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Nuts and Bolts: The Cargo Cult of Training

by Jane Bozarth

March 1, 2016


by Jane Bozarth

March 1, 2016

“Help people understand how learning happens by making them more aware of it: ask, ‘How did you learn that?’ and, ‘What have you learned lately?’ and, ‘Can you show me how to do that?’ Sometimes learning by experience just means copying bad ideas. To conquer Cargo Cult Training we need to be the ones to provide examples of better practice and offer support to those engaged, even if only on an ad-hoc basis, in that practice.”

“In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war [WWII] they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they wanted the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires alongside the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in with 2 wooden pieces on his head like headphones, and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas. He’s the controller, and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land.” Richard Feynman, Cargo Cult Science

Form without function*

Sound familiar? Think about the time you were sent to a certain class, maybe something like new hire orientation or a safety update. Maybe compliance. Likely mandatory. The trainer was an SME from the HR Department, or a presenter recruited because they were a good technical expert. Or maybe they even had the job title of “trainer.” They arranged tables and chairs. They created a PowerPoint show. They provided a copy of the slides. They did everything right, and perfectly mimicked what they’d seen other trainers do.

But no one learned anything.

This is Cargo Cult Training, in which the leader replicates what he saw teachers do, capturing the artifacts of instruction without understanding what’s underneath. Online? Same: Pick a template, load text onto slides, add a next button, and call it “eLearning.” Throw in a Jeopardy!—type board to support recall of content and claim you’ve “gamified” a course. But without an understanding of instructional design, or of the basics of game mechanics, or of how people learn, all this is just a display of artifacts the creator has seen elsewhere. It’s adherence to form without regard to content. They’re lighting fires by runways and standing there with their wooden headsets waiting for the planes to land.

*I wish I could claim credit for thinking of this phrase, but I ran across it while researching this piece. Thanks to Steve Wittens for letting me reuse it.

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Hi Jane, wonderful piece! A great metaphor and a storytelling wrapper of the main idea that you are presenting! I would add at least one more bullet point to What to do? section: Make reflection your habit: every time you have concluded another stage of your training design process - step back and think big (organizational vision, values, participants' motivators, failures and successes of previous training initiatives, etc.) Looking at your work through this lens will allow you to distant yourself from the "copy" mode and dive deep into the essence of the matter.
I could identify with the cargo cult concept! I think many people work from the "Fake it till you make it" playbook, and whilst this works well in business, not so much in education.
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