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Emphasize Practice over Content

Simulations are Real-World Practice

"For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them." ~ Aristotle

My son has a high school biology textbook that's more than three inches (7.5 cm) thick. It's "advanced placement," so the there's more content presented during the semester than the run-of-the-mill biology course.

I recently attended a conference presentation. The speaker's 100+ slides were displayed for an average of 15 seconds each. I estimated 50 words per slide, plus graphs, diagrams, and lots and lots of arrows.

One of my clients recently complained, "We don't have time for the activities because the CFO needs to present last quarter's financials." She had a dozen or so slides of screen shots from the budgeting software system, in teeny, tiny print, with values in the millions taken to the penny.

In a recent ISPI PerformanceXpress blog post, John Messer marvels at our continued emphasis on content over performance in training. That somehow, by including more content, more information, more description, and more stuff, that more learning will occur. He says, "We act as if the business of training is finished when we have purveyed some content." All this, when the evidence shows overwhelmingly that this is a fool's errand.

Only meaningful, relevant, and guided practice improves learning. Engaging in the content, relating it to prior knowledge, and providing real-world application result in learning that improves performance. We've known this for many years.

Learners should work harder than the instructor. That's right. Think about that for a moment. If we are engaging learners in real, meaningful, relevant, real-world, and "I'm going to remember this forever" training, they will work hard. Really hard.

What would you rather do: Fly with an airline pilot who trained IN the Boeing 787 Dreamliner; or, fly with a pilot who attended a presentation ABOUT flying in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner?

I thought so.

Well designed simulations provide exceptional practice opportunities. It gives learners a chance to learn, do, and reflect in a real-world way that has prima facie relevance to their work. Simulations provide learners a way to learn from the experience and from the simulation. It gives them a way to self-assess their mastery of declarative and procedural knowledge for performance. It's personal. It's relevant. It works!

Of course, we can say these things about other practice strategies. Scrimmages, role plays, drills, mock-ups, and experimentation are also examples. It's through these learner-centered, performance driven approaches to learning that we get tremendous results from training.

Yet, content-heavy presentations (a.k.a. Lectures) are used far more often than can be reasonably justified. Some say presentation is the best way to assure the content is "covered." Yet, whatever the presenter is "covering," your learners most assuredly are not also "covering" it.

But do simulations, activities, and exercises actually teach? Of course they do, but with some important caveats. Their design must include learner feedback and real-world relevance. Simulations, coupled with a skilled facilitation or instruction, can unlock the learning process for learners. Effective facilitator-led debriefing, peer feedback, confirming and corrective feedback, rubrics, and other techniques are vital in providing learners essential guidance in learning how they're learning, and seeing its relevance.

No, more content does not result in more learning. Instead, more practice, engagement, application, feedback, and relevance does.

So, turn off the PowerPoint slides and turn on the simulator for real-world practice. It works.

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