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70:20:10 - Formal education isn’t bad, bad formal education is bad

Over the past few months I have heard the 70-20-10 rule of learning mentioned in multiple conversations. Often without the depth of understanding for its philosophy or origin. And with it has come a demise of the 10% (is formal education really that bad).

Therefore I thought I’d put my views out there (based on reading and experience - not an exact science) and take this opportunity to dispel some myths, go beyond the executive summary and re-visit where this rule came from….concluding with some thoughts on how to get the greatest value from your 100%.

So where did it come form

The 70-20-10 rule is based on the work of Michael M.Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger who conducted a self-report survey of around 200 executives which asked ‘how do you learn‘. Results published in their book 'The Career Architect Development Planner' (1st ed.) surmised that lessons learned by successful and effective managers are roughly:

  • 70% from challenging assignments (on the job experiences working on tasks and problems)

  • 20% from developmental relationships (feedback and working around good and bad examples)

  • 10% from coursework and training (from workshops and reading)

As this work was originally published in 1996 questions we should consider include: are the percentages still true, particularly in our modern learning context, were the 200 executives representative of ‘all learners’ and how do these percentages compare - actuals proportions vs. aspirational proportions?

Do the proportions really matter?

In the words of Charles Jennings leading thinker and practitioner in learning who has been an avid adapter and advocate of the 70-20-10 rule:

"It’s important to be aware that 70:20:10 is a reference model and not a recipe. The numbers are not a rigid formula. They simply remind us of the facts above – that the majority of learning and development comes through experiential and social learning in the workplace (the ‘70’ and ‘20’) rather than through formal classes and courses (the ‘10’). Of course structured and directed ‘formal’ learning can help, but it rarely, if ever, provides the complete answer."

Recent, well relatively recent (2014/15) research undertaken by Leadership Development consultancy Development Division International put the ratios to the test with over 13,000 business leaders. Interestingly they found the time spent on learning actually emphasised more formal learning and learning from others while de-emphasizing on-the-job learning (see image below).

70.20.10 image







What can you do with your 100% to get the most for you and your learners?

Picking up on Charles Jennings closing line from above… 

“Of course structured and directed ‘formal’ learning can help, but it rarely, if ever, provides the complete answer”. 

Yes informal learning is powerful but we can get lost in it if we are not guided, good formal learning can provide the direction and focus of attention. Additionally having a guide to help plan, map and scaffold our future learning is essential to accelerated development. Here are some tips for making the most of your 100%:

1. Make the 10% formal learning more reflective of the 70% informal learning (make it more social):

  • Apply new learning in contextualized situations on course
  • Use peer feedback to try a new approach to an old problem 
  • Increase learners span of control over solution finding (problem based learning)
  • Expose learners to parallel problems in wider coaching and non-coaching environments
  • Use project or working groups to increase social engagement (this may last beyond the course) 

2. Make the 20% of guided learning more readily available

  • Use mediated learning material as it has been filtered e.g. Wikipedia 
  • Provide a platform for seeking advice, asking opinions, sounding out ideas
  • Offer structured mentoring and coaching (individual, group, peer, online, face to face)
  • Create learning teams outside of the formal learning environment
  • Facilitate group discussion through social media

3. Make the 70% more deliberate and scaffolded  

  • Provide course, workshop, seminar outlines early on as a sneak preview (to encourage pre-reading)
  • Set questions which provoke thought but offer direction at varying points in the learners journey
  • Suggest a structure or timeline for learning a topic
  • Encourage risk staking in learning during formal sessions to allow them to follow this through into the informal world
  • Play learning games, go discover, video learning and share it for others to see and reflect on

So some closing messages:

  • Do not place too much emphases on percentages. Effective learning requires someone (a “master blender”) who can put together the right combination of learning activities in the right order/disorder to meet the learner’s needs.
  • Allow the learning methods to complement rather than compete so they build on one another increasing their impact and their value. It will have a multiplier effect.

As with all blogs this is an opinion piece and my views may change like yours over time… or once I have read this… In-Focus: 70+20+10=100: The Evidence Behind The Numbers

Go forth and help learning happen, if you have any thought you would like to share or topics you’d like to see discussed let us know via twitter use the hash tag #helplearninghappen 

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Kurt Ewald Lindley, sports coach UK, Development Lead Officer – Coach Developer


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