Content or Delivery; which is better?

About a year ago I was running a session for some Learning and Development professionals on the Neuroscience of Learning.

I was contacted before the event by one of the potential delegates and asked this question:

“Will there be some actual content or will it be all of us just sharing what we know?”

The person in question was unwell and the thought of turning up to an event, expecting to learn something new and instead being given post-it notes and coloured pens was more than they could cope with. We had an interesting discussion.

I have noticed more and more of exactly what they were talking about – a move towards L&D people being less about the content and more about the delivery. But is this a good move? I have a concern about lazy being dressed as facilitation and that the delivery becomes so important that good content is not included at all.

Last month I facilitated a similar group of L&D professionals looking at some techniques for learning that were definitely not chalk and talk. At one point, dotted around the room, were flipcharts with provocative statements on. People were invited to look at them and discuss the statements with whoever was there, for as long as they wanted to, before moving on. I tweeted one of the statements and Twitter responded.  This was the statement.



Replies ranged from “Never!” to “Agreed.”

There were a lot of responses around good facilitation taking dry content and making it great and that bad delivery can suck the life out of a learning event. Conversely, that great delivery can mask poor design. There were thoughts on how good questions can deliver amazing results. There were some feeding analogies. The word context came up. “Context is the missing word. The dance between content, delivery & exploration depends on context.” from Chris Nichols @chrisnicholsT2i

There was also some talk about the importance of participation; that you can’t make someone learn.


All true.  So what’s the problem?


I was reminded a while ago about a time when a group of us were running a residential and we ran out of activities. So we divided the delegates into two teams, asked them to design an exercise for the other team, then swapped the activities and sat back. Of course we facilitated the reflective session afterwards; we didn’t just walk away altogether, but I felt at the time, and still do years later, that this was utterly lazy. Yes they got something from it. Yes we helped them process the learning. But honestly, did we do the best for them? Could that time have been used better?

I adore action learning sets but it has to be done right, for people who want and need it, when they want and need it. I remember once being on a course as a new manager where the facilitator gave us the opportunity to spend an afternoon together, with total freedom to manage our own learning, exploring whatever came up. I think the term T-group was used. So we all went back to work! We had left busy work places to come and get help with our busy work places. We didn’t see the benefit of chewing the fat with other, equally busy colleagues. This was probably a sign of our immaturity as learners but it was also a sign of a Trainer (they weren’t called L&D professionals then) experimenting on us with an idea and doing it very badly. They were a bit cross with us for not engaging. We were furious for being given so little when we needed so much.

I love great facilitation. I think it’s an important, potentially life changing skill. I did a course 20 years ago at Surrey University about the dynamics of group work and facilitation that was possibly one of the best things I have ever done. However, I think there is also a place for designing great content. I think there is a place for lectures and teaching and instructional training.

If I’m going for surgery I want my surgeons to have attended some recent lectures on the latest techniques and breakthroughs. I also want them to have discussed this between themselves and thought about how they can use these things effectively. I want them to do the full 100%.

When I learned to drive I wanted the instructor to say

“That peddle in the middle is the break”


“OK, how do you feel about this? If this car was a stone you are carrying, what colour would it smell like?”

Great facilitation should not over-ride the need for great content, when that great content is what is needed. Chewing the fat can be amazing – give them something worth chewing.

Memory – how does it work?

We think of memories as something that we pick up along the way; little scars on our brains that show the journey that we have traveled.  When we want to recall a memory we imagine that we go into a filing system, locate the memory and replay it from the original space on the hard drive.  However this is not how memory works, not least because this is not how we perceive the world.

Memory, memory storage and memory retrieval is much more like cake making.

Our brains are like walk-in pantries with all of the different aspects of our experience (conscious and subconscious) stored in separate places on the shelves lining the walls.  What we see is stored in a jar on a different shelf from what we hear, think, feel etc.  The smell of an experience is placed in a jar right in the front, whereas sight is stored right at the back.

The cook in the middle puts the ingredients into the various jars as they occur.  Then when that memory needs to be recalled they go to the different jars and build the memory from the different elements; they reconstruct the cake.  However, it isn’t the original cake, it’s a new cake formed from the ingredients.  Which is why the new cake can be a bit wrong and is partly  why two people observing the same thing can recall it completely differently.

To learn something accurately we need to repeatedly make the cake, checking the recipe, using as many ingredients as possible, in order to make the connections between the correct jars really strong, bringing them to the front of the shelves.

Then eat the cake.  I’m not sure how this fits into the analogy, but eating cake is a great thing to do. And using your brain requires calories.

Learner Centred – all very well but…

The degree to which a learning event is controlled by either the facilitator or the learner can be mapped on a continuum.  At one end, the “teacher” end, you have lectures and also published media such as videos, books and blog posts.  At the other end, the “learner” end, you have self managed learning which includes interesting concepts such as T groups, action learning and reflective practice.  Then along the continuum there is training, coaching, mentoring and a whole host of other interventions to help the learner learn – including directing them to useful videos, books and blog posts.

In the last few years there has been an understanding that learners learn

  1. through a variety of means
  2. mostly by actually doing stuff and then reflecting on that
  3. best when they are not bored out of their tiny (constantly expanding) minds.

The drive towards learner centred learning is to be embraced, encouraged and celebrated. Hooray!  The 70:20:10 model tells us to value all that lovely reflective, learner driven gorgeousness.  But…

With this drive I’m noticing a massive push towards throwing the baby out with the bath water; dropping the 10%.

  • Putting people into small groups and then getting them to chat about stuff without some direction to help stimulate the conversation. This can be a rather lazy (and frankly dull) way of filling in some time. People actually like something meaty to talk about; a bit of grit in the oyster. Get them to talk purposefully.
  • Deriding lectures. However, the sage on the stage may actually have something interesting to say. Let them say it. The learner will work out for themselves what is useful and interesting.  They’ll also process this information at a subconscious level and use it at some point.
  • Assuming that every course is some sort of low quality sheep dip. On the contrary, done well, a course might be exactly what someone needs.  Showing someone how to do something is not a bad practice.

When you learned to drive (those of you who did) most of your learning came after you passed your test, when you were left on your own and had to get on with it.  A lot of learning came from your instructor (and possibly your mum, dad or other) sitting beside you asking questions such as “What do you need to think about here?” or suggesting that maybe there is a better way to pull away from a junction than in third gear. (Just me?)  But I’m quite sure that if on your first lesson the instructor had said “Let’s just start the engine and see what happens” you probably would have got out of the car.

Drive for quality- yes in all things. Social learning is amazing if it’s the right thing at the right time. Reflective practice is brilliant if it is based on context and at a deep level. And being taught something can be just exactly what’s needed. Don’t throw away the 10%.