The illusion of learning…

But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. (King James Version)
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (New International Version).
James 1:22, from the New Testament


Let me start with good news. Last week, we held our public session, The Speech Class Refresher. Yesterday, one of our participants gave a 45 minute presentation.  She carefully followed what we taught. And, she did well; and it went well. Success!  She learned, and put what she learned into practice. Good for her!

It does not always turn out that way.

I teach speech at the community college level.
I talk to other teachers at the college.
I lead leadership training sessions for companies and organizations.
I speak on a multitude of topics.

Here’s my observation. The number of people who actually learn – learn new information, learn new skills — and then put into practice what they have learned, on the path to some level of mastery, is not all that great. This is an observation confirmed by other teachers.

Oh, I see a little progress across the board. But it could be greater – much greater.

And, of course, all that I am writing here I can apply to…myself. I watch TED Talks; I read books; I go hear presentations. How much have I learned fully enough to the point of changing the way I work and live? Not enough; not nearly enough.

How many times have you sat through a lecture, a talk, a training session, and then, as you think back on it, you realize “I haven’t put much of this into practice, have I!?”

Jefrey Pfeffer co-authored a tok on this gap
Jefrey Pfeffer* co-authored a book on this gap

This is called the “knowing-doing” gap. We know; we do not do.

And it is not a new problem. Consider the scripture quoted above, James 1:22. To me, the key part of the scripture is this: “and so deceive yourselves.” Because that is exactly what we do. We read, we listen, we attend, and we define these actions as learning. But we have not learned until we do. In other words, we deceive ourselves that we are learning when we aren’t actually learning.

Call it the “illusion of learning.”

So, maybe the most important part of any learning moment is to take a few extra minutes after you finish reading, listening, watching, and ask yourself: “what will I do differently because of this?”

And, when it is a team learning experience, lead a team discussion: “what will we do differently because of this?”

If you take this “after the learning event” last step seriously, you might actually learn more…really.

And, by the way, if you close that knowing-doing gap, you will move way ahead of the curve.  You will then no longer suffer as deeply from the illusion of learning.


Jeffrey Pfeffer co-authored a book with Robert Sutton about this gap.  His latest book is really all about one specific expression of this gap:  how leadership training is not producing all that many accomplished leaders.  The book is Leadership BS.  Read my takeaways here.  And, read an interview with Jeffrey Pfeffer conducted by Bob Morris here.


3 thoughts on “The illusion of learning…

  1. Randy,

    The Knowing-Doing Gap looks like an interesting read. I’ve read Leadership BS and Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer. Both make for a worthwhile read, but he does seem to bite the hand that feeds him. And this makes me wonder about his intention. Does he just mean to be provocative?

    A teacher once told me she thought that it was impossible to teach anyone anything. But people could learn, if they are willing. Readiness, or being open to new experience is something that’s almost ignored, and, in my opinion, should be given more attention.

    On another note, go for King James version every time.

    By the way, I’ve just found your site and subscribed to your RSS feeds. Thanks much.

  2. Welcome as a reader, Christopher.
    It’s funny, while I was younger, I rejected the King James version. As I grow older, I’ve grown to appreciate the “sound,” the sense of “depth,” of the KJV…


  3. Churchill was a fan. He put those rhythms to good use. Thanks for your response. I look forward to reading more.

    I’ve been continually busy since 2007, until this year. So, I’ve started to write business book reviews as a way to promote my business book ghostwriting business. Always learning.

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