Classroom learning – and why some organisations still need it

Classroom learning has become increasingly viewed as an anachronistic method of helping people learn. It is said that it is of no benefit to the learner, a crutch for the ‘trainer’ and has no long term benefit. I prefer to see us, as a profession, increase our use of tools and investigate the most appropriate contexts for them, rather than completely dismiss them. I think we hold onto things too long, but then press delete too quickly. I completely understand people’s passion to progress the profession, but I remember learning in a classroom long ago something about babies and bathwater. The upcoming L&D Show will showcase some great progressive thinking, but I think it is important to make sure that we are increasing our toolkit rather than just substituting things in and out. So I had a think about classroom training and what it still offers. Should we be hitting delete?

I have definitely gained from experiences in the classroom. I have gained information, perspectives from other delegates and oh so many models and hours of PowerPoint watching. What is interesting is that of the things that I have gained in a classroom (I have a freakishly good memory and it has purposefully discarded a high percentage of those experiences) it would be fair to say that most of them could now be delivered through other channels or experiences.

An hour with a smartphone and a group of people talking in a cafe would probably have covered most of them off. A genuinely interactive online package with an effective FAQ would have covered most of the others off. Properly supported internal learning communities could have delivered almost everything I gained. Effectively curated content would have given me 80% of it. A MOOC would have delivered me content and expertise more fluidly. Twitter.

The one thing that classroom learning still does effectively is ringfence time. And time, to a degree, represents investment for many companies. It doesn’t necessarily indicate quality or care, but it does represent ringfenced investment. Those times that I was in a classroom with my blackberry switched off were times where I was properly focused on my own development and in sucking in knowledge. Also those times were a breather from the hectic pace of business life. A half or a whole day where I could hit pause.

So where does that leave my thoughts on classroom training? Well, broadly with the alternatives we now have available it seems a sticking plaster for organisations where the investment in learning comes in spurts and they are time poor. Like turning off your car for a bit to let it cool down because you forgot to keep it topped up with oil. In that position it makes sense to fill it up with oil, but if you can keep it topped up the whole time it is better for the engine. It’s a poor analogy but I’ve written so much of it now I’m going to stick with it.

All of the other ways of supporting learning are probably preferable – unless you are in an environment where you need to isolate people in an effort to help them learn. And in that environment the biggest block to ongoing learning is probably the culture. So does classroom learning still have a place?

It depends on how much you have faith that for your organisation’s ‘70:20:10‘ is in fact anywhere near that blend. If you are in fact not confident in day to day learning being supported then you probably need ringfenced classroom training – but only as long as your ambition is limited to developing people in protected environments and for a small percentage of their working lives. That might be due to budget or it might be down to resource. Or it might be because your people are so used to that format that you have conditioned them to feel most comfortable with learning in that space – and you don’t have the time or inclination to help them unlearn.

It’s a bit like having animals caged in a zoo for their own protection. We’d rather we didn’t have to – but in unique circumstances we need to intervene to protect. Where do you need to limit learning to a classroom? Where learning is endangered if you don’t. Just appreciate that in the same way caged animals aren’t fulfilling all they could be…

7 thoughts on “Classroom learning – and why some organisations still need it

  1. Good stuff David,

    I tend to think it isn’t the classroom that is the problem but what we do in the classroom. If we are gathering people together so they can sit back and watch a set of slides or be swung through a prezi and become bestowed with knowledge and wisdom then we are probably wasting a fair chunk of everyones time. On the other hand if we want to invest time in getting folk together to role their sleeves up, start exploring and playing with new models and ideas and start to figure out how they might help (or not help) with their work and to get into some really good conversations about that, then we might be getting somewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “The one thing that classroom learning still does effectively is ringfence time” and just as importantly creates a space where it is safe to learn. Psychologically, I suspect, people link learning with a classroom environment because that’s where all our formal childhood learning takes place. I doubt we’ll ever see the end of some training sessions in a classroom as long as schools still use them for teaching


  3. I have taken a lot of online courses, some as part of a corporate LMS, and others, paid by myself for my own development outside of work. So far, I have yet to see an in-house/corporate LMS online learning where the interaction with other learners exists or has brought me any value. When there is a “virtual space” to exchange with other learners, nobody’s there and the place rarely provides any interaction at all.

    Yet I believe that a lot of learning comes not just from the “teacher” but also from the interactions with the other people taking the class. From that point of view, classroom learning, whether in a public course or an in-house course exclusively with colleagues from the same company, has a great advantage, especially in the framework of corporate learning.

    In online trainings I bought for myself though, I’ve seen and been part of fantastic use of both online AND offline interactions. For instance, some online courses offer a private Facebook group where “students” can exchange feedback with one another, support each other, and generally deepen their learning. Some online courses also include an invitation (paid or not) to attend a live event about the exact same topic – and when you attend, you either solidify, or create new relationships that hen bring value to your learning.

    On a personal level, I’ve never attended a training “fully online” where my learning has solidified as much as in a hybrid or classroom-based training. So I agree with you David, it shouldn’t be either/or… it should be “along with” when we talk online and classrom-based learning.


  4. Thank you David for an interesting thought provoking blog. In my experience as a teacher/trainer/facilitator/coach/people developer you’re right – much of the content knowledge we offer could be acquired outside the classroom equally effectively. But I can’t be the only development practitioner who gets comments like “I learned as much from the others in the room – it was a great group of people to learn with” in my feedback – can I? In one area I do a lot of work – systems leadership – it is essential to get the right people in the room (classroom, boardroom, playroom) to learn together: and by that I mean some content, theory, models, examples but equally some real-time experimentation, experiential work, challenge and dialogue, exploration and discovery…none of which can be done on your own, or online. Has to be done with people who are different to you, offer diverse perspectives, and who you wouldn’t ordinarily be grabbing a coffee with.The other key factor is that classroom learning has to be connected to all the other kinds of learning our participants are engaged in – so each time they come in to the classroom they are bringing back their experience from the workplace, and their organisations are demanding to know what they learned and how they plan to apply it. So I’d agree – it’s both/and..


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