Train for performance, not theory

I have a BSc in Computer Science, with a major in Software programming but I never call myself a programmer. I am very good at seeing patterns in data, and algorithms, but programming isn’t theory. It’s 100% practice and experience.

I see the same in management. Graduates with distinctions in management theory are terrible managers. Every parent reads parenting books, but that doesn’t prepare you for what you will face every day raising kids. Some jobs are “applied science” – teaching, writing, managing, writing, programming … and design. You are a designer because of what you DO, not because of what you KNOW.

In training, this is also called “inert knowledge” and it’s discussed in Bloom’s taxonomy.

About Bloom’s Taxonomy

This is the theory:

  1. Remembering. Retrieve relevant knowledge from long-term memory:
    Actions: recall, recognize.
  2. Understanding. Determine the meaning of instructional messages.
    Actions: interpret, classify, summarize, compare, explain.
  3. Applying. Carry out or use a procedure in a given situation.
    Actions: execute, implement
  4. Analyzing. Break material into its constituent parts and detect how the parts relate to one another and to an overall structure or purpose.
    Action: organize
  5. Evaluating. Make judgments based on criteria and standards.
    Actions: check, critique.
  6. Creating. Putting elements together to form a novel, coherent whole.
    Actions: create, generate, plan, produce.

Multiple choice questions – the assessment method for most of most online learning – relies heavily on Level 1.  Online learning software is only capable of Level 1 and 2, because these can be automated. Automation is desirable.

The problem with inert knowledge

Inert knowledge rarely helps to improve “on the job” performance.

When someone’s knowledge is inert, that could mean that:

  • They don’t understand its implications or how it connects to other relevant facts.
  • They can’t recognize it when it’s described in a slightly different way.
  • They don’t know how to apply it in situations where minor adjustments are necessary.

“You need facts to make sense; they are the basis for understanding, but they are never enough. Inertia as pathology describes those states of mind where people come to know something but simply can’t go beyond the facts, can’t synthesize them, think with them, or apply them in another situation.”

⁠— From “Taking Learning Seriously” by Lee S. Shulman (1999)

How to avoid inert knowledge in your training

Automated, online learning is great for learning facts. It shows trainees HOW to do something.

To train for performance needs more. You need to learn WHEN to do something and WHY and then you actually need to DO it.  To learn to apply knowledge, you need to engage with the learners at a human level. That helps to build DEEP knowledge rather than shallow information. It isn’t good enough to recognise the right thing, you have to be able to apply it in the right way, at the right time.

One of the great training courses I did on Technical writing was with Christa Bedwin at UBC. The modules were online, but the assignments were written, and were marked individually by hand. There was some memorizing, but this process created active knowledge that I used every day.

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