Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning
There is little doubt that competencies (aka as knowledge and skills) are essential for normal functioning. Yesterday, when a skin doctor removed a lesion from my leg with his scalpel, I was more concerned with his competence than almost anything else. The same might be said for my accountant and we wish it could be said for financial advisors.
However, some of the risks of a competency-based training system is that we might focus excessively on ticking boxes, ensuring content is delivered, and controlling the training situation to reach the desired end-point. Unless I tell them, how will they know? It’s my job and most people have an image of the teacher as someone who tells people how it is-an information delivery service. As I mentioned to a gathering of New South Wales Rural Fire Service personnel in Sydney recently, I regularly walk into rooms to conduct a learning experience for both the corporate and the government sectors only to find, with dismay, the desks lined up in rows aimed at the screen for the 101 Powerpoint slides and the extremely structured ‘learning’ process. I redesign the room very quickly or get the learners to do it.
Self-determined learning (heutagogy) focuses on process and is concerned with real or deep learning. That is when information and skill is embedded in the person’s memory by virtue of complex neural networking, capable of being repeated in any circumstance-the novel as well as the familiar. Just because someone can demonstrate a competence or some knowledge on Tuesday does not mean that they can do the same two-weeks later. In fact, we know that medium term forgetting is the result of cramming, and training is often a cramming exercise. Too many ideas in too short a period of time.
We cannot expect to conduct a one or two-day training program and expect real learning to take place. Human brains are not capable of learning in this way. It takes time, readiness, experience, connection with previous learning, attention, chunking, time to reflect, testing of ideas, and making of conclusions. Learning depends on memory and these conditions are essential for memory to be effectively accessed. Training also tends to be a one-off experience and we are all familiar with the ‘halo effect’.
If you ask pretty much any adult, or teenager for that matter, how they learn a new hobby, or how to change the care engine oil for example, the answer is much the same. They go online, search YouTube, read articles, talk to people. They might go find some expert help and may, indeed, go to a course. But the learning is in their hands-it is self-determined. They explore, experiment, find, watch, fail, try again, and ask. It’s how we learn.
The NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS), a huge organisation with around 70,000 volunteers and paid staff, necessarily has a very large eye on training, for obvious reasons. While based around competencies, capability development and real learning are critical for both effectiveness in an emergency but also for safety of its crews.
At the conference I attended, the RFS took a giant leap into rational, scientific-based approach to its training and learning. It launched its self-determined learning approach to learning. Cleverly called FUEL, they have opted for a blended learning approach using the advantages of what online learning has to offer as well as the ‘hands on’ learning that takes place experientially.
The message is clear. Access what you need to know online and undertake the theory assessments when you want. Come in and out, Refresh as necessary. When you know of a deficit, address it. Unfettered access to learning materials and test out when you’re ready. Then, do the practical learning with your crew, with an expert and test out as competence when the time comes.
The training room is an artefact of the past-an eighteenth century invention that has had its day. Spend more time and resources doing the practical stuff, where the learning will really make a difference. Content will take care of itself with imaginative instructional design and modular learning (chunking). The FUEL handbook provides clear instruction on how to negotiate the system-a road map.
This is a massive cultural step forward for a large, training focused organisation to embrace the neuroscience of learning and to take on board the fact that old training practices are ineffective for humans to learn. Learning is placed in the hands of the learner, which is where it has always been but is often usurped by the trainer, the teacher.