Re-Thinking Learning and Development. Part 3: Superficial Knowledge


If any of you studied mathematics or science in school, you may have had this kind of experience.

I can remember many times when I really tried hard to do well in a challenging course.  I read the chapter in the text.  I highlighted relevant passages.  I took notes on what I read.  Then, during the lecture I paid careful attention, copying down every word the instructor wrote on the board.  By the end of the class I walked away feeling pretty good about what I had learned.  I felt confident that I understood the topic.   So far, so good.

Then at night, I started to work on the problem set handed out by our professor.  (Do you remember those?)   These problem sets contained maybe 6 to 10 problems for us to do as homework.  The first three were usually trivial – exact copies of problems that were in the text or on the board during class, but with the numbers changed.

The second third of the problems were more difficult. Often, the form of the equations were different so you had to rearrange the terms before you could solve them, or perhaps you had to solve one equation and insert its answer into another one to solve it.   Generally I could successfully complete these as well.

But then there were the last three questions where you could only ask what sadistic beast of a professor could have created them.  These seemed to bear no relation whatsoever to what you had read or heard in class.  It was rare that I could solve these.

If you think about it, this example reveled how superficial my understanding actually was.

Let me illustrate this further with another story.

A few years ago, I was interviewing a Toyota executive for a paper I was writing.  He was of an age where he learned the ideas behind TPS (Toyota Production System) from Mr. Ohno himself.   (You might think about Mr. Ohno as Japan’s equivalent of Dr. Deming.)

Here is how it went.

“At the time”, he said, “I was a fresh out of school engineer, assigned to Ohno-san.   He took me with him to visit a Toyota supplier company, and I followed him into the factory.  Ohno-san walked around some, and then gravitated toward a particular work cell.  When we got there, Ohno said ‘Ah. . . here’s one that has 10 people in it. . . should  be about . . . five.  See if you can figure it out.  I’ll see you on Friday.’”  And, without saying another word, Ohno turned and walked away, leaving his student a little scared and confused.  But the student had a lot of enthusiasm, and a desire to please his teacher.

He continued with the story.  “When Ohno-san left, I knew nothing about mapping processes, or standardized work, or any aspects of TPS.  I didn’t know where to start.  But, by Friday, I had eliminated 2 workers with my process redesign . . . but, it wasn’t a very good solution.  The line did not run smoothly.   Then, on Friday when Ohno-san reappeared, he walked up and said ‘Ahhhh . . . I see you have made some progress.  Please explain how you analyzed the work cell and how you came to this solution.’   And so, I started to tell him what I had done.”  After about 2-3 minutes, Ohno shook his head and waved his hands to stop the conversation.   At that point Ohno said “Did you think about reassigning the work tasks differently among the members of the team?”   And again, Ohno, without another word of explanation, turned, and walked away, saying only. . . “I’ll see you next Tuesday”.

My interviewee recounted that “over the course of 2 weeks, Mr. Ohno came back three times like that giving me only a clue about how to think.  It wasn’t until after the third visit, did he actually start to teach me.   But by then, because of how I had struggled for the past days on my own, EVERY word Ohno-san said was like a gemstone to me.  It all made so much sense. I couldn’t believe I couldn’t see it for myself.”

And then came this comment from him.  “I have been in America for many years”, he said, “and I think that in the West your education system is backwards. . . I think here, you tend to give more answers than you ask questions . . . and when the answers are given too quickly . . . it produces only SUPERFICIAL KNOWLEDGE.”

At that moment, you could have knocked me over with a feather.  Until that moment, I had never thought about it in that way.  But the more I did, the more I thought he was right in his diagnosis.

So why DON’T we think about learning as the kind of experience he had with Mr. Ohno?  Why do we only consider that learning takes place in a classroom?

This was the seminal idea behind the notion of what we at Xavier call “Facilitated Learning”.   It is sometimes a challenge for organizations to consider this type of training, however, because  it is hard, unstructured, sometimes messy, and seemingly slower and more costly.   But if the goal is DEEP KNOWLEDGE, then maybe it should be all those things . . .

In Part 4, the last piece in this series, we will look at what other visionaries are starting to think about how we may be thinking about learning backwards.

What about you? What is the “messiest” learning experience you’ve had in your personal or professional life–and do you still retain those lessons today?

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