Learning by Layering

by Geof Lory

Some of the work I do with companies is straightforward training; learning in the academic environment where I, as the instructor, am expected to know everything, or at least a whole lot more than the students do, and then crack open their brains and pour my infinite knowledge in for hours or even days. There may be some skills that can be learned this way, but I believe they are few and far between. Most skills are acquired through a practice/feedback loop that incrementally builds competency over time. This approach allows for the layering of the learning in deliberate and digestible chunks. You may be able to accelerate the skills development through intense exposure and rapid learning cycles of practice and feedback, but large chucks at a fast pace is almost always a recipe for indigestion.

Benjamin Bloom refers to this as Explicit Learning. It starts with awareness, (knowing) builds through practice (doing), is improved through feedback and eventually develops competencies that are performed almost subconsciously (being), due mostly to repetition. There is an assumed aspect of this model, which is often lost when it is explained in this simple fashion. The learning is heuristic in that each individual skill learned becomes the building block for the next skill. This is the manner in which traditional learning in a structured environment, like school, takes place.

In every year of school, higher levels of a subject are taught, building off the foundation of the year before, for 12 to 16 or more years. Young empty minds are imbued with layer upon layer of prescribed learning until at some point it is deemed that the learner has "graduated" and can now perform at an acceptable level of competence. We all know the fallacy of this theory; there is no substitute for practical experience. None. But experience takes time; something there is a lot more of in the academic world than there is tolerance for in most adult corporate environments.

So, we have a challenge. How do we build competencies that can be useful even while the majority of the learning is still to come? The answer is not that difficult, but the patience and discipline to pull it off may be more than most are willing to tolerate. But, just like when we don’t do sufficient planning and design in projects, we will always have time to do it over, but never enough time to do it right the first time. And so we rush into intensive instructor-led training in hopes of immediate success. We seem predisposed to some instant learning gratification that rarely works.

As an avid golfer, I was recently given the opportunity to help pique the interest in golf for the son of a friend by teaching him to caddy. When I started this exercise, I didn't realize that I would learn as much as he would in the process—it just wasn't in the same domain. As I do when preparing for any learning, I quickly parsed the information he would need to know to be a good caddy and figured we would spend 3-4 rounds together. After that, I would have taught him everything and he would be there. After all, how difficult could it be? I caddy for myself every round I play. It's simple, at least from my perspective.

So, as we walked down the first fairway, I started to share with my new partner/caddy all the things he needed to know, in exact detail. To me it all made perfect sense and it was presented in a meaningful and understandable fashion. To him, I'm sure it was as difficult to comprehend as calculus to someone learning algebra. Do this, don't do that, stand here not there, faster, slower. To his credit, he did a great job of learning in spite of my best efforts to bury him in a world of golf etiquette that was totally foreign to him. Surprisingly, he said he wanted to come back for more next week.

That following week, I worked with a team at a client site that has been rolling out a large project management infrastructure, complete with new procedures, new tools and lots and lots of behavioral change. It has been difficult to get adoption by the masses for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the sheer volume of new behaviors expected. People have been told, trained, and shown what they have to do, but behaviors are not changing as rapidly as desired. The frustration is palpable on both sides of the equation.

We all know why we are struggling. Our capacity for change has been exceeded and we need to have the learning layered in a fashion that builds on itself. Each layer needs a little time to cure before the next layer is applied, or they all start to run together. And most importantly, the layers need to be sequenced such that the most foundational layers are first, even if those first layers do not produce the final results we want in and of themselves. When it comes to learning, patience is truly a virtue.

So, after a week of challenges at work, I was facing another 18 holes of potentially doing to this young boy what I was frustrated with at work. Since the pain was still familiar, I could feel what it would be like to be in his shoes. I needed to take some of my own medicine and layer the learning for this young man if he was ever going to become a caddy and enjoy it.

So I mapped out a plan that included just three simple things we would work on this second weekend. I borrowed the number three from my wife, who does marketing and communication plans and uses three as the maximum number of key messages you should try to convey at any one time. Seemed appropriate for the circumstances. They were caddy basics: where to stand, cleaning the clubs and ball, and handing me my putter and driver at the correct time.

Of course, this means he would not do a lot of the other things a caddy is expected to do, like rake the sand traps and tend the flagstick. But, I knew that if I asked him to do all those things right off the bat, like I had spewed the previous weekend, it was highly unlikely he would remember them all. Then I would not know which things I could reliably count on to happen. It would feel like he was doing nothing right even if he was doing the majority of the things right. The frustration would be felt on both sides and learning would be compromised.

No surprise, it worked like a charm, and he did a great job. By the end of the 18 holes he was a regular pro at those three things and we even took advantage of a few other unplanned learning moments to sprinkle in some additional items that we will cover in greater detail next weekend. I know he is coming back for more. We're having too much fun learning for him not to. And now I know what to expect from him.

We all work in dynamic environments that require continual learning. If you find yourself overwhelmed, or overwhelming others, try layering the learning a little thinner. This week at work I'm going to focus on just three basic things. I figure if my 14-year-old caddy can handle that, it should work for this old golfer, too.

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