The learner-centered approach to training

A wise man (also a former boss) once told me: “Training is what the instructor does. Learning is what the student does.”

What the great J. Kenneth Cerny, Ed.D., was speaking to was that he wanted his instructional designers to be creating “learning systems,” not “training programs.” There is a distinct difference between the two.

The more traditional training program is very much a “me-to-you” approach. The instructor is at the center, and the course relies heavily on the instructor’s unique knowledge and experiences being shared with the students.

There is a top-down/trickle-down theory at work. Here, there is this vast pool of knowledge and skills that can simply be transferred from one person to another.

Although this type of training can be enhanced with demonstrations, Q&A and other interactive methods, the overall approach still puts the learner in a relatively passive position.

Clean Slate

A learner-centered approach is much more bottom-up. The learner comes not as a blank slate, but with experiences of his or her own, with enthusiasm, and with expectations.

The learner has certain needs that are expected to be met through the learning event - by the student, by a supervisor or by the company.

The learner-centered approach changes the trainer’s role from primarily an instructor to primarily a “facilitator” - a title many trainers seem to hate.

Facilitator Role

Having filled both the instructional design and trainer roles in my career, I had no issues at all when my current supervisor identified us on a recent project team list as facilitators. That’s because I know that when the trainer is more of a facilitator, the course is more likely to have been designed properly, with the student at the center.

Being a facilitator in a learning system does not diminish the role of a trainer one bit. In fact, it is the more versatile trainer that thrives in a learning system.

Anyone with knowledge and a gift of gab can thrive in an instructor-centered environment. It takes a sharper mind to point students in the right direction and let them discover the answers on their own, rather than always giving them the answers.

That includes coaching students in the proper use of tools so they can then use those tools to continue learning and acquiring knowledge long after the training event is done.

Weak Argument

Some will argue that the learner-centered approach relies too heavily on the learner being motivated, or wanting to learn. That is a weak argument.

I can agree that the learner-centered approach does rely more heavily on sound course design. But an unmotivated learner is unmotivated in either environment. He or she will no more thrive in an instructor-centered class than in a learner-centered class.

At least the learner-centered approach forces the student to be a more active participant.

Different Focus

There have been many occasions where a student has entered the room with the walls filled up with training materials and all sorts of doubts. When they “discover” a key objective of the course through facilitated activities, all of a sudden they’re saying: “This is pretty good stuff,” or “I didn’t know this would help me to do ‘X’ or ‘Y’.”

So, the next time you tell an employee, “I’m sending you to be trained,” hopefully you can confidently rephrase that to, “I’m sending you to learn.”