Moving Practice to Centre Stage

As digital content becomes more prevalent (free and otherwise), there’s much talk about the new role of the learning professional as content curator or content strategy developer.

I agree this will be an important role, but worry it yet again puts the focus on structuring and controlling all that information (another round of knowledge management anyone?) while minimizing the critical role of practice and application of the “content”. We all know the importance of practice and feedback in the progression of knowledge to performance (we do all know that, don’t we?). If we truly believe it, then we need to put the design of practice and feedback at the centre of our work, and content (information) in a supporting role. This simple change in vantage point has the potential to radically change the way we approach learning and performance.

Organizing the learning function around practice (vs. courses and content)

What if the learning function was structured around the design and management of practice centres (virtual and physical), rather than the design and delivery of formal training events? It could once and for all move us away from formal event based learning to process oriented learning. The activities in each practice centre would vary by the type of skill being developed. Practice centres to support management and knowledge work for example (simulations, problem solving, cognitive apprenticeships) would look much different than that those supporting procedural and task oriented work (performance demonstrations, skill development). I explored this approach applied to management development in a previous post

What would be different?

Designing practice centres would require us to establish standards (ideally in collaboration with the people doing the work), derive authentic problems and tasks that help people achieve those standards, scaffold practice exercises in a progression towards expertise in the job/role and source and manage the “content” that will help employees make their way through the practice exercises. The framework puts practice in the centre and moves content to a supporting (but critical) role. You might think of the approach as Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping applied at the organizational level (rather than at the course level).

Separating content from practice

Traditional instructional design tightly connects information presentation (electronic or otherwise) with practice in structured learning events.  However, separating content from practice is positive and liberating (no matter what your ID traditionalists tell you) as long as practice does not get lost. Learning functions centred around the design of progressive practice would ensure that.

In the right context Web 2.0 and social learning can beautifully separate content and application.  Other times it can result more in  information dissemination.  Knowledge is an inert thing without application and consuming information is no substitute for true learning. Much of that awesome user generated content out there focuses on informing and much less on doing (thus the calls for content curation).  When social learning encourages sharing,  thinking, collaborating, and real world application as it does in an excellent community of practice, it fits well into the definition of practice I’m suggesting.

The role of Deliberate Practice in the development of expertise.

In preparation for an upcoming presentation on designing practice to improve performance, I’ve been reading much of the excellent source research on the role of deliberate practice in developing expert performance (popularized recently in well known business books). It’s sparked some ideas on how we might manage the shift I’m suggesting above.

If the research on deliberate practice has taught us anything it’s that developing expertise is a long term proposition (about 10,000 hours depending on who you believe).  One-off practice exercises built into formal training events only introduce employees to the “feel” of a skill and in no way produces the expertise needed in the modern workplace. If work performance is important and effective practice is a proven way of getting there, we should take it seriously enough to get it right.

I’ll explore the application of deliberate practice to various types of learning in my next few posts. In the meantime here are 10 ideas from a previous post that just scratch the surface on how Learning Professionals can use “deliberate practice” to improve workplace skill and performance.

  1. Move from “mastery learning” to designing practice with feedback over longer periods of time (from learning events to a learning process). Deliberate Practice differs from the concept of ‘Mastery Learning” at the heart of much instructional design. Mastery learning assumes a skill is perfected (or at least brought to a defined standard) in a fairly short period of time often within the scope of a single course. The complex professional skills of modern knowledge workers and managers demand a stronger focus on long term practice and feedback and building learning around long term objectives.
  2. Develop the person. Time, practice and individualized feedback imply a long term focus on individuals rather than on jobs or roles.
  3. Informal learning efforts like action learning, coaching and are cognitive apprenticeships are critical but they must be focused on practice and immediate feedback and extend over long periods of time.
  4. Relevant, frequent and varied practice must be the dominant and most important element in all formal training programs.
  5. Practice opportunities must extend far beyond initial training programs, to allow people to hone their skills through experimentation with immediate feedback.
  6. Create practice sandboxes and simulation centres for key organizational skills where people can practice their skills and experience immediate feedback in safe environment.
  7. Design visual feedback directly into jobs so professional can immediately see the results of their work. In this way working IS deliberate practice.
  8. Turn training events into the first step of a learning journey that will continue to provide opportunities to practice and refine skills throughout a career.
  9. Identify the interests and strengths of people nurture them through opportunities for deliberate practice. Provide resources and support that encourage early effort and achievement.
  10. Ensure social media environments provide opportunities for coaching and mindful reflection on performance.
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5 thoughts on “Moving Practice to Centre Stage

  1. It’s really cool to watch similar veins of thought spread from multiple sources. Last year I was pretty disappointed in our field. In the year since, I’ve seen a rapid expansion of sensible thought (or perhaps just a surfacing of sensible thought) that restores my faith in our kind:)

    I gave a presentation last week on a re-rack of our agency’s operation guides for commissioning solutions. You’ll see a similar pattern the approach and perspective referenced in your article.

    This only approaches the packaged solution end of the equation and is largely directed towards self-paced products. It’s actually a pretty broad process set. Our approach isn’t perfect, but I think it’s a step closer to the better practices and focus on the “right things”.

  2. Tom – When I talk about Content Curation and corporate learning, my emphasis isn’t just on vetting and pushing out more content – which is, as you pointed out, the definition of knowledge management. Rather, the goal should be to carefully filter the best content, and put it in appropriate context for the application you wish the learner to perform. Ideally, this content would be incorporated as part of a larger learning opportunity, that would also include practice and feedback. This is done as regular practice in distance learning courses for higher ed, yet we somehow overlook the value of curation in a corporate setting and feel we somehow need to synthesize the info for the learner in the form of a course, or simply hang it from a link in an information portal. Rather than spending the time creating a new structured course, our resources are better spent, in my opinion, on building more interactive and social learning frameworks supported by carefully curated content and exercises that put the learning into practice.

    • Thanks for your comments Chris. I enjoyed your Learning Solutions series. I agree with you that as social learning grows the associated growth in content will need curation and filtering. I simply see a risk of that all that content being focused on information and this seems to be the trend. The content needs to be accompanied by many and varied opportunities to practice and apply it in both designed and natural work setting. I suggested a possible way to think about that here. I couldn’t agree with you more that we shouldn’t be spending time creating new structured courses. I do like the idea of spending time creating more formal and informal practice, supported by information content inside and outside social learning environments. Thanks for your thoughts.

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