Learning by Doing, Not Learning by Training

They found the most effective organizations appreciate the power of necessity of “Learning by Doing,” rather than, “Learning by Training.” (DuFour, DuFour & Eacker. [2008]. Revisiting professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press. p. 414).

Learning is best done by trying lots of things, learning from what works and what does not, thinking about what was learned, and trying again (Pfeffer and Sutton [2000]. The knowing-doing gap; How smart companies turn knowledge into action. Boston: Havard Business School.  p. 249).


Doing is Learning

I would argue that there is a common thread of learning by doing in the United States and it often goes under the name of experiential learning. This thread is created as children explore their new world learning in family settings. It is woven more clearly in school learning experiences and it flourishes in our best companies in teamwork and labs. It also gets tested in human service work places. You can spot it when someone takes an idea, works that idea, reflects on what they have learned and develops a new idea. You can get the input for learning from parents and teachers, friends and acquaintances—from a variety of media, through books, lectures, teacher instructions, experiments, sports and the arts. But when you take that input and try to improve it through action, the best types of learning result. 


Remembering what you have been told, the way conversations unfold, and the conclusions that were shared or even unresolved are valuable learnings. But the real test is for you to take those learnings and try them in the next conversation. Learning by doing is applying your rememberings into active conversations with sentences that use facts and come to logical conclusions. Remembering what was learned is the first step. Reflecting and applying lead to trial and error where eventually success emerges. Adding art to learning helps remembering as students can recall anything that they have personally created because art is inherently a learning by doing process. 

Error Teaches Success

The best learners in school, research and business seem to hone ideas into new and productive outcomes through the process of trial and error. Unlike the fear of failure reported by so many, the best learners fail all the time and call it a process of learning how to succeed. Error teaches the way around to new and innovative ideas. Error is where most research projects start and end, as the error is noticed, refined and usually not completely solved, but always improved.

Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931) was an American inventor and businessman, who has been described as America’s greatest inventor.[1][2][3] He developed many devices that greatly influenced life around the world, including the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the long-lasting, practical electric light bulb. Dubbed “The Wizard of Menlo Park”,[4] he was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production and large-scale teamwork to the process of invention, and is often credited with the creation of the first industrial research laboratory.[5]

Edison was able to try more than a thousand filaments in striving to create a long lasting light bulb. Many other inventors had brought electricity to light, but it was Edison who, through trial and error, brought long lasting filaments to light bulbs and success to inventing what we now call the light bulb.

Student-Centered Learning

The crux of doing by learning can be taught in the best schools through instruction and curriculum called “student-centered” learning. Part of this focus is a reminder that good teaching is putting confidence in students that they will learn to think and do in your classroom. Teachers who employ a student-centered process of learning help students confirms what they have learned, a type of performance assessment, that is learning by doing. In simple science experiments, students test hypotheses of ideas by carrying out the experiment and recording their results. The assessment is built right into their projects, their write ups, their success and failures. Student-centered classrooms celebrate individual learning by supporting students as they construct their learning, make mistakes, and produce successful projects that demonstrate what they know and can do.


The potentially radical idea here is that errors are a necessary way of learning because they may be the most important part of the process of learning: reflecting on errors brings greater learning. But the radicalness is in when errors are documented as learning moments. Too often, errors are glossed over or even covered up. When errors are shown in student work, students have a chance to reflect on them, make them part of the process of learning and push themselves to improve. Teachers need to put their best efforts into revealing errors not as a shaming moment. Teachers need to model this stance so that students can have the humility to learn from their mistakes. The examination of errors can lead to new ideas for experiments in science, new ways of writing essays, multiple ways of solving math problems, and varied solutions to human issues.

Learning by doing is foundational to our success. When schools incorporate learning by doing into teamwork, group debates, team science experiments and collaborative editing the success of learning is often enhanced. 

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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