Historically, the focus of education and training has been on knowledge. While skills have played a role, we focus on knowledge in curricula and content. I would argue that this focus is misplaced. Skills are what we need, particularly in these increasingly turbulent times. Making better decisions will be critical to success. We need to understand skills, develop them, and maintain a suitable environment for their continuing expression and development. We need to be thinking skills and thinking skills.
While this is unlikely to be highly controversial, the focus needs to be on do, not know. Yet, when we look at curricula, we see things that people must know. Our objectives too often are written as understand or know. Our learning experiences are content dumps, built from PDFs and PowerPoints. And our assessments often are knowledge tests (if they’re anything beyond smile sheets). And here’s the problem: none of this is going to lead to a meaningful change!
It’s easy to understand why this happens. First, research shows that subject matter experts— those who guide curricula— don’t have access to 70% of what they know. It’s compiled away, inaccessible to conscious inspection. That’s an artifact of our cognitive architecture, but it’s a worry. They do have access to what they know.
As a consequence, we get a knowledge dump. And the responsible instructional designer takes it away and makes associated objectives, content, and possibly assessment. And yet this isn’t going to lead to any useful outcome. We need to take special approaches to get what we really need.
To learn to do, you must do! You must apply knowledge. And when you do, you develop the ability to do this beyond the learning experience. There are details: spacing and challenge of practice, context spread, and more. But you first have to focus appropriately.
And here’s why: What’s going to make a difference going forward is not knowing things; it’s being able to make decisions. And not repeated, easy ones. Those will be automated. What will make a difference will be abilities like problem-solving, design, research, etc. Critical thinking skills.
There is the argument that you need knowledge about particular domains. For instance, if you’re doing medical diagnosis, you need to know chemistry. And for manufacturing, there’ll be lots of knowledge about machining and error rates. I’m not arguing against that, but … it has to be actionable knowledge. There’s a thing in cognitive science called inert knowledge where you learn it and can pass a test on it, but when it’s relevant in practice it doesn’t even get activated because you haven’t used it.
Focus on skills
So what do you need to do? You need to redesign your learning design to focus on skills. That means you need to rewrite objectives, choose appropriate contexts, and ensure that the focus is on practice, not knowledge.
As research into problem-based learning has shown, you get better retention and transfer (your two learning goals: retention over time until needed and transfer to all appropriate situations) when you use a problem-based learning approach. Not a pure exploratory environment—practice must be scaffolded—but when people are doing, they’re learning usefully.
Start by rewriting objectives. What do people need to be able to do after this learning experience? And it’s probably not explaining things! It’s making decisions about this and that. Focusing on decision is the shortcut key to working with SMEs. And this means your SME processes have to change, too.
To support appropriate transfer, you’ll need to ensure that learners are applying the thinking in different situations. Across examples and practice, the situations they see will determine their transfer. Thus, you want to draw examples that cover the different situations they will face. Not completely, of course, but choosing situations that push into the furthest different ways these situations can vary.
Your assessment has to be: can they do it? It may be simulations, or even just better written multiple choice, but it can’t be a recognition test. We need retrieval of the information from memory, and its application to solve problems. Make sure they can do it by making the alternative choices the ways that you see people going wrong. Trap those mistakes in the learning situation.
And then you align the content to succeed. You need models that explain the consequences of decisions in this area. And here’s where you get into the knowledge but it’s not a dump; it’s the least quantity of models that give your performers predictive abilities in situations. It could be chemistry, or what have you, but it’s now situated in an environment of application and focused on being directly relevant. Similarly, you need examples that show how those models play out in other situations.
Developing thinking skills
In general, you won’t develop the full ability you need through formal training. Your immediate practice should then be accompanied by further practice spaced out over time, with increasing challenge, to fully develop these skills. Similarly, new examples should be shared as well. The 70:20:10 framework provides a way to think about learning skills as a progression, not an event.
Don’t expect your performers to be continually self-developing without support. Develop the ability to learn how to learn in this domain. Be explicit about learning skills. Similarly, being introduced to the community of practice around the area of work is helpful.
Skills have to be the core focus of L&D. Knowledge should be externalized through performance support. The role of the performance ecosystem is to help people to work smarter, and that’s what a skills focus does. The organization’s success is moving beyond the optimal execution stage, or at least the optimal execution stage now needs to include the skills to make new decisions.
There’s more—culture, infrastructure, strategy—but skills is a core focus shift that needs to be adopted. I’ll suggest that making better decisions is likely to be the best investment your organization can make. So make the decision and think skills.