Training vs. School: 4 Critical Differences

Friday, May 22, 2015

Training is different than school in ways that are more significant than having to suffer the indignity of being picked last in PE or squirm through a particularly boring and seemingly endless math class.

The very essence of who we are as learners, as well as how and why we are learning, is fundamentally different. So different, in fact, that it should dramatically change how you design instruction. Yet, way too often it doesn’t. Many instructional designers continue to design courses that resemble classes they attended in school. 

But the workplace isn’t school, and the goal of talent development isn’t to graduate with honors or even to just slide by with a passing grade. The goal of talent development is to equip learners with new knowledge and skills that enable them to improve their performance at work. 

Here are four ways that training is different than school, as well as what this means to you as an instructional designer. 

#1: Experience Counts 

Children are seen as blank slates to be filled in school. In contrast, adults come to training with a wealth of relevant experience and related knowledge and skills. 

Here’s what this means to you. First, you need to “bake” in an explanation of how the new information fits in with what learners already know. For example, when I learned Spanish, my teacher explained that reflexive verbs in Spanish work just like they do in French. This explanation was a short cut in my learning. 

Another example of “baking” is to create graphics that compare old processes with new processes or old roles with new roles. Finally, you can develop analogies to illustrate how something new is similar to something familiar. 

Second, whenever possible, design activities that allow learners to learn from each other, not just the trainer. By teaching someone else, learners cement their own knowledge and skills. In addition, hearing multiple perspectives and explanations can help learners more quickly grasp difficult concepts or complicated processes. 

#2: Knowing Is Not Enough 


The measure of success in school is the ability to pass the final exam. But in the workplace, we get paid and are held accountable for what we do, not just for what we know. 

Here’s what this means to you. First, you must be crystal clear about what learners are supposed to be able to do, in specific, observable, measurable terms, at the completion of the training. 

Second, you must design a course that drives to this goal. Specifically, this means the course: 

  • Is organized around the specific steps to do whatever the goal is rather than organized thematically around the content.
  • Includes only information that is essential or important to achieving the goal. Nice-to-know information, such as background or theory, has been stripped away.
  • Includes plenty of relevant skill building practice activities. 

#3: Immediate Application Rules 

In school, the only application expected is for students to complete and turn in homework on time. In the workplace, the stakes are much higher. Learners are expected to demonstrate improved job performance as a result of attending training. 

Here’s what this means to you. First, you need to make sure the content is actionable. This means that you’ve broken it down explicitly enough and provided sufficient tools and templates that learners have the ability to apply what they’ve learned when they get back to work. 

Second, you’ve worked with management to ensure the training is offered just in time so that learners have the opportunity to immediately apply what they’ve learned back on the job. 

#4: Relevancy Is Essential 

In school, relevancy meant it would be on the test. In the workplace, it means the information is relevant to enabling learners to achieve the goal of the training. 

Here’s what this means to you. First, you absolutely must perform a gap analysis to determine what learners already know. If you design a course that starts off covering information learners already know, many learners will mentally check out. Unfortunately, they will not check back in when the course starts to cover new information. The result, of course, is that learners don’t learn what they are supposed to learn. 

Second, you need to scour the course content for “nice-to-know” information and then get rid of it. I think of each piece of content as a stepping-stone in a path towards the goal of the course. That path should be as straight and short as possible. And each stepping stone should be absolutely essential.


About the Author
Diane Valenti, founder of Applied Performance Solutions, Inc., uses her instructional design ninja skills to help companies reduce their sales onboarding ramp time and help sales teams rapidly acquire product knowledge. She works with Fortune 500 and startup companies, alike. Get Diane’s checklist to learn if you are making these 10 incredibly common mistakes that slow sales onboarding.
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The difference between training and school ...this material follows directly in line with Malcom Knowles' 6 core principals. I especially like getting rid of the nice to know STUFF! I think if using the nice to know in a scenario based situation or story, then it could be helpful. As a learner, I love stories!
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