3 alternatives to classroom training that don’t suck

“Face to face” or “classroom training” in corporate business is pretty much all bad. It’s been a great excuse to meet colleagues and fly around the world, but overall it’s a complete waste of time and money. Show me the evidence that people can actually apply what they have learned in a classroom environment, and I might partially retract that statement. The problem is not the format – just as there are bad websites and bad mobile phone operating systems, there are awesome face to face experiences, and rubbish ones. The problem is focus on content delivery; “people need to know X to do Y. Tell them X and they will do Y”. Even a child knows that’s not true of human behaviour.

Funny young school student balancing a pencil on his nose
Writing class.

I recognise the irony that my blog is titled ‘Content Learning’, and just like our team name at BP, I’ll probably have to evolve it, again. The difference between learning content and marketing content, is that the latter is inspirational and point of need, the former a Powerpoint slide, with too many bullet points, delivered at an event. Can you picture a day where Nike announces the launch of its new super-cool trainers, and invites consumers to a lecture theatre where the trainers are showcased in a 150 slide Powerpoint presentation? No. Marketing hasn’t had the luxury of hiding behind compliance and the all-round desperation for anything remotely stimulating in the office environment. Marketing is a dog eat dog industry; if you don’t understand human behaviour and how to engage consumers, you die. Classroom training is a dead donkey being flayed over and over again, brutally and without cessation.

The light at the end of the tunnel for face to face learning is not found in L&D, it’s found in theatre and spiritual practices. In my opinion there are three particularly interesting approaches that could have a significant impact on the way people learn in an event format. As a colleague Ameet Thakkar has said to me a few times, “if the change doesn’t happen in the room, it doesn’t happen”.

  1. Immersive theatre
  2. Role-play and simulation
  3. Spiritual practices

The team and I attended Generation of Z – a zombie-apocalypse-style experience, and the Star Wars Secret Cinema. Both were fun and memorable. They use a mix of music, action and story to bring the audience into the world where their emotions are charged with excitement. While scenes are scripted, the actors are free to improvise and personalise the event. Immersive theatre has its weaknesses of course, but Star Wars Secret Cinema kicks the shit out of classroom training. Doing beats “learning” every time.

The second candidate, role-play and simulation is something I’ve experienced at RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). We were encouraged to share our weaknesses, discuss areas we wanted to improve, and received open and honest feedback from peers. And while excruciatingly embarrassing at times (even among friends), the practice of role-playing real-life challenging situations with an actor, is a potent learning tonic. I came away feeling supported by my colleagues and reassured that personal improvement is possible.

Lastly, the thing most out of my comfort zone, spiritual practices. Perhaps overlooked for being too “hippy” or intangible, there are face to face events that need to be experienced to be believed. When you start talking about the “energy in the room”, I can see eyes rolling, but Confucius say, “with a closed mind we cannot open the door to possibility”. I’m sure he said that at some point? I’ve been with colleagues where challenging relationships have been tackled through methods based on shamanism. These practices, totally alien in the western world, have been effective in many contexts for thousands of years. In fact the rise of Mindfulness in business has been the acceptable face of spiritualism in recent years. We should test our mental agility further and try more adventurous approaches.

On one hand we have people sitting in a room being force-fed information as if they were memory machines, on the other we have people dressed up in silly outfits, wide-eyed and in wonder of the world around them. Who is learning more?

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