Learning: Where Art and Science Converge

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Scientists who are also artists and artists who are also knowledgeable about science lead to fascinating discussions. For example, did you know that Albert Einstein was a great pianist and violinist? He believed that “all great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge.” He stated that the Theory of Relativity was a “musical thought that came to him intuitively.”

On a trip to Italy in October, I stood in awe gazing at Michelangelo’s sculpture of David in Florence and his stunning painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome. But did you know that he was an anatomist who learned by dissecting corpses, which aided in his extremely accurate human depictions? In fact many great artists strongly believed that art and science go hand-in-hand—Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and Jonas Salk, to name a few.

Art and Learning Science Converge

Training is the ultimate example of a profession that requires the convergence of art and science. On my way to becoming an actuary, I took a detour in special education and stumbled into the training profession. Like so many of us in the field, I entered through the backdoor and never left. 

As a self-taught trainer, I started by devouring the writings of every developmental leader and cognitive scientist. I purchased books and read journal articles written on the topic of learning and training. My favorites were Malcolm Knowles’s Self-Directed Learning, Robert Gagné’s Conditions of Learning, Robert Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives, and everything written by Kurt Lewin. I also studied Abraham Maslow, David Kolb, M. David Merrrill, and bumped into Bandura, Bloom, Ebbinghaus, Skinner, Pavlov, and many others. Studying their (sometimes disparate) philosophies grounded me in the scientific theory and principles of training. 

Many trainers come in the backdoor as I did. They are often thrown into the training fray and learn ways to gain participation and facilitate discussions. They know the art of applying best practices, but many may not have had an opportunity to learn the science that supports why they do it. For example, a trainer may know that it is good to ask participants for their expectations of a learning event, but may not know the Malcolm Knowles’s rationale for doing so. 


I remember leading a train-the-trainer session once and asking, “Who is Malcolm Knowles?” One response from a participant was, “Is he Beyonce’s father?” 

On a number of occasions CEOs have asked me how being a special education teacher related to what I was doing with them or their companies. My reply was simply, “I use the same techniques with you that I used with my students as a teacher.” And that is true. The science of learning is the same. Case in point: Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin’s multi-store memory model is used by special education teachers as well as those of us in training. You know it as the principle: “If rehearsal does not occur, then information is forgotten.” That’s the science. Knowing the principle, your artist kicks into gear and determines how to ensure you use the principle in a way that is not just repeat, repeat, repeat.

The Best Profession

The convergence of art and science is one of the reasons that training is the best profession in the world. As a training professional, you connect with many kinds of people every day—and all of them are learning. Whether they are experiencing a golf lesson, taking a virtual course to learn to use new computer software, working with Leaders Beyond Boundaries in Ethiopia, trying a new recipe, or being coached by a supervisor, people are learning something new and experiencing training. You and your learners don’t even need to be in the same room or on the same schedule. 

What other career is steeped in science and depends on art while at the same time gives you the opportunity to increase your organization’s bottom line, improve your country’s productivity level, and enhance individual’s lives around the globe—all at the same time? As talent development professionals we all draw from many disciplines. Be both a scientist (psychologist, neuroscientist, philosopher, linguist) and an artist (designer, actor, author, videographer).

Want to learn more? The Art and Science of Training provides additional thoughts for how you can be both a scientist and an artist.

About the Author
Elaine Biech, president of ebb associates inc, a strategic implementation, leadership development, and experiential learning consulting firm, has been in the field for thirty years helping organizations work through large-scale change. She has presented at dozens of national and international conferences and has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Management Update, Investors Business Daily, and Fortune Magazine. She is the author and editor of over 50 books including the ASTD Handbook for Workplace Learning Professionals, ASTD Leadership Handbook, 10 Steps to Successful Training, The Ultimate Trainer, Thriving Through Change, The Business of Consulting, 2nd ed., and Training for Dummies. A long time volunteer for ASTD, she has served on ASTD's National Board of Directors, was the recipient of the 1992 ASTD Torch Award, the 2004 ASTD Volunteer Staff Partnership Award, and the 2006 Gordon Bliss Memorial Award. Elaine was instrumental in compiling the CPLP study guides and has designed five ASTD Certificate Programs. In addition to her work with ASTD, she has served on the Independent Consultants Association's (ICA) Advisory Committee and on the Instructional Systems Association (ISA) board of directors.
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