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The Limits of Learning

My next couple of blog posts may seem as if I am just rambling, but I can assure you that there is a larger design intention at play here. In this one, I am going to follow up on my last post (The Power of Cultural Forces which used the ITIL tender announcement to illustrate the underlying principles) and talk a little bit about the limits of learning. Why the limits of learning? Well, frankly, we need to talk about it — we’ve not been doing well as an industry and it’s about time we fixed it!

For the purposes of this post, I will use USMBOK and an aviation example to make my points, wrapping it up with a few comments on ITIL and certificate programs. An aviation example? Why? Well, for those of you who do not know it, among other things, I am an Instructor and (Stan-Eval) Check Pilot. What does that mean? I provide flight instruction and  evaluate their knowledge and skills to ensure that pilots are fit to execute their responsibilities as Pilot-in-Command (PIC). I will say more about this in future posts, but let’s just say that this has an important shaping effect upon how I think and approach my work.

In fact, I think that a significant part of why I am good at what I do is precisely because I have this experience and background. Needless to say, I have an appreciation for “learning” that transcends what most people mean when the term is used. Would you like to know more? Good. Let’s have a look…

So there are a few things that we want to get on to the table, before we go much further.

The Importance of Insight

Sorry to burst your expectations on this, but it’s true. Learning isn’t just learning. What a strange thing to say, isn’t it?

No, it’s not about learning or at least the process of learning. That’s something for education and training professionals to discuss — the mechanics and architecture surrounding the design of learning experiences. Ultimately, I believe that learning is about creating insight. This is one of an instructor/trainers major responsibilities. When we train new instructor pilots, we have a working definition for insight from the Aviation Instructors Handbook (FAA-H-8083-9):

Insight involves the grouping of perceptions into meaningful wholes.

The Handbook goes on to say:

Insight will almost always occur eventually, whether or not instruction is provided. For this reason, it is possible for a person to become an electrician by trial and error, just as one may become a lawyer by reading law. Instruction, however, speeds this learning process by teaching the relationship of perceptions as they occur, thus promoting the development of the students insight.

This is really important, because it highlights that this is a basic human capability. Normal, healthy, human beings are doing this, whether they are actively engaged in a learning/training program or not. Given this, our job becomes about creating an environment in which a student/participant has the right learning experiences to create insights which build into larger blocks of learning which support our objectives and intentions. If that is indeed our charter, we need to pay attention to selecting the right mix of activities and experiences that will engage our students and serve as a catalyst for creating insights. Before we can effectively do this, we must have an appreciation for the limits of learning and this is only possible once we appreciate the different levels of learning. So, let’s have a look

All Learning Is Not Created Equal

Learning is an inclusive term, which covers everything from the fundamental to the complex. In aviation, we talk about learning as being divided up into four levels:

The Four Levels of Learning – RUAC


I’ve represented Rote learning on the bottom of the triangle here, because it’s one of the most fundamental ways of learning and one of the first ways that we are explicitly taught when we were young. Think about how children are taught the alphabet (their ABCs, right?)… what do we do? We teach them a song that has the information we want them to learn and we sing it with them… over and over and over again. This repeats until it’s “burned in” — where the child now can recite the material. Indeed, repetition is a critical aspect of rote learning. The key thing to remember here is that just because the person has the rote learning, this does not mean that they appreciate any larger meaning or can apply what has been learned.

In flying, I can tell a student pilot about how to do a coordinated turn. I can give them a definition of what the different types of turns are (coordinated/uncoordinated, steep/standard rate, etc.) and what the facts/characteristics of these turns are. At the end of the lesson, we’ve done a good job if we can establish some basic knowledge about turns.

In the Universal Service Management Body of Knowledge (USMBOK), we talk about the “Value Equation.” It’s a relatively simple formula and even has a few variations to it. In the space of just a few minutes, we can do some rote learning to have a program participant recite the equation back to me. They can define and describe characteristics. This is good, but it’s not the entire story. It’s still too low level and mechanical to be useful… it’s not much more than fodder for some new product like “Trivial Purusit: USMBOK Edition.”


Understanding is the first level where we can determine that there is some meaning to the learner about what’s been learned. For example, with the value equation, just knowing it is not enough. We need to engage in whatever learning activities or discussions are required in order to build a cognitive bridge to understanding. We need to connect the learner to the “why” — why should they care? why should their management care? Both of these “why?” questions help establish context around the value equation. At this point, we’re still not done.

In flying, I will often now describe all of the elements of what goes into making a turn happen when flying. I’ll use functional models of the aircraft so I can manipulate the control surfaces and show the student what the aircraft will do during the different stages of the turn. Once completed, I’ll have the student “demonstrate their understanding” (of what I just taught them) by talking me through the maneuver from start to finish. When the student is able to reliably play this back to me (especially what to expect during the maneuver, not just the mechanics of it), we’re ready to move on.

When doing USMBOK training, we will often introduce other related concepts and knowledge items and spend time discussing their inter-relationships and dependencies, often using models to describe how the parts inter-operate. At the end of the discussions, we’ll probably want to ask questions and engage the learner to see if they really “get it.” Can we devise some sort of working “assessment instrument” to validate that the learner accomplished our objectives. Often times, instructors will devise their own means (often “on the fly”) to see just how well they understand and stop when they are satisfied that the learning objectives have been satisfied. Are we done yet? No, not really. We’ll return to this point in just a little bit.


