Embedded Learning

Dan White
Jan 21 2021 | Insights

The best learning happens on the job, through trial and error, rather than in a classroom-like environment. Dan White, the director of Ezra's Impact Lab, discusses how interventions around learning in the workplace need to understand and reflect this, rather than clinging to the idea that the intervention itself is where all the learning happens.

I have been as guilty as any learning and development professional of over emphasizing learning interventions (classroom learning) at the expense of traditional “learning on the job.”  It’s an easy trap to fall into.

Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemann, one of the world’s foremost authorities on behavioral economics, spends a lot of time discussing “availability heuristics,” or the human tendency to use any information that we can recall quickly to make decisions for the future.

If we apply Kahnemann’s theories to learning professionals, it suggests that we tend to emphasize those things we know best (formal interventions) where we work directly with people to “develop” them, rather than the learning they may do independently “on the job.”

Many professionals pay lip service to “on-the-job” learning, but if we’re being honest, many of us find it an affront to our professional egos; we want to believe that our brilliant design, brilliant delivery are the factors that make the difference for learnings.  How could people learn without our extensive expertise?

Well, the fact is that most of the real learning does not happen when we are around.  If we can accept that reality just long enough to consider what this means for learning professionals, then we can make better decisions when designing learning interventions.

The need for learning to get real

A core challenge for learning professionals is that much adult learning delivered in sessions that are devoid of real-world context.

To capture some of that real-world experience, we tend to lean on simulations but most of us know that they are hard to deliver, expensive and, at the end of the day, still create a hollow version of reality. When we force people to learn outside of a real context, we run the risk that it doesn’t stick and the decay rate of what they have learned is very high.

The fact is that we learn most effectively when we’re in the same place we can fail with consequence.

Behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner’s famous experiments in the 1950s with rats in boxes are pretty inhumane by today’s standards, but they helped establish that consequence has an enormous effect on our ability to learn.  When it doesn’t matter what we do, when our actions do not materially affect meaningful outcomes, we don’t or perhaps can’t learn.

And, let’s face it, the classroom is a hard place to create genuine consequence.

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