is the different modes of learning. This will probably come as no surprise to most of you: Different people learn through different means.

Some learn by listening. Remember people who just sat in class and absorbed the entire lecture ? They learnt by listening. Then there are those who learn by writing. They take notes. Some people learn by reading. They just sleep in all the clases, then go home, read the text book and ace the exam. Some learn by talking. They need to discuess the topic with someone else to clarify their thinking. Finally, we all know that student who could write great programs on the computer, but could barely follow what was going on in class. They learnt by doing.

These five categories represent the different modes of learning. [These are actually a combination of modes. For more on the theory, check out these links - 1, 2, 3]. They are not mutually exclusive. Some people can learn in multiple ways, but most people have one dominant mode of learning and other minor modes of learning.

Think back to your college batch, and you would find a few classmates who fit each of the above categories. The college environment is designed to present multiple methods of learning. You can either listen to the lecturer, try out excercises, attend lab sessions, talk to your classmates about a topic, or read the textbook.

Now, someone is going to point out that (in most of India at least) lecturers are often recent college graduates who couldn’t get any other job, that the textbooks are written to maximise your exam score rather than teach anything, most students take down notes verbatim without any understanding and the labs are underfunded relics. This is a topic for another day. For now, lets just assume that they support all methods of learning.

Let’s get back to the present now.

Scenario I: Your company has a training programme under which they have called someone to give a seminar on Design Patterns. You’re a Project Manager. Madhav, a member of your team, will be doing some design work soon, so you send him over to attend the seminar. The only problem is that Madhav learns by reading, not listening. Not surprisingly the seminar is extremely boring for him and he sleeps through it.

Scenario II: You are working on a new project and have just recieved a thick list of requirements. You pass the requirements to Priyanka, the lead programmer, and ask her to take a look. The problem is, Priyanka learns by talking, not by reading. The next day, the coversation goes like this:

You: So did you have a look at the requirements I passed you?

Priyanka: I had a look, but they look complicated. Can we have a meeting to discuss them?

You: I’m busy right now. I’ll be back in two days to check on your progress.

2 days later…

You: So how are the requirements? I need to give an estimate for the completion date this evening.

Priyanka: I’m not sure I understand it. Can we discuss it?

You: You still don’t understand it? I gave you two extra days. What more do you want? Meetings are just a waste of time. Can’t you just read it and give me an estimate? I need to give an estimate today.

Ouch.

Meanwhile, Scott Adams is drawing you in the next Dilbert strip.

Most managers don’t really understand the modes of learning of their team members. If Priyanka learns by talking, the manager should know it and let her talk about the requirements. Forcing her to read the requirements will go nowhere. Similarly if Ramesh likes to read, his manager should pass his some reading material before he attends the seminar. The primary responsibility of a manager is to enable his or her team members to do their work as best they can, and knowing their learning modes can help with this.

Companies also like to talk about how employee oriented they are, and about their professional development policies, but in most cases this just means that they shove their employees through a couple of seminars a year, just because they have to.

Real professional development is a lot more than just sending everyone to a few seminars. Companies need to take a hint from colleges where most of the real learning takes place. They need a good library where the readers can hang out. They need cool co-workers so that the talkers can talk with each other and learn. They need ad-hoc groups of people who learn by doing to get together and do side projects. They need to create internal blogs so that the writers can write stuff, and of course, the good old seminars for the listeners to attend.

Any comments? How is it at the companies you work (or worked) at?

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4 comments:

Sachin said...

That is very interesting K.

I mean yes. That is so true. I think back about college days and wonder why were some people always sitting on the first row and listening so attentively and there were others who were back-benchers working some problem out on their laptops. While others were totally bunking their classes sitting in the library and reading thru some book on programming [or economics for that matter].

The scenario which you have painted too is a real one.

You have raised a very real issue of "Trainning" faced by companies [both IT and non-IT].

Lets go put down the list of different kinds of learners one by one again.

1. The Listeners [the favourites]
2. The Readers
3. The Talkers
4. The Writers
5. The Doers

Now, among these categories of learners, I would like to say that the Listeners are always the favourites [and here I would say that not only in India, across the world]. Thats the reason that class-room teaching is still the most used mode of teaching in schools colleges and even in graduate schools. There are very few schools where you will not see class-rooms with one teacher teaching say 20-100 students.

That is why [let me say] that the Seminar mode [or the class-room teaching mode] of imparting training is the most used one till date amongst the employers too.

The reason [perhaps] for this lies in the need [want] of some[most] to achieve 'scale'.

Did you notice, that with the class-room teaching only, one can achieve [at least have an impression of achieving] scale in teaching. I mean to say a single teacher can at times teach more than 100 students.

Whereas all other modes of learning will demand more involvement on the part of the trainer. That will mean trainer spending more time on each one of his student if the student is a non-listener.

I also feel that the Seminar mode of imparting training is only the begining of what you can call a complete learning cycle.

What I mean to say is that listening about what others think about some thing and what others have implemented something is only the first step in learning. And if we look at learning more closely, no learning can be complete unless we can 'do' what we are taught.

The way I see learning cycle is that it begins with taking 'in' what needs to be learnt [that will involve the theory part]. The mode by which one can take the theory in is different for different people [read write talk listen]

The learning cycle is complete only when we are able to solve some real life problem using what we have learnt [ie do]. Unless we are not able to put our learning to work, the learning is incomplete.

Note: Writing and talking when used by a book writer or a lecturer in a classroom is different. That kind of writing and talking is not what we are talking about here.

So in effect what happens in the learning cycle for various people is one of the below mentioned steps:

1.listen-do
2.read-do
3.talk-do
4.write-do
5.listen-write-do
6.listen-write-talk-do
7.listen-read-write-talk-do
8.other_such_permutations_and_combinations-do

9.*do*

But out of these only the 'listen' category falls in the ambit of a large scale tranning program where one trainer will be able to train more and more people. This indeed saves lot of time [and money] but surely is not the most effective method.

There are companies who are very serious about training the employees in more ways than the age old listen method. But I havent come across any of them.

By the way, the best form of trainning is the one imaparted in one-to-one engagement.

Remember the Master-Padawan relation in the Starwars movies. That and only that is the best form of trainning system one can have.

"According to the Jedi Code, a Jedi Master may only have one Padawan at a time."

---Taken from the Starwars official website.

Siddhi said...

Interesting. The part about scaling the training is a good one. Apart from seminars, none of the other methods scale well. That could be a big factor in training given to employees.

Then again, in Indian companies at least, there seems to be some kind of cultural barrier in providing other forms of learning. I think most companies have decent libraries (this is just a wild guess, if anyone has any other data, please post it here), but I don't hear much about anything else going on. I have no idea why. You would think -- at least in big companies -- that there will be some people around who will want to do interesting non-work stuff, but we don't hear about them for some reason.

Perfekt said...

I remember reading an article in the HBR that the folks had done a study of several approaches and finally concluded that the best way to transfer knowledge/train was a three step process of:

1) Watch the mentor in action
2) Do it oneself
3) Teach it to another

So the case study was some company where a trainee was attached to a senior executive and shadowed him to learn what was to be learnt, then did it himself and then taught someone else to do the same thing.

Sounds terrific ;-)

Siddhi said...

This is a very cool model used by craftsmen for centuries -- the mentor/apprentice model. It's very cool, but of course it depends on the quality of your mentor.