THE CASE FOR HANDS ON
The second interesting book I’ve read on this topic is “Participative Learning” by Fredric Margolis and Bonnie Swan.
Sure, I have no doubt that we all know that hands-on learning, or OJT (on job training) as we used to call it in the Air Force, can be an excellent way to learn.
One of the main points that Margolis and Swan make is that adult learning is distinct from how children learn.
Here’s what they say on that subject: “The best training is training that gets into peoples’ heads through their thinking, not what gets into their heads through their eyes and ears.”
This somewhat flies in the face of the long-held belief that simply by showing someone how to do something that they should be able to do it. Instead, they have to understand why they are doing it before the learning really sinks in.
Hands-on training can, and certainly does, provide this type of understanding, but not always. Just saying, “Do this because that’s how we do things here,” is simply not enough.
What’s perhaps more important is that the student, intern, junior engineer or whatever, knows why, and the background to go with it.
This reminds me of talking with a four-year-old.
Kid: “Why is the sky blue?”
Me: “Because of the nitrogen in the atmosphere.”
Kid: “Why?” and so on.
People really do want to know why we use condenser mics for overheads and an SM57 on the guitar amp.
Once they know those things (and thousands of other things like that) they can choose to use those same tools or they may find that different tools work better for them.
Related to this, Margolis and Swan also point out that, “Adults have a deep need to be self-directing.” What this means is that someone in the role of the trainer or mentor must engage them in the process of inquiry, analysis and decision-making rather than simply saying, “This is the way to do it.”
This makes sense, and if you think back to your own roles as a trainer and trainee, you can probably think of the times when you experienced this process both ways.
SO, WHEN DO THOSE TWO TRAINS MEET?
Despite the obvious advantages of hands-on and participative learning, there is a lot to be said for book smarts. Certain ideas simply aren’t obvious or even are perhaps counterintuitive until the theory behind them is understood.
How about Ohm’s Law? How about the relationship between decibels and power? Many of the concepts that we deal with must be learned on a deep level before they can be tested and put into practice.
But I’ve also found that a long-term “give and take” process seems to be the most beneficial overall.
It’s simply this:
A) Learn some new idea and give it some thought. Possibly imagine how it might be put into practice.
B) Find an opportunity to put new ideals into practice, or stumble across a problem and realize that a new idea you’ve learned might be helpful here.
C) Take your experiences in the real world back to the books and search for new ideas to give you an edge.
Rinse and repeat.