Lesson Plans-Does Traditional Teaching Work?

1 Oct, 2006 By: Matt Murphy

Take the formality out of formal learning.

AS A PROFESSIONAL trainer and educator for more than 20 years, I've noticed a decline in traditional classroom instruction for most professionals, including those of us in the CAD industry. Regularly scheduled training classes and seminars at colleges, training centers and resellers are declining. Why? One reason is an emergence of process-based and outcome-driven learning. This instruction delivery method is increasingly in demand by companies that want to maximize their training dollars for immediate productivity gains. It saves them time and money, because their employees learn only what is relevant to their design process, using real-life drawings and data that are directly applicable to their jobs.

But this isn't my only observation about the way we learn. If you think about all the knowledge and skills you have today, I bet most of what you've learned and apply daily wasn't learned in a formal or traditional classroom setting. You learned it in an informal manner. This observation doesn't mean that traditional or formal instruction is going away. What it means is that most of what we learn isn't taught to us.

Formal Learning

Formal learning is the authorized, official, scheduled, approved courses and workshops offered in schools and by training departments and organizations. It's structured, and it has a proven track record. It works for novice users who need the framework of this learning environment. It's also called Push learning, and it's effective when there is a need to learn a process or procedure (figure 1). If you've never used the software before, you'll start here with a push.

Figure 1. Beginner or novice users need more Push, or formal training. Conversely, mature and seasoned or senior users need more Pull, or informal training.
Figure 1. Beginner or novice users need more Push, or formal training. Conversely, mature and seasoned or senior users need more Pull, or informal training.

Nonroutine or more expert skills simply cannot be captured in readily taught formal training. Today's advanced learners have been using the software and are gravitating away from traditional learning methods and toward more informal ones.

Informal Learning

Informal learning is everything else that changes your behavior and that's not the result of formal learning or your genetic inheritance. This type of learning—Pull learning—includes the corporate grapevine, trial and error, calling the help desk, asking your neighbor, reading a book, watching someone who knows how or teaching someone else. It's unstructured.

Most on-the-job learning is informal. Yet novices learn best through formal learning, because it provides the structure, signposts and scaffolding a newbie lacks. Old hands learn best informally, because they already have foundation knowledge, familiarity and a framework for understanding.

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The reverse of these observations is also true. Put novices in totally informal learning situations, and they become confused and don't get much out of them. Put experienced people in a class, and they rebel because so much of it is structured and redundant.

Before I discuss a few of the more popular forms of informal learning, let's examine the key reasons they are becoming so popular. The first has to do with immediacy and relevancy. Informal methods of learning often happen right in the work environment, usually in the form of information from our colleagues. I'm sure you have someone in your office you depend on for solving problems. As a learner, you can take advantage right away by gaining information from this person. You learn direct, work-related knowledge and skills quickly and then immediately apply them to your job.

The second reason is that advanced learners tell me that they don't have the time or budget to attend more formal learning. I know you've found that the demand to produce more in less time has pinched everyone. Even with the immediacy of e-learning and Webcasts, training is often seen as something that will take too much valuable time.

Finally, today's experienced CAD product users have matured to a point where they want to drive their learning in a more meaningful and self-directed manner. Informal methods are seen as more student-driven, process-driven and job-relevant than most formal options.

Communities of Informal Learning

The most common informal learning environment today is the Internet—for example, e-communities, forums, threaded message boards and chat rooms. Most of us participate in these e-learning communities already. The uninitiated would not consider them learning environments, but they are.

Everyone's an Expert

Another common avenue for informal learning is known as the Grapevine approach. Every organization has closely knit communities of practice within every department. The problem often has been that because this network was not controlled, many companies ignored or even discouraged its existence.

Clearly, peer mentoring can be distracting and unproductive if left unchecked, but if fostered correctly, it can be very powerful, especially for experienced learners. The easiest way to encourage these communities is to sponsor them within the corporation itself. Tips and techniques with a brown-bag lunch or a meet-the-expert day are examples of how organizations can formally tap into what used to be an informal, ineffective learning method.


Mentoring comes in a variety of forms—on-the-job training, apprenticeships, job shadowing, internships and coaching, to name a few. The definition of mentoring is to pair one person (a protégé) with a more experienced person (mentor) who will teach, coach, counsel, sponsor and encourage. The key to any good mentoring relationship is to focus on identifying and developing the strengths of the protégés to help them help themselves become better at what they do. Mentoring may provide both professional and personal support and often takes place outside of a manager/employee relationship.

It's All about Learning and Networking

Informal learning has always coexisted with formal learning and will continue to do so. As users and collaboration technologies mature, informal learning can become a powerful part of increasing productivity.

Informal learning is effective because it's personal. The individual calls the shots. He or she decides what to learn and takes steps to learn it. In informal learning, the learner is responsible. How different from formal learning, which is imposed by someone else! Workers are pulled to informal learning; formal learning is pushed at them.

Blending it all Together

Many learners today are not self-directed—they wait for directions. It's time to tell them that the rules have changed. It's in their self-interest to become proactive learning opportunists. Their reluctance is hardly surprising, because most training is built on the pessimistic assumption that the trainees are deficient. Here's how to support the informal learning process:

  • 1. Provide time for informal, on-the-job learning.
  • 2. Create useful, peer-rated FAQs and knowledge bases.
  • 3. Make places for workers to congregate and learn.
  • 4. Supplement self-directed computer-based-training.
  • 5. Consider learning with mentors and resident experts.
  • 6. Establish help desks, join user groups and participate in product forums.
  • 7. Explore blogs and knowledge bases to facilitate discovery.
  • 8. Encourage networking and sharing outside company walls.
  • 9. Share the ways others have learned subjects.
  • 10. Allocate a budget for informal learning.
  • 11. Foster learning relationships.
  • 12. Support participation in professionalf practice communities.

Informal learning is easy to do once you get there, but you need to take a proactive approach and recognize—or even create—those opportunities. Think about what you want to learn. Who can you ask to help you? Talk to your manager about allocating some time for informal training, such as a mentoring program or a weekly forum for a free exchange of ideas. After you get started, educational opportunities you hadn't previously considered probably will become available to you. You may even learn things that you didn't know you didn't know!

Matt Murphy is a member of ATCAB (Autodesk Training Center Advisory Board) and a certified technical trainer. He teaches AutoCAD productivity and Training the Trainer seminars for Autodesk University, AUGI CAD Camps and private companies. He can be reached at

About the Author: Matt Murphy

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