From the Working Smarter Fieldbook

August 22, 2010 at 3:39 pm 2 comments

This weekend I received the Working Smarter Fieldbook (June 2010 edition) from the group mind at the Internet Time Alliance.

So right now let me get my bookmonger’s gripe out of the way: It’s a print on demand title from, so the fit and finish are ever so slightly rough. Cropping on the cover? Just a hair off. Graphics pasted in from presentation slides.

Fortunately, this isn’t an archival item. It’s a consumable. An “unbook,” never finished, in the authors’ terms. A convenient way of carrying around the-current-state-of-their-thinking, and frequently updated.

So I won’t feel bad about writing in it and dog-earing the pages. A few accumulated tea stains? Not a problem.

(And in that same spirit I’m practicing writing more, smaller blog posts. Working on speed rather than length.)

Today’s bibliomantic gem: Performance Support Trumps Training Every Time. (p. 153)

Post-training drop-off argues for ongoing performance support

This chart (via Harold Stolovitch and Erica Keeps) tells the story. During the training event, performance dips slightly as new ways of doing tasks are learned. After training performance is elevated, but forgetting begins.

Sure, that first post-training sleep helps to consolidate new memories, but other factors swamp the beneficial effect. Intervening tasks: email, phone calls, meetings. Lack of guided practice: the trainer’s off to another assignment. Change in context: how does this work in my job, really?

Here’s Working Smarter‘s bold claim:

An even better (and certainly cheaper) option is simply to cut out the training altogether and replace it with a support environment from the start.

And then they make the case for performance support systems.

Hm. Not convinced of the strong claim.

PSSs are valuable, certainly. I am reminded of early work on “training wheels” computer system designs, where learners begin with subsets of features. Progressive disclosure? Sure. Ongoing support? Sure. Total replacement of training with such systems? I think it’d depend on the domain.

My friend Molly just fininshed years of study to become a radiologic technologist. There’s two years of prerequisites before the program proper begins. Then, during the program, students move gradually from full time classwork to nearly full time clinical rotation. The volume(s!) of anatomy, physiology, and physics students have to learn… how would anyone approach it without classroom hours?

But Working Smarter has some of it right: that classroom knowledge can’t go into cold storage. It’s got to be woven in with application, and generalized across environments as students move from clinic to clinic during their training.

I’m an adult second language learner. I can’t imagine learning Chinese without classroom training, workbook practice, and audio files of simple conversations. I have less plasticity, but more metacognitive capability, than a young child immersed in a Chinese-language environment.

But ultimately I do have to take it out into the world. And it would be wonderful if the world provided some helpful post classroom coaching, rather than humiliation (or sheer incomprehension) when my pronunciation is off.

ADDENDUM: I find strong “unlearning” and “untraining” statements tremendously helpful. They reset my thinking about what learning environments can be. They keep me from reaching for the same tools all the time. So, colleagues pushing for more engagement, more improvisation – I’m looking at you, @webojunk – thank you.


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Charles Jennings  |  May 12, 2011 at 4:22 am

    Ellen – I’ve just come across your post (I was Googling for a copy of my diagram of Harold Stolovitch and Erica Keeps’ study into the impact of the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve which you’ve reproduced here).

    Thanks for mentioning the Working Smarter Fieldbook (and correctly surmising that it’s a ‘fieldbook’, not a frozen-in-time artefact).

    I’d be interested to know why you think the argument for performance support (cut out the middleman – training) isn’t convincing. My experience is that when organisations take that bold step – either entirely or in part – and focus their efforts on providing an environment where people can access support to help them do their jobs well, they find it cheaper and more effective, and the ‘recipients’ invariably find performance approaches more to their liking than the training route.

  • 2. Ellen Francik  |  May 12, 2011 at 9:23 am

    I wonder whether we’re looking at different phases of skill acquisition?

    If I’m already doing my job that implies I’ve learned the core skills. I’ve been already screened and hired for that (especially in this economy).

    And, as I think through this, the examples I’m using above have a few salient features:

    1. Knowledge and skill acquisition at the beginning of the learning curve.

    2. Substantially complex domains. In the case of the rad tech, there are even legal requirements to pass a written test in the requisite knowledge. A lot of people fail that test the first time: it’s hard.

    3. A strong performance component, yes, but one that requires a LOT of investment before you’re minimally competent. For Chinese, it’ll take years to get the pronunciation, as an adult language learner. For a rad tech student, there is a demanding series of clinical rotations. At first you are heavily supervised doing basic chest x-rays. Over time you are required to pick up more positions and techniques, and get them “checked off” by a licensed practitioner at the hospital or clinic. During all this time, you’re still taking classes in positioning, physics of radiation, and so on.


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