Friday, June 20, 2008


I was having a conversation about education with my wife the other day and she said something that was an ah-ha moment for me. Her comment was “your education is not what you learned in the classroom, but understanding the process of learning”. This is not a new thought for many of us, but the way it was presented to me forced me to do some research on the topic of how we learn.

The traditional learning process is gathering information and memorizing that information so that we can show that we are proficient when asked a question on the topic. This is great way to become good at Trivial Pursuit and other games where what you remember is more important than what you do with what you remember. Despite what we spent our K-12 years doing, in real life we seldom need to rely on memorization, because performance is a higher priority.

Learning is a life long process that consists of some memorization, but primarily is made up of a sequence of problem solving experiences. Our use of memorization is in remembering situation specific experiences that then create our decision making process. Through this process we can remember that the last time we were in a specific situation our action caused a specific reaction. If that reaction was positive, we choose to repeat that action, and if the reaction was negative we figure out a new action plan where we can achieve different results. The end result comes from trial and error rather than memorization, yet we still emphasize remembering that facts, structures, and theories when educating our children, and have the adults we work with memorize rules, quotes, and constantly changing systems.

In the area of learning process, Princeton University has a 70/20/10 formula. This formula states that 70% of learning and development comes from real life and on the job experiences, tasks, and problem solving; 20% comes from feedback and observing role models; and 10% comes from formal training.

The interesting idea of this model comes from the 10% of learning being related to formal training because if you look at how we educate people we emphasize this 10% through memorization and pen to paper tests. By doing this we are placing our definition of proficiency through the least important aspect of the learning process. Businesses and schools alike do the same thing, spend large chunks of time drilling information into their employees/students instead of letting them actually use experience as the greatest learning tool.

Princeton goes on to say that the learning process is built on three principles; 1) the identification of gaps between one’s ideal self and one’s real self, 2) the development of a challenging and realistic development action plan, and 3) ongoing development dialogue between learners and supervisors. In essence they are supporting the idea of understanding your reality, setting goals, and fostering communication to enhance learning. These are the same three principles that in real life are replaced with trying to get everyone to believe that they are equal in ability, that to succeed you need to reach for the path of least resistance, and if you do as I say you can be successful. After this educational experience is fulfilled we wonder why so many people are not prepared for the real world, especially after they did so well on our standardized tests and force fed training programs.

If you want to get the most out of your child, employee, etc., stop holding their hand and shying them away from learning to compete and allow them to experience life on their own, observe them in their situations and provide feedback based on your experiences so that they can develop their own identities and place in the world, and provide them with the information they need to memorize in order to succeed. If the order of this learning process is reversed, you have not created empowerment; you have created a robot who knows how to respond under ideal conditions only.

Guiding your way through the world is not something you learn in the classroom or board room, and success is not a process that comes from a text book. Learning to succeed comes directly from understanding why you failed and failure is only possible when you are allowed to understand the process of learning through living.

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