There has been a lot of talk about formal vs. informal learning in the educational blogosphere and when it comes right down to it, formal learning is the most effective. Here’s why.
Recently, I was touring a nuclear power plant training facility and had a chance to see the room where operators are trained. It is an EXACT replica of the actual operations room in the real plant right down to the same ambient sounds.
When I visited the Johns Hopkins Simulation Center, we ran a simulation involving a patient heart attack. The actions taken by myself and others occurred in a simulated hospital room using the same equipment found in any hospital room. When pilots train, they use a flight simulator that acts and reacts just like a real aircraft complete with hydraulic movements to simulate actual responses of the plane.
When lives are on the line, the learning process is studied, calculated and formalized to a degree of realism as close to 100% as possible. In these life and death training situations, the actions of the individuals involved in the training are timed and measured against objective standards. If you don’t administer oxygen within the prescribed time frame in the simulation, you know about it as you watch a recorded version of your actions as an instructor provides feedback. The fidelity between the environment in which the performance is required and the environment in which it is trained and practiced is extremely high.
The processes have been formalized, in knowledge work, many of the processes are formalized. We like to think knowledge workers spend all day “problem-solving” but in reality they spend all day finding out what procedure should be followed in what situation. Sales people have procedures for overcoming objections, managers have procedures for dealing with a crisis or an upset customer, insurance agents have procedures for handling claims, instructional designers have procedures for creating role-plays or teaching concepts vs. facts.
Formal feedback loops, reflective learning opportunities, established standards, prescribed activities are all critical to the success of the learner in the nuclear power plants, hospitals and while flying planes. The training is all formalized. Learning and expected behaviors are not left to chance, actions are parsed, best practices studied, conclusions drawn from data and the experience of experts. This is because the difference between a radioactive disaster and successfully creating electricity is formal learning events and authentic practice.
So, if you want a highly trained individual capable of performing his or her job to the highest standard, you need formal learning conducted in an authentic learning environment.
Anything less is not as effective and the performance will not be guaranteed. Without formal training if someone does something right, it is most likely by chance. Do we really expect a person to effectively sell product in a retail environment without authentic formal instruction? Do we expect a customer service employee to provide excellent customer service and use the computer system to look up critical information when the training is delivered in a classroom environment which is an environment nothing like the actual environment in which they are asked to perform. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can avoid formal learning events and we are kidding ourselves if our learning events are not as authentic as we can possibly make them. The higher the fidelity, the better the performance in the actual situation.
Do we expect college students in a economics class to understand entrepreneurship without ever having run a business? Do we expect managers or leaders to effectively operate in a crisis situation when they’ve only read about the five steps needed to operate in a crisis? Or discussed it in a chat room?
If you want effective, mistake free results, only formal learning events conducted in an environment as authentic as possible provide the desired level of performance and outcomes. Everything else is a compromise. Realistic, formal learning events make a difference.
If I want assurances of outcomes, I want someone formally trained.