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Will classrooms always be key to workplace learning?


Peter Honey defends the classroom and explains its role in promoting learning within the 21st century workplace

I went to a conference recently where classroom training got a good kicking.

Since there were no classrooms there to defend themselves, I started to feel indignant on their behalf.

By contrast, blended e-learning got a very favourable press. 

All the usual statistics about classrooms were trotted out; the difficulties of transferring learning from classrooms back to reality, the poor retention rates, the costs of gathering people together in a fixed place. 

The overwhelming message was for trainers to get out of the classroom, steep themselves in the business plan and show how they can add value, embrace new technology and take learning to where the people are.

Poor old classrooms didn’t get a look in!


Roads? Where we're going we don't need roads

It took me back fifteen years when I was surrounded by people assuring me that paper-based publications had had their day and that in future everything would need to be electronic.

I spent lots of money developing online Learning Style Questionnaire tools and we launched them, with a fanfare of trumpets, in 2001. They did very well but the interesting thing was that demand for paper-based stuff continued unabated.

Naturally we thought this was temporary and that people would soon see the error of their ways and switch to the on-line offerings.

However, they never did; sales of ‘old fashioned’ booklets and manuals not only continued, they consistently exceeded sales from their electronic equivalents.

The ratio has shifted in favour of the online versions but here in early 2016, demand for the print LSQs continues to endure.


Back to the point

So, I couldn’t help wondering whether all this brave talk about abandoning classrooms was premature. There is a time and place for everything – classrooms included.

As I listened to classrooms getting short shrift, I thought to myself, ‘Damn it, I spent approximately 16 weeks a year of my life as a trainer slaving away in classrooms. Surely all this suffering hasn’t been a waste of time?’

Then I got my calculator out (I’m increasingly calculator dependent) and did some sums:

40 x 52 = 2080
40 x 16 = 640
640 as a percentage of 2080 = 30.77%

This is a long winded way of saying that for 40 years I spent nearly one third of my life in classrooms of various shapes and sizes!


Deny everything! 

I hope, therefore, even if you are anti-classroom training, you can appreciate my reluctance to admit it was all a complete waste of time.

I know, I know; this is denial with a capital D.

Of course, classrooms have their problems; it is often difficult to persuade busy people to enter them at all – especially if they carry negative baggage from their schooldays.

It can be difficult to get people adjusted to the rarefied atmosphere of a classroom.

It is hard to keep the outside world, with all its distractions, at bay so that attention can be undivided.

It can also be a challenge to equip people for the transition back into the real world where the pressures and demands differ significantly from those in the classroom.


School's not out

But classrooms aren’t all bad news, they have their plusses too.

Classrooms come with a blatant learning label attached to them. No one is in any doubt that classrooms are places where you are supposed to learn (that’s ‘supposed’, not necessarily ‘will’).

Classrooms are ring fenced spaces with learning the explicit purpose. They were invented precisely because the hurly - burly of the outside world was not sufficiently conducive to learning. It is far easier for classrooms to be learning-friendly than everyday workplaces.

In fact, if a classroom isn’t conducive to learning, that is a disgrace, a missed opportunity, a dereliction of duty.


Learning to learn

Classrooms provide a temporary respite from the wicked world.

They lend themselves to reflection - rarely possible in busy workplaces. They make it possible to focus, without distractions, on whatever has to be studied or mastered.

They allow people to meet together to share experiences and indulge in reciprocal learning.  They should be cheerful, off-the-record, places with relaxed laughter.

They allow people to take stock and make realistic action plans.

The presence of interested trainers, on hand to help in whatever way they can, is, undoubtedly, the icing on the cake.

So, please don’t write off classrooms. Think of them as one of many routes to learning and work out when inviting people into a classroom might be the best way to achieve a goal.

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