The perils of the schoolroom assumption
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27 November 2019

I am optimistic about the future of L&D, and with good reason. We’ve learned more about the brain in the past two decades than we ever knew before. The web has revolutionized the accessibility of information like nothing since the printing press. Above all, in the emerging knowledge economy developing personnel has become a serious matter for most organizations. This is a promising time to be involved in the field of learning of learning and development. There is one thing holding us back.

I call it the schoolroom assumption.

It’s the assumption that the best way to learn is the way we did it at school – or, more precisely, the way we remember being taught at school.

Most schools today adopt a variety of approaches to teaching, including discovery and debate – but that isn’t what managers and employees at work remember. They remember the physical environment of the classroom and the adult-child power structure of the lesson, the model of knowledge transfer involving an expert at the front of the room, conveying information into pupil’s heads.

This assumption is pretty uniform across income, race and age, because most people have pretty much the same classroom experience regardless of these things. The result: a wide, unchallenged view that that learning is synonymous with the experience of our schooldays.

None of this is an attack on schools. There are good reasons why, under the current system, schools have to run the way they do.

Neither is this an attack on the classroom. There are times when a physical environment is the best place to learn, and times when an expert instructor or facilitator is invaluable.

But the schoolroom assumption does create two insidious effects.

First, there is the assumption that all learning – rather than some – should happen via a course in a classroom. Each of these can be useful for learning, but neither is necessary, or even optimal for all learning.

Second – and to my mind more importantly – are the implications for personal responsibility.

At school, it wasn’t we pupils that set the curriculum, homework and expectations. As we grew older, we were given more responsibility, but were never put entirely in charge. Any trainer who has ever opened a course to hear the words “I’m here because I was told to come,” know that this position is still far too widely accepted – both in the classroom and online.

If learning and development is as important as we in L&D surely believe it to be – for individuals, and for organizations – this attitude has to change. Part of the reason is simply practical: no L&D department today has the resources to provide all employees with directed training on everything they might need to know. There is simply too much there, and it changes too fast.

The other part follows on from this: adults usually know what they need to know. They may need some help, but a self-starting learner, encouraged and supported by their workplace and guided by their L&D department, will learn faster, be more useful to others, and have a more valuable career as an individual. Fostering that attitude of responsibility, I believe, is key to the future success of organizations today.

Schoolrooms belong in school. At work, it’s better for everyone if we can treat adult learners like adults.

Donald H Taylor is the chairman of the Learning and Performance Institute. He blogs at

Originally posted in Training Journal

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