The surprising way adults learn 90% of what they need to know

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It’s a common belief that classroom trainings and meeting presentations are the most important ways for adults to learn what they need to know to do their jobs.

This is an understandable belief. Why? Because it was largely true for hundreds of years until around the end of the twentieth century. Until about twenty years ago, adults learned most of what they needed to know to do their jobs in the classroom.

1960's classroom

But the whole nature of “work” has changed dramatically since the last century. Today, it turns out, adults learn the majority of what they need to know in order to do their jobs informally: through on-the-job experience and practice, connections with our peers, and self-directed learning.

How adults learn: on-the-job experience and practice

Research that began in the 1980’s at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) found that about 70% of managerial learning came from the job itself. Additional research, published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1998, suggested that people learn about 70% of their jobs informally and the 70% figure appeared again in a two-year study of workers at large companies published by the Education Development Center.

Peer and self-directed learning

Well, perhaps classroom learning makes up the majority of the rest of the ways we need to learn? Nope. The CCL study referenced above also concluded that about 20% of individual professional development comes from peer learning: informal coaching, personal networks, and other collaborative and co-operative actions. The EDC study concludes that approximately 20% of what we need to know is provided by self-directed learning. This is learning we control ourselves, such as:

  • asking colleagues for help;
  • reading a relevant book or article; searching for answers on the internet; and
  • watching online instructional or lecture videos.

Learning from your peers is also called social learning. Increasingly, these days, we don’t have the luxury of being able to wait for scheduled training opportunities in order to respond to new job challenges. Instead, when we need to learn something professionally we tend to consult our peers and professional networks first. This is an example of just-in-time learning: we learn what we need to learn when we need it.

The 70:20:10 model

Put together, this research indicates that informal learning—experiential, social, and self-directed—makes up about 90% of the learning modalities that professionals use today. Only 10% of adult learning uses formal classroom or meeting presentation learning formats. This ratio of experiential:peer/self-directed:formal learning is known as the 70:20:10 rule. Here’s a quick overview by Charles Jennings:

What are the implications for event design?

90% of the learning modalities adult workers need and use these days are informal. So, why do we persist in making the bulk of “education” at most meetings formal presentations by experts?

Instead, we need to mirror the learning approaches that professionals need and use in their work environments. Our conferences provide a unique opportunity to tap the peer expertise and experience of assembled participants. Rather than listen to experts using broadcast models that today can be largely replaced by books, recordings, articles, and online resources, we should be using session formats that supply and support the experiential and peer-to-peer learning that attendees actually need and use.

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“You send your child to the schoolmaster, but ’tis the schoolboys who educate him.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Culture,” The Conduct of Life (1860).

Ralph Waldo Emerson knew 150 years ago that adults learn mostly from their peers and by themselves. It’s time that our meeting designs reflected this reality.

Photo attributions: Flickr users petrol alt gone and herrberta

4 thoughts on “The surprising way adults learn 90% of what they need to know

  1. Hmm, but what if they depend on meetings for that 10 percent? Not that I disagree with your premiss, but I have to play devil’s advocate.

    1. Hmm, when I saw you on the #ephh hangout the other week, Sue, you weren’t sporting any horns :). Yes, meetings can provide a good environment for formal learning and I’m not saying they shouldn’t be used for this.

      But a meeting that uses a good peer-centered format provides invaluable opportunities for your employees to learn from peers outside your organization; i.e. from a much wider pool of experience and expertise than they usually have access to. A company that decrees that conferences can only be sources of the 10% formal learning its employees need is ignoring inter-organizational resources that feed the 90% learning needs of its employees. That’s a pretty silly thing to do in my opinion: it’s likely to frustrate employees who want and need to learn this way and also to provide a source of competitive advantage to rival companies.

      1. And doubly silly because people will seek out those peer-to-peer opportunities whether they’re formally built into the conferences or not.

  2. It’s a good discovery then. There are a lot of adults in our society who also wanted to have a good information that they need especially that this can help them in finding a job to support the needs of their family.

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