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....and many other thoughts about facilitation, coaching ( teams & individuals) and learning


  • David

‘Learning’ from Ancient Chinese

Updated: Mar 24, 2022


Triggered by a discussion with a friend, I would like to write a few posts about Chinese ancient wisdom, and more importantly what it means in corporate learning nowadays. I believe it would be a good reflection for my own experience in the corporate learning world as well, both in China and outside.

The first one is the one that I have thought of the most (by 荀子 Xun Zi):






The literal translation is:

Not hearing is not as good as hearing.

Hearing is not as good as seeing.

Seeing is not as good as knowing (intellectually).

Knowing is not as good as doing.

True learning is complete only when we put it in action.

This quote illustrates a great deal on corporate learning:

How the industry has changed – The quote highlights the evolution of corporate learning in the past decades. In the past, when we thought of corporate learning, we tended to have experts standing up and talking for the whole day i.e. teaching. As visual technology e.g. powerpoint became popular, the experts talk and show picture, video, graph and unfortunately mostly bullet points. This is from ‘hearing’ to ‘seeing’. Further, the focus changed from ‘what is sent’ to ‘what is received’. The learning professionals were transitioning from trainers who tell to facilitators who guide people to discover and make meaning themselves. This is from ‘seeing’ to ‘knowing’.

(Whilst this makes sense, I do not find facilitating people to learn is common in the corporate learning field, especially in Mainland China. Here is an interesting phenomenon – when you are waiting for your flight in Mainland China, you often find shops selling video with an expert teaching loudly and vividly about certain topic.)

Action – The last part of the quote i.e. from ‘knowing’ to ‘doing’. In a way, experiential learning activities and business simulation are answers to it. For example, getting a group of people to compete in a treasure hunt activity and debriefing on what they learn about working in team. Depending on how the intervention is framed and run, this can be much more effective than traditional teaching in terms of learning transfer. However, I have experienced how learners just went through the motion in the intervention. They sort of decide to take it just as a ‘game’. In the debrief, when asked about say what they learn about team communication, they can produce a laundry list of ‘standard answer’. People cheer and clap their hands as people present back. But that’s it…..

To me, a more advanced version of the ‘knowing’ part is Action Learning. There are different practices in the market under the name of Action Learning. The one I prefer is called ‘Action Reflection Learning’ or ARL – where guided reflection plays a significant part to learning. See my previous post. This practice tackles nicely the ‘realness’ problem mentioned above by always working on real work. (By real work, I mean the result of those will have real consequence to the learners.) I particularly like the philosophy of ‘Learning whilst you are Earning’. Using the ancient Chinese language, it would be something like 行学并行.

Kirkpatrick 4-level of evaluation – The quote also illustrates the 4 levels. The ‘Knowing’ part is like Level 2. Learners can remember the learning and demonstrate say by passing the test at the end of a learning event. The ‘put in action’ part is like Level 3. Learners can put the learning into action in the workplace. The natural challenge of course to the quote is that it misses the Level 4 i.e. real learning is complete only when the learning intervention creates impact as mentioned by the pre-determined business measurement e.g. revenue, cost, attrition rate. Yet, this challenge is from the corporate perspective rather than the individual learners.

It is amazing how the ancient Chinese has figured out the above a few thousand years ago already. But even more interestingly, why such wisdom has not been commonly practised though it has been around for so long?

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