“Is didactic really all that bad?”

Last week I was reviewing some lesson plans with a colleague. At one point he stopped and asked: “Why do we need all these activities? Is simply doing 15 minutes of didactic learning all that bad?”

I don’t remember exactly what happened next. Some type of argument or a scuffle or maybe a brilliant defense of all that is good and holy about adult learning principles. When cooler heads prevailed, we found ourselves reminiscing of our own training experiences around this particular topic. We’d seen these concepts in training sessions or in practice many times, yet neither of us was a master of this topic. In fact, neither of us really knew much at all about this topic (thank God we have a bunch of really smart SMEs to lean on!).

In the moment, training participants will probably take well-designed, interactive, engaging content over didactic lecture and PowerPoint slides any day. But long term? None of this matters – didactic or interactive – if there is no follow up. Either way, people will forget most of what they’ve “learned” before their heads hit their pillows that same night.

I still say: yes, didactic really is all that bad. Even phenomenal speakers (think TED talks) may put on a good show, but three weeks later what do you still remember? Of course, the same can be said of well-designed, interactive sessions: what do you still remember three weeks later?

In the end, if you want people to be able to do something new or differently or better, and you don’t design follow-up activities to build upon what they’ve learned in the classroom, you’d probably be better off not doing the training in the first place. Chances are, they won’t remember it anyways.

8 thoughts on ““Is didactic really all that bad?”

  1. I think the style of delivery depends upon the specific content you are trying to communicate. One activity after another can make a learner’s head spin – it’s exhausting both for the learner and the trainer. There are also many occasions where activities are gratuitous, simply put in place because an activity is ‘needed’, yet no design principle actually calls for it.

    Didactic doesn’t have to be straight lecture, either. I love an interactive audience and like to engage them as much as possible during the didactic portions. Overall, I think there needs to be variety. As you suggest, following up/reinforcing didactic learning through activities is really the best way to go.

    • Thanks Tim.

      It’s funny, I’ve been having this conversation on and off with people for a long time. There are some words that just trigger my defenses. Didactic is definitely one of them.

      I agree a blend of strategies is key. My issue with didactic is that I’ve seen it done well by so few people (which goes in part to design, in part to the practice and delivery of the session), which is why I’d prefer to stay away from designing sessions for others that include didactic.

      The point, of course (and you mention this in your comment) is that, in the end – didactic or interactive – it doesn’t necessarily matter as much as the follow up and reinforcement.

  2. A blended approach is definitely good, but your main point about follow-up is spot on!

    It doesn’t matter how many engaging, stimulating, stand-up-and-cheer activities you include to break up your session… at the end of the day the best way to reinforce learning is to revisit. Either on the job activities, or another session. If you only hear it once, and then never again, how long will it be retained. People have to practice it and live it before it takes hold.

    • Preach on, Peter! If it’s not reinforced, it will most likely be forgotten before their heads hit their pillows in the evening…

      Of course, if you *have* to learn something anyways (whether or not you remember it later), you may as well have fun doing it. And I’ve found very few examples of didactic instruction being enjoyable (it’s not impossible, but it’s rare).

  3. Great post. Can you point me to any writing (your own or others’) on the topic of following-up? I have a hard enough time getting people to come to an initial workshop because I’ve been told they can’t be required. So it seems like offering more for them to do later will be an uphill battle. Thanks!

    • Thanks Julie!

      You’re asking a question that we could probably discuss for hours (feel free to drop me a line at bpwashburn @ gmail.com if you’d like to have a more in-depth back and forth).

      A lot of it comes down to a person’s supervisor, the needs that are identified and the goals that are set (and then holding someone accountable for improved performance). While some things can be designed into a training session (whether in person or online), the trainer can only do so much.

      Here is another post I wrote about the topic: https://trainlikeachampion.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/supervisor-supervisor-what-do-you-see/ (more of a light take on this issue).

      The best book I’ve read about this is called: Transfer of Training: Action-packed Strategies to Ensure High Payoff from Training Investments (by Mary L. Broad and John W. Newstrom).

      Hope this helps!

  4. In their book “Performance Consulting” Robinson and Robinson state that transfer rates from training as a single solution range from 10-30%.In Donald Kirkpatrick’s book “Evaluating Training Programs” he looks to a level 3 evaluation process to measure change in job behavior because people attended training. He has great recommendations. As well, in Newstrom and Broad’s book that Brian mentioned above, the research shows that the single most influential person in determining if the training will be transferred back on the job is the manager BEFORE the training. They must meet with the employee to explain the WIIFM, why this is important for the employee, their team, the organization. Ask the learner what their goals are, support them in any pre-reading, set expectations and encourage them.Then set aside the training time as sacred: do not pull them out for conference calls and meetings. And finally, the supervisor must meet with the employee after the training to discuss goals met, set new goals, support further employee development, and empower the employee to USE the new skills. We as trainers need to form a partnership with supervisors before, during and after the training to effect a change in behavior. So yes, interactivity is more powerful than didactic training in terms of retention…but when it comes to if training sticks…follow up is key.

    • Thanks Priscilla.

      As someone who comes in from the outside and facilitates public workshops, do you have any tips on how you’ve forged relationships with supervisors in the past?

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