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Learning in theory

We must understanding different techniques – but also how the real world works
Training should encourage suppleness and resolve in the face of unexpected real-world complications
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

“How can we develop sharper consumer insights?” “What’s the best kind of brief to inspire breakthrough creative work?” “How do we implement evidence-based marketing?”

These are good questions and, if your team are asking them, it’s a healthy sign. It means the will is there to build on the capabilities they already have, and to push themselves and their brands even further. It is also a signal: that they would welcome better training in both the fundamentals and the continuing evolution of marketing.

Perhaps that is something you can lead yourself, informally, with a regular in-house seminar. Or, conceivably, diaries being as they are, you will engage an outside capability-building specialist. In which case, you’ll have a few questions of your own.

“What are your marketing qualifications and capabilities?” “What is the practical marketing experience of your trainers?” “How do you ensure seamless transition from theory to real-world application?”

These are also good questions – designed to ensure the people standing in front of your team have the right kind of credibility and experience, and to get the best out of the budget.

So far, so sensible. But here’s where it starts to go awry – especially if your company is sizeable, with multiple departments and budget holders jealously guarding their roles. Your decision to invest in training will be picked up, as though by scent, within HR or a function called something like “Learning & development”.

Although it’s your own discipline you seek to improve, and your own budget you’re happy to deploy, capability-building goes through them – so they will have questions of their own to put to your training specialist candidates.

Curiously, these will not be about marketing or the credentials of the trainers within the specifics of the discipline. They will be about “learning” itself: “How do you ensure the course is applicable to all learning styles?” “Which established concepts of learning theory do you incorporate?” “Have you innovated new learning-path techniques?”

Are these good questions? They’re certainly narrowly focused ones, all “how” and no “what”, as though the specialist knowledge itself is commoditised and all that matters is the means of its transference. Still, since you’re likely to have to get involved with them, let’s take a look at their implications.

Learning styles
The theory dates from the academic work of David Kolb in the 1970s and has been disputed ever since. It argues that individuals naturally favour one of four ways to learn – activist, theorist, pragmatist and reflector – and that they should seek opportunities to engage with theirs.

While that might just make sense in one-to-one learning, it is impractical in a group, since styles will inevitably vary. So the answer is to do as any good trainer would anyway and ensure a lively mix of methodologies – visual, verbal, experiential, theatrical and interactive.

Learning theory
There is a lot of it out there, but the concept that HR is reliably seduced by, and that suppliers love to commandeer, is the “cone of learning” – a natty model that purports to show which kinds of learning input are best remembered.

What you’ll see is a stylised cone divided into brightly coloured segments, each representing a mode of learning, along with a figure of its typical student retention rate. So “reading” is at the narrow end of the cone, with just 10% retention. “Practice doing” is towards the wider end, with 80%.

What you should know is that the cone has no basis in any kind of research. The order was conjured up by a North Dakota schoolteacher in 1933 and the suspiciously tidy figures were added for a non-scholarly article in the 1960s. A bit like Maslow’s hierarchy, this is one of those mysteriously self-replicating ideas that should by rights have perished decades ago.

Innovative techniques
The discipline could do with more of them, especially in the spheres of motivation – without which there will be no learning – and randomisation, to encourage suppleness and resolve in the face of unexpected real-world problems.

You’ll see my own humble contribution to that – the dice game – in the panel. The aim is to prepare people for a bit of chaos – to help them make the leap from the relative order of the lecture room, workshop or digital screen to the madness of the seething, ungoverned world.

Out there, there are no simple questions – and no ready-made, drilled-in answers.

The dice game

Two giant dice are introduced at the beginning of a team-training exercise – one representing external factors, the other internal. On each side of the dice is a different random “factor” that represents the kind of sudden intervention that could happen in the real world: eg “new legislation bans ingredient” on the external die or “marketing budgets cut by 50%” on the internal one.

Both dice are rolled to give a combination of two new factors that must now be taken into account by teams working on their tasks. They would be encouraged to show not just how they had coped with these new factors in their plans but, ideally, how they had found creative ways to use them to advantage.

There is no way to “prepare” for this segment beforehand, since there is no way of knowing which of the 36 two-dice combinations will be rolled. Usually immensely energised, creative and exciting – because even the trainers are caught by surprise.