Key Concept ~ The evidence is in. Passive learning, which is traditionally delivered through classroom lectures, is simply ineffective. Evidence gathered by professors at Arizona State, Harvard and the University of Maryland uncovers the pall of results from this engrained methodology. Changing the delivery mechanism from a live lecture to computer based training may save money, but it still isn’t money well spent.
I came across a fascinating report by Emily Hanford earlier this week that reveals some startling findings regarding traditional educational methodologies. Some twenty years ago, a professor at Arizona State University, Dr. David Hestenes, published a series of articles revealing that his first year physics students’ test scores were endemically stuck at an average of 40%, semester after semester. When Professor Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard came across these articles, he saw a correlation to his own students. It wasn’t his teaching style that was lacking, as he consistently scored very high in student feedback. It was the traditional approach to learning, the classical classroom lecture, that was falling short. What he realized was while his students may be memorizing formulas, they were not creating the active neural networks necessary to apply the concepts in the real world.
Fellow physicist Joe Reddish at the University of Maryland noticed the same low ability to apply the lectured information conceptually. In Ms. Hanford’s article, Reddish pointed to a basic test question regarding Newtonian Physics that was consistently on his exams:
“Two balls are the same size but one weighs twice as much as the other. The balls are dropped from the top of a two-story building at the same instant of time. The time it takes the ball to reach the ground will be…”
a.) about half as long for the heavier ball
b.) about half as long for the lighter ball
c.) the same amount of time for both
Rather than simply tell them the answer, he took them out for a bit of experiential learning. Going to the second story of the physics building, he dropped two balls of identical size, but with different weights, with his students watching from ground level. The students observed that both balls hit the ground at the same time. Why? This phenomena is explained by Newton’s Second Law of Motion and his discovery of terminal velocity (due to the interplay of air resistance and gravity, objects in free fall on Earth accelerate to a constant rate of descent of 128 feet per second squared). Take away the force of air friction, by placing the same two balls in a vacuum, and the one of greater mass will reach the ground first.
Now, nearly every physics student is familiar with Newton’s Second Law of Motion. It is taught in High School. In the article, Professor Mazur observes the test results of physics students at the end of a semester demonstrates their conceptual application and understanding of these fundamental concepts only improves by an average of 14%. This has now been demonstrated through the testing of tens of thousands of students for conceptual application.
Hestenes also observed that the traditional classroom lecture approach is effective for about 10% of students; those that are capable of independent learning. He is quoted as saying, “Students have to be active in developing their knowledge. They can’t passively assimilate it.”
If you’re familiar with the research of Dr. David Kolb on adult learning styles, this comes as no surprise. While conducting research at M.I.T., Dr. Kolb discovered and demonstrated the Learning Style Inventory. Adults learn using two or three of four fundamental learning modalities: Experiential Learning, Reflective Learning, Modeling & Correlation, and Trial & Error. It’s not an accident that passive assimilation isn’t included in his work…because it doesn’t work.
I’ve been around long enough to have been an executive during the first wave of automating business processes with technology in order to cut costs. We quickly learned that automating bad process doesn’t improve the process. It only accelerates it, often accelerating poor performance outcomes as a result. We’re witnessing a similar rush to automation in the professional development and corporate training sector today. Anyone that attended the most recent national conference for the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) experienced this firsthand. The technology prophets were everywhere, attempting to demonstrate how their software and their cloud were the cost-effective solution to every learning challenge companies are experiencing today.
Automating a failed approach to learning to computer-based platforms does cut costs. But at what price? In today’s economy, the commercialization of intellectual property, kindled by human creativity and cohesive team work, is the driver of value creation and competitive differentiation. I’m willing to bet we’ll see the same results I lived through in the early 1990s. Accelerating passive learning through automation will likely accelerate passive results. Ironically, Newton’s Law of Inertia may metaphorically apply to the conventional wisdom in many organizations. Inertia is defined as the tendency of objects to resist change in their state of motion. This seems to apply to the long-held ideas surrounding corporate learning as well.
To paraphrase Albert Einstein, the level of thinking that created a problem is not the level of thinking necessary to solve it. When we examine the evidence, it becomes painfully clear the time is long overdue for a new level of thinking about corporate training and development.
© 2012, Terry Murray.