The Practice of Learning – Part 2

In this second part of a two part series, Associate Professor Stephen Smith, Sydney College of Divinity, Discipline Coordinator for Christian Life and Ministry, continues his reflections on areas for experimentation in instructional design.

The Practice of Learning

M. Forster (1927) once commented,[1] “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Regardless of the technology, effective learning will be able to cut through the noise of modern life and engage students in a rigorous learning experience. This is usually powered by the student’s curiosity and shaped by their context. Some current areas for experimentation by instructional designers are:

  1. Getting specific about reflective learning—educators should specify what sort of reflection they are looking for in an assessment task.

The type of reflection should be chosen based on the student learning outcomes desired. Donald Schon,[2] in describing the value of reflective practice, drew a distinction between reflection-on-action (focused in the past) and reflection-in-action (focused in the present). Later, Killion and Todnem[3] added the future focus with the concept of reflection-for-action. Mezirow[4] took a different approach, seeing useful approaches to reflection being focused on content, process or premise.

Another way to look at the dimensions of reflection is as follows. Content reflection is focused on what is happening. Process reflection is focused on how things are being done. Premise reflection is focused on critiquing underlying assumptions. Meanwhile, Smith[5] adopts a four lenses approach to learning through reflective questions:

  • What do I observe happening? (a focus on data)
  • What do I feel about it? (a focus on emotional response)
  • What do I think is going on? (a focus on cognitive analysis)
  • What do I want to be different? (a focus on action for improved practice).

2. Embedding learning into work practice—growing research into how adults learn reveals that effective learning “generally begins with a realisation of current or future need and the motivation to do something about it.

This might come from feedback, a mistake, watching other people’s reactions, failing or not being up to a task—in other words, from experience.”[6] This has led to the popularity of the 70:20:10 educative model, which asserts that “about 70% of adult learning comes from on-the-job experiences, working on tasks and problems; about 20% from feedback and working around good and bad examples of the need, and 10% from courses and reading.”[7] This approach shifts the common learn then work paradigm to “work then learn, then work in an improved way.”[8]

The 70:20:10 approach is to be thought of as a simple heuristic model and not a prescriptive recipe.[9] It is consistent with other research in the field of adult learning.[10] Yet most of our learning systems in school, work and life still seem formal and classroom focused. Not surprisingly, corporate learning and development tend to mirror what is easiest and least effective—off-site classroom-like information transmission. In comparison, fresh and effective learning architecture can harvest the best of the 70:20:10 approach and focus on learning rather than a focus on instruction by being:

  • relevant and useful (outcomes based)
  • flexible (simple and makes sense)
  • on-the-job (embedded in everyday practice)
  • cost effective (not heavy in expensive face-to-face instruction).

70:20:10 learning is embedded in the workflow yet relevant knowledge is continually extracted from the experience of taking action through observations, peer review and personal reflection. Using this approach, educators are challenged to find opportunities for students to apply new learning in practice immediately and also inform the depth of their theoretical understanding.

3. Using problem-based learning—this approach is now used widely in medical schools around the world to ensure medical practitioners become skilled in both theory and practice. Learners:

  1. are presented with a real-world problem;
  2. through discussion with their peers, access their existing group knowledge;
  3. together develop possible explanations for the problem;
  4. curiously ask, “What do we need to know?”, and identify issues to be investigated; and
  5. collaborating, construct a shared model to make sense of the problem at hand.

The facilitator guides the process, providing a scaffold (a framework) on which learners can mutually construct useful knowledge (theoretical and practical) to solve the problem. Learners will continue to ask, “What do we need to know?”, until the problem is adequately solved.

4. Learning while taking action—Building on the work of Lewin (1951),[11] Reg Revans (1980) popularised action learning as an industry-focused system to improve business practice, where “the end of learning is action, not knowledge.”[12]

Action learning is a form of peer learning with a group of colleagues who work on real, live challenges they are facing. The approach is built on iterative cycles of curious questions, usually in the form of: What did I plan to do? What action did I take? What did I observe? What are my reflections? And then the cycle repeats.



[1] E. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (London: Edward Arnold Publishing, 1927).

[2] D. Schon, The Reflective Practitioner (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

[3] J. Killion and G. Todnem, “A Process of Personal Theory Building,” Educational Leadership 48.6 (1991): 14–17.

[4] Mezirow, Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning.

[5] S. Smith, “Savouring Life: The Leader’s Journey to Health and Effectiveness,” (PhD Thesis, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Sydney), 38.

[6] M. Lombardo and R. Eichinger, The Career Architect Development Planner (Boston: Center for Creative Leadership, 2010), iii.

[7] Lombardo and Eichinger, The Career Architect Development Planner (Boston: Center for Creative Leadership, 2010), iii.

[8] C. Jennings, The Point-of-Need: Where Effective Learning Really Matters (London: Advance, 2008), 12.

[9] Corporate Executive Board, Unlocking the Value of On-the-job Learning (Arlington: CEB, 2009).

[10] J. Cross, Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance (San Francisco: Wiley & Sons, 2007); M. McCall, “Peeling the Onion: Getting Inside Experience-Based Leadership Development.” Industrial & Organizational Psychology 3.1 (2010): 61–68; A. Tough, Why Adults Learn: A Study of the Major Reasons for Beginning and Continuing a Learning Project (Toronto: OISE, 1968).

[11] K. Lewin, Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers ed. D. Cartwright (New York: Harper & Row, 1951).

[12] R. Revans, Action Learning: New Techniques for Management (London: Blond & Brigg, 1980).

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