The grotesque inadequacy of the 5-step classroom shuffle

Image by Carsten den Brink under Creative Commons

The 30 years since I started working in technology and learning have been ones of extraordinary change, and three things strike me forcefully about where we are now.

First, it’s a vibrant time for learning. People, their skills and knowledge – the human capital of an organization – have never been more important to organizational success.

Second, today’s technologies rock. The web has played the part of a modern-day Gutenberg printing press, distributing knowledge more widely than ever. The hardware and software that sit on top of it have transformed the way we live and learn.

And the third: there is a widespread, fundamental misunderstanding about what learning at work means.

The schoolroom assumption
The reason for this misunderstanding: school. It demonstrates one mode of learning to us and repeats that demonstration for about 14 years. The model is still, largely, that an expert leads the process of conveying information into pupil’s heads.

To be fair, enlightened schools use a variety of approaches to this – including discussion, discovery, debate and more – but that isn’t what the managers and employees at work remember when they think of learning in their youth. They remember the physical environment of the classroom and the adult-child power structure of the lesson.

And here’s the crazy thing. People have different experiences of family life, of their local environment, of just about everything. The schoolroom is probably the one thing that almost everyone experiences the same way, regardless of income, race or even age (because things haven’t really changed that much in a generation).

The result is that this ‘schoolroom assumption’ – the learning is somehow synonymous with what we did at school – is tacitly and uniformly accepted without challenge, without even being noticed.

The dance of fools
It’s not that people don’t learn in other ways, of course they do. But when presented with the word ‘learning’, their assumption is too often that it must be done via a course – real or virtual. This has many knock on effects, including the five-step classroom shuffle. It goes like this:

1) Performance issue


2) Learning


3) Training


4) A Course


5) A Classroom

None of the four transitions between the five steps has any logic.

Many performance issues can be solved without learning and not all learning requires training, yet managers regularly call the training department and say “My team isn’t performing. They need a full day’s time management training. Arrange it, please.”

All this shows is that it is far easier to invent new technologies than it is to alter existing mind-sets, and this is the great challenge facing L&D today. By all means become expert in new learning technologies, but do not make that your goal. Instead, focus on shifting the organization away from the schoolroom assumption, and have them forget the awful five-step shuffle that goes with it.


This originally appeared as the preface to the June 2016 edition of Inside Learning Technologies and Skills Magazine. Click to read it online.

One thought on “The grotesque inadequacy of the 5-step classroom shuffle

  1. Great article Don – couldn’t agree more and a really interesting insight into what people automatically think of when the word ‘training’ is mentioned.

    I had a similar albeit slightly more upto date experience recently, talking about how many people have a negative perception of ‘e-learning’ – based on 15 years of taking mediocre, click and read courses – society immediately thinks of this as the norm when the word ‘e-learning’ is mentioned, without realising that experience can be so much more powerful, interactive and effective because they have never experienced anything else.

    In both examples, I think it’s upto us as Learning Professionals to continue to promote different methods of ‘learning’ so that eventually this knee-jerk reaction to what training is and should be changes.

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