Why Messy Learning Experiences Create Better Results

by David Creelman | Posted | Learning

Why Messy Learning Experiences Create Better Results

"Can you help me with my math homework?"

If you've ever tried to help a teenager with one of those wordy high school math problems, you've probably asked them to hang on while you try to figure out what the problem is about. Perhaps after some head scratching or googling the topic, you discover it's a problem about parabolas. Whew.

Now you can begin the training process of reminding the student about the relevant formulas. The question is, in that process, did you skip the learning in order to provide the training?

The issue is that the really hard part of math is figuring out the nature of the problem rather than applying the formulas to a well-understood situation. When you asked the student to hang on while you flailed about trying to figure out the nature of the problem, they didn't get to learn the most important skill: flailing about in an effective way.

Flailing about effectively can be the BEST part of learning @dcreelman
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Generally, when we design training, we want it to be clean and tidy so that the participants can apply the skills in a step-by-step manner. The challenge is that the real world never quite cooperates. Instead of presenting clean, tidy problems, it presents an ambiguous mess that the training has not prepared the participant to confront.

The trainer is the learner

In Flawless Consulting, Peter Block writes that real learning comes from the act of creating the headlined points and the lesson plan. While we often hear that "To teach is to learn twice," perhaps we should extend that to saying, "To design a course is to learn thrice."

The act of creating the lesson plan forces us to confront the messiness of the world and make some sense of it. This is the skill people really need to learn.

Acting on this insight

We cannot turn all of our participants into course designers, but there are various tactics and learning experiences we can use for bringing the trainer's insight to the learner. Here are a few ideas:

  • Leaders teaching leaders. This is an old idea and it's a gem. Usually, we think it's a good idea to have leaders teaching leaders because then the trainer is credible. That's true, but in focusing on that we may be missing the biggest benefit of the approach. If a leader conveys lessons to the next generation, then the leader has to reflect on and synthesize their experience into a manageable set of ideas. That action of gathering their ideas may make them a better leader. The takeaway is that if the trainer is the one who gains the most learning, then let's make the trainer the person who will get the maximum benefit from learning.
  • Making more room for exploring the ideas. If you are teaching Michael Porter's "five forces" approach to analyzing competition, you could list the five forces and explain each in turn. That would be an efficient way to approach the topic. If, on the other hand, we want participants to be more like lesson designers, we might give them two or three of the forces that Porter identifies and then ask them, "And what else? What other forces drive competition?" This will get them to dig into the messiness of the topic which will be a good result even if they do not come up with as tidy a framework as Porter's approach.
  • Trading off quantity for quality. If you want a high school student to get through all 10 homework questions assigned by the teacher, then the fastest way to do that is to set it up so that they don't get mired in figuring out the nature of the problem; just tell the student which questions involve, say, quadratic equations, which ones involve finding common denominators and so on. Then they can apply the appropriate methods for solving that category of problem. If instead, you encourage them to flail about, you probably will not get through all 10 questions. What will happen instead? You'll get a student with a much deeper grasp of mathematics and an ability to tackle fresh problems. Maybe it's time to trade off the quantity of content for the quality of understanding.

Wrapping up

There will always be tension between creating tidy lessons and messy-yet-effective learning experiences. Tidy lessons are what people want. And it's true they get through the content faster in a more predictable way. Messy learning experiences have the advantage of providing much deeper learning. HR professionals need to recognize this tension and consider the trade-offs they are making.

Sometimes you will want to just get people to memorize and apply some formulas or step-by-step sequences. Other times, the only reasonable thing to do is to have a messy learning experience that enables people to learn deeply enough that they can handle a messy world. It's not an easy trade-off we can solve with a simply-taught step-by-step formula; it's something you'll have to learn by grappling with the messy world of learning.

Using the Learning Experience to Drive Business Outcomes

Learn how to boost business outcomes by approaching learning and performance from a different viewpoint.


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Cover of the book

Using the Learning Experience to Drive Business Outcomes

Learn how to boost business outcomes by approaching learning and performance from a different viewpoint.


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