“Training”, “learning” or both?

Naming is important! When we encounter overlapping terms applied to similar concepts, they often carry important differences in emphasis or meaning. So what have I been doing all these years?

Maybe it is “training”, but the world is now focussed on “learning”, let’s pick this apart?

Are we “training”?

For many years, people have been delivering “training” in various subject areas, including IT; I am one of them. This type of work involves spending a lot of time in a classroom interacting with up to a dozen or more “delegates”: our term for people who were attended a course to be “trained“; others might refer to them as “trainees“.

We are known as “instructors” or, sometimes, “trainers“. The course is a “training” course. The course is provided by an organization which called itself a “training” company. There is no doubt about it: we are in the “training” industry. Or are we?

Or is this about “learning”?

In recent times and in closely related fields to ours, the terminology has shifted. There is “distance learning” and “eLearning“; there are “blended learning” courses and the recipients are known as “learners“. Are these activities fundamentally different from ours? As far as I can tell, they are not.

Or is it both?

So, is this simply different terminology for the same activity? Is “learning”, the same as “being trained”? Is “training”, the same as … um … “causing learning” or something?

At first glance, it seems so. But, beneath the surface, this is no semantic subtlety; it is an important shift. These are conjugate views of the same process. What process? For want of a better one, the term “knowledge transfer” is probably accurate enough.

Analogies and terminology

These conjugate views are analogous to those frequently applied to other service industries. When the focus is on the activities of the supplier, we talk of “service provision”; whereas, when the focus is on the activities of the consumer, we talk of “service consumption”.

There are other examples, such as in personal relationships where “leadership” and “followship” are conjugate aspects of fundamentally the same process.

This is interesting, because the root of the word “education” is to “lead”. So are “learners”, effectively “following”. I think so. Actually, we occasionally say that someone “follows” a “training” course.

Value streams

Clearly the “learner”, as the recipient of the transferred knowledge, is the one who is gaining value from the process. So, as with approaches which specify services in terms of the “consumption” by the customers, it makes sense to specify the knowledge transfer process from the perspective of the “learner”. So, what am I if not a “trainer”? Perhaps I am a “learnee”!

How is the knowledge being transferred? This is, of course, a huge subject area; knowledge is being transferred by a wide range of means, ranging: from a trainer providing verbal and/or written explanations; through story telling, learners solving problems (whether set or not set by a trainer) and coaching; to people playing games and learning to play better.

How far do we go in arranging everything for the benefit of the learner? Well, why not go as far as possible. There is general concensus that we learn most by “doing” something. This makes sense, so we arrange for learners to do things; although we can debate about how prescribed the activities are to be.

However some would go further and argue that no learning happens unless the learner is happy. Well, maybe I am old fashioned, but I cannot agree. Some very effective learning takes place when we are placed in uncomfortable situations. In many disciplines, a major mechanism by which learning takes place starts with the investigation of accidents. No one who has seen a two year old child accidentally put a hand under running hot water would argue that they are happy about it; but it is difficult to deny that they are learning!

The “learnee” role

Generally, the shift in the role of the “trainer” to that of a “learnee” (or whatever we are to be called) is yet to be fully understood by most people operating in the field that I know. Perhaps academics and school teachers apply this routinely; if so, we can learn from them. But, this is taking some time to permeate into the field of, so called, “instructor-led training”.

It seems to me that the role of the “learnee” is to place in the path of the learner things which stimulate them. These might be: stories of past occurrences; descriptions of visions of a better future; pieces of information; and so on. They might also be challenges which are new, but are within their grasp and, therefore, motivate them to achieve goals. This is not unlike a player in a game, with the “learnee” as the gamesmaster. So it is not surprising that the field of “serious games” is rapidly developing in the “learning” field, whether applied to business processes or military activities.

I have certainly seen some wonderful learning taking place when appropriate information, tools and challenges are placed in front of learners, especially children.


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