You CAN teach an old dog new tricks

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on October 11, 2010 · 9 comments

No matter what we do for a living, at some point we are all in the business of learning. Either we are on a learning curve ourselves. Or we are trying to influence others, whether through sales and marketing, or though managing, or through coaching. In any of these cases, it is beneficial to learn more about how adults learn.

On my recent post about value stream improvement training, Justin Tomac added this comment:

A future post idea is to do more on Adult learning. What the experts say is about 70% of adults learn by doing or hands on. What I would be interested in are your thoughts, is generational or universal? How many leaders lead this way?, etc.

I’ve seen this “statistic” before but I’ve never actually seen the research where it comes from. Instead, I’ve seen plenty of research and data that suggests it is not true, at least depending on how it’s phrased. If you asked how people learn “best”, then I believe that number is very high. If you ask if they learn “better” if you include hands on, then the number is probably even too low. Since I can’t comment much on the statistic itself, I’ll share my thoughts in general on adult learning.

Always be learning.

One of my favorite quotes from Henry Ford is “
anyone who stops learning is old, whether 20 or 80.” I think this is important. Too often people assume that they can’t learn anymore. “This is who I am” will be the response to any challenge. This is a mindset that I have a hard time respecting. If there is something you don’t like about yourself or is holding you back, why would you not want to work on it?

Senor Students in Classroom

Gandhi said: “
Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” This is how I try to live my life. Even if you’re an old dog, you can learn new tricks.

Auditory, visual, kinesthetic.

Fundamentally, there are three types of learning styles. Auditory learners learn best from hearing it. They like and remember stories and can sit and listen and absorb. Visual learners, like myself, want to see it. They learn through observation. They learn through models, pictures, drawings. I take a lot of notes, not so that I have them, but so the words I see on the page sink into my brain. Kinesthetic is learning by doing. You want to touch it, move it, execute.

All people use all 3 learning styles. Some people are very balanced across all 3, but not many. Most of us favor one style or another, whether we know it or not. Research shows these learning styles fairly balanced, which is why I don’t believe the 70 percent statistic.

When learning this fact, some people will try to assess their target’s learning style. This is a mistake. First, you’re as likely to get it wrong as get it right. Second, and more importantly, it is best to integrate
all three learning styles. When you design your approach to integrate auditory, kinesthetic, and visual learning styles into one experience, you accomplish the best results.

Think beyond training.

When we want learning to occur in the organization, people tend to want to launch training programs. Training is important. It has many benefits. But training does not equal education. There are many different ways to create education and learning, and training is just one tool in the toolbox.


There are many other methods to drive learning. We spend a lot of our time coaching – helping people assess their situation, chart a new course, and then test their conclusions. We coach people in their own environments through leadership challenges and problem solving.

Reflection is another form of learning. Structured reflection might be something like an After Action Review, which is a method for improvement that we’ve adopted from the U.S. Army’s National Training Center and use for a wide variety of situations. Reflection can also just be a timely, open ended question. At the end of any improvement project, I like to ask “what did you experience here that you can take back and apply in your own job?” It’s a simple question, but forces a line of thought that often isn’t explored by the individual.

There are many mechanisms to drive learning. Do not get stuck in the rut of trying to solve every skill and knowledge gap with training. Training is great, but not the best solution for every situation.

Manage learning objectives with rigor.

Many projects have clear performance objectives. People know them. They are written down. And with some planned interval, you check to see how you are doing against them. These performance objectives are managed with rigor and focus.

Why don’t we set and manage learning objectives in the same way?

Through our projects, if we took the time to establish some learning objectives, it adds an additional focus to the work. This is much more effective than having no intention to learn, but at the end asking “so what did you learn?” Entering the project with establish expectations of learning greatly increases the chances of actually accomplish that learning. And it allows us to manage the project to accomplish those objectives, and evaluate whether those objectives are being met.

Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks. How we learn, and how those around us learn, is one of the most important factors to long term success available. This is why building a learning organization is a central principle in our work. And it’s why I personally have made learning the most consistent criteria against which I evaluate most of my decisions. Learning is the most self-sustaining competitive advantage you can build.