Once we have some understanding under our belt, training designed to apply methods, concepts and procedures help us take this new found knowledge and make it operational. This is a key step, because without the bridge into application, we have transferred knowledge that cannot/does not translate into visible results. Sometimes, having understanding or “feeling good about what we talked about in class’ is a good enough result unto itself. Unfortunately, when it comes to the workplace, that’s often insufficient to justify the investment of resources to send people out for training. We’ll also return to this point in a bit!

In the flying example, we are going to move the classroom — from a desk/table inside a building to the flight deck of an aircraft! Once we take off and get to a location where we can start the lesson, I will again describe what we are going to do, as well as what it should look and feel like to them. As I demonstrate the maneuver, I will keep describing it, so that the student sees the proper indications. I will also (often) demonstrate what it feels like when it’s “gone wrong”, so they have an experience of it under controlled conditions. At this point, I will have the student do the maneuver, following my instructions and tuning as we go. The final phase is having them execute and describe what they’re doing.

In our USMBOK example, we would work with customers in an on-site workshop tailored to a specific project/need OR an advanced training program where we might use simulations, role play or other methods designed to lead/guide people through a structured experience of how to interact with others about the value equation and other related concepts. A key point to remember is that it’ll be designed to start simply and gradually increase in complexity. From an instructional standpoint, the instructors job is to do less hands on teaching and act more as a coach/mentor, guiding the participant as they apply the concepts and methods in their work/organization.


In application, we are working to establish a basic level of skills/capability, as a result of the training experiences. The learning which takes place at the level of correlation often takes place over time, as the student/participant becomes able to associate what they have learned with other related segments or blocks of learning. In other words, they make “connections” and start to have deeper “insights” into how the area works (grouping perceptions into meaningful wholes.

There is no one method, technique or procedure that can reliably produce such an outcome on a universal basis. Instructors and trainers will always need to develop sufficient relationships with their students/participants and introduce new, varied learning elements that will help their students on an individual basis achieve their learning goals and objectives at the correlative level.


A key point to remember about these levels of learning is that they are not separate or disconnected! The fact of the matter is that when any real learning is happening, they are all happening simultaneously — it’s integrated! In a certain sense, my aviation example is easier than the USMBOK example. Why? Because flying involves both knowledge gained, demonstrating a (physical) skill and considering the sensory feedback associated with it. In the latter example, it could just be held as an “academic exercise” (knowledge gained). How skill is demonstrated and what appropriate “sensory feedback” would be in an organization is often beyond the scope of most basic training programs. We must consider this along with the other key principles of learning that will directly affect how our students/participants do. I’ll talk more about this in one of my next blog postings.

How Does This Relate To ITIL?

At this point, given that I mentioned it at the outset, I’m sure that you’re wondering “well, kengon, how does this really all relate to ITIL?” — I’m glad that you asked.

Part of it is related to managing expectations. When an organization sends someone to training — what are they really going to get when they return to the workplace?! Well, in order to answer that question, you have to ask who “they” are!

If it is the learner we are speaking of, they may have had a great in-class experience, learned some new concepts and had some insights about their job. That’s something to be excited about. While this is a good outcome, we must consider what the employers/managers expectations were, regarding the kind or quality of learning outcomes their employees would return to the job with. Often times, especially when it comes to passing the Foundation exam, the expectations of what a person “should be able to do” (with that knowledge) will exceed their actual ability. Why? Because the class itself targets the Rote and Understanding levels.

While the learner may have a new awareness about the content contained in ITIL and (maybe) even have had some insights along the way, it does not mean that they have the ability to utilize those to accomplish things that really would require training at the application and correlation level. They might not have the knowledge and experience coming in the door to fully utilize what they’re learning when they leave.

The exam associated with the certificate, according to the guidance provided in the ITIL Qualification Scheme (IQS), represents what I believe to be minimum coverage of the overall body of content. Indeed, it is far less than I’d desire to ensure that there’s an adequate evaluation of whether or not the student/participant has met some learning outcome(s) that represents knowledge of the material, not just an ability to complete and pass the required examination.

Given the Joint Venture announcement, I fully anticipate that the will be changes to the IQS in the future, to help better address any current or perceived gaps in expectations and the needs of the marketplace.


I used multiple examples during this posting to make a key point — the levels of learning are about as universal as you can get. Each level of learning has its place in the learning process, its own strengths and weaknesses. As we move higher in the RUAC triangle, we reinforce and enhance the work done at the lower levels. It’s holistic in nature and cumulative in effect. There is much more that we can do than we are doing today, especially when it comes to properly setting customer and marketplace expectations. From an industry perspective, we need to ensure that we target the right level of learning and the right training activity to achieve our desired/intended result.

Much of what passes for training today is the packaging and distribution of raw material (content) and hoping that the learner will be able to use this in a way that’s constructive and will forward personal or organizational objectives. Unfortunately, this seems to rarely work in practice, as it places the burden on the learner to figure it out “on the fly,” leading to inconsistent and sub-optimal solution development. It’s my hope that we can (as an industry) start to focus on how we can better train and develop our personnel to think, engage and collaborate, versus the delivery of raw material of content for them to read, remember and recite.

I believe that this shift is critical — our students, customers and the future of the industry are depending upon it!

Posted In:Org/Personnel Development, Service Management
Tags Used:Application, Aviation, Correlation, Experience, Flight Training, Flying, Futures, Insight, Integration, Integrative Thinking, ITIL, ITSM, Joint Venture, Learning Experience, Learning Theory, Levels of Learning, Rote, RUAC, Training, Understanding, USMBOK
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