1 Mark Welch October 11, 2010 at 9:16 am

The source Justin Tomac referred to for his approximation of 70% was from the National Training Laboratory. It’s cited in Cindy Jimmerson’s book, “A3 Problem-Solving for Healthcare” on page 65 and on a number of websites. I tried going to NTL’s website to find it but wasn’t successful. In Cindy’s book, the title of the graph is “Effective Learning: % of Knowledge Retained after Completion.” It doesn’t say HOW LONG after completion, but it does give the following numbers: Teaching one-to-one, 90%; Learning by doing, 75%; Discussion group 50%; Demonstration 30%; Audio/Visual 20%; Reading 10%; Lecture 5%.

2 Jamie Flinchbaugh October 11, 2010 at 9:27 am

Mark, thanks for the link. I have seen that before and as my post indicates, I agree with the experience when you get all learning styles integrated you have the best success. However, I’ve never seen any actual research data that backs up that 70%. Is it an experience-bases opinion that sounds like fact, or is there research? I would like to know, if anyone out there does.

3 Jim Fernandez October 11, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Regarding the 70% learning by doing issue; I’m just going to take a wild guess here. I think that when asked, people think that they have learned better by doing because in doing “it” they think that they have learned how to do “it”. On the other hand if they had only, discussed it, watched a demonstration about it, read about it or heard a lecture about it; they would not be sure if they had really learned it. I guess I’m saying it’s a perception issue for both the student and the teacher. As in, “Yeah I learned how to do that. Because I did it before.” Or Yeah, he learned it. I saw him do it”. Consequently the statistic should read, “70% of adult students and teachers agree, students appear to learn better by doing.”

On the subject of teaching old dogs new tricks. I’ll admit. I was sure I could not learn any new tricks. I was retired after 30 years of being an electronic repairman. I was a 57 year old burned out supervisor. I was looking for a simple assembly line job were I would not have to learn anything new. Then someone asked me if I would like to be involved in a Lean Manufacturing activity. I had never heard of Lean. Now three years later I’m a Lean Manager with a Lean Bronze Certification. I was really surprised that I was able to learn so much new information and so many new techniques. Go figure.

4 Jamie Flinchbaugh October 11, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Jim, thanks for sharing your personal story. That’s awesome. I so glad you found new energy in your new role.

5 Mark Welch October 11, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Glad you’ve found good fortune with lean, Jim!

Just to add to the notion of reading, watching a demonstration, etc. vs. actually doing, I like to think of it this way…

I grew up loving baseball. I read about it and saw others play the game, but I spent most of my time PLAYING BASEBALL in the summertime. Could I have ever gotten the skills to play baseball by reading about it and watching demonstrations alone? No. Although the reading and observing contributed. Like lean, we’ve got to do it, practice it, to be really good at it, and it’s by doing it that we gain the biggest share of learning. How many lean gurus in the blogosphere emphasize that lean is best learned by doing it?

Another way to think about it… Let’s say a nursing student has completed all of her education except her clinicals. Would you want her as a nurse? Or a doctor who took all the coursework but had no residency. Would you want him as your doctor?

These examples alone are enough for me to believe the research that 75% of knowledge is retained as a result of doing.

6 Mark Welch October 11, 2010 at 5:20 pm

P.S., I know my reasoning isn’t sound, but sometimes I’m willing to go on life experiences and relying on others’ expertise/research. This is one of those instances 😉

Great thought-provoking post, Jamie!

7 Justin Tomac October 13, 2010 at 10:58 am

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. A new/old learning for me is to continue to question the statistic(s) and their origin!

Another key point you make here is to “Think Beyond Training”…If I had a Dollar for everytime I heard they were just not trained correctly or we need to train them again…I wouldn’t be working where I am at! Like you I believe Training is only one tool in the Education realm. Great points, just wish their was a way to instill this in most training or HR departments.

8 Jamie Flinchbaugh October 13, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Thanks Justin.

You are right about the point about questioning statistic. I have to remind myself of that. I love stats – when they support my view. This of course is not right. I remember a Dilbert cartoon that went something like this:

Dilbert: “People are more likely to believe something if you include a made up statistic.”

Pointy-Haired Boss: “How many people believe that?”

Dilbert: “87.3 percent”

9 Mark Welch October 14, 2010 at 8:39 am

From Larry the Cable Guy… “46.2% of statistics are made up on the spot.”

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