70-20-10: not a holy grail

Is the 70-20-10 concept useful? How should it be applied? What can it do for us? We asked Fred Paas, professor of educational psychology at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Why are you so interested in learning?

‘I like to see how people learn. And I like thinking about how to improve that learning process. How can we create learning environments that achieve the best possible learning outcome? This is my area of research, and I am more than happy to share what I learn. I also believe it is important that everyone has the opportunity to learn to the best of their ability, and I am able to contribute to that.’

Do you have some interesting new ideas for us?

‘I am part of an international research team that studies the cognitive load theory. This helps us to understand how information about the working of our brains can be used to develop learning environments. The theory focuses primarily on the interaction between the working memory and the long-term memory. In learning situations, it is mainly the processing capacity of the working memory that is important. Research shows that the working memory can deal with a maximum of five to eight information elements when acquiring new knowledge and skills, and that these learning units need to be stored in the long-term memory before new knowledge can be acquired.’

What does this mean for learning?

‘It means that you need to offer people short bursts of knowledge, not a whole book at once. It also means that the best time to do this is when people really need to learn something. This is because it is clear why they need to do it, they can put it into practice straightaway, and they remember it better. That is the cognitive side. There is also an emotional side to learning of course: people need to be motivated to learn. This is why it is important to provide a personal learning programme that reflects individual learning styles and goals.’

What is the biggest misconception when it comes to learning?

‘That talent is innate. Teachers are quick to label a child as talented or less talented but, rather than being genetically-determined, talent develops through repeated, meaningful practice. Take speech, for example. Children with more well-educated parents hear many more words in their formative years than the children of less well-educated parents. This means that they are better at languages when they go to primary school. It is not because they have more of a talent for language, but because they have clocked up more ‘flying hours’. Primary school teachers also often confuse talent with age. After all, children in a class can differ by up to 12 months in age, and these age differences are accompanied by large differences in physical and emotional development in young children. I want to make sure that teachers are aware of this, because judgement of a person’s talent can have a negative or positive influence right through into adulthood.’

What do you think of the 70-20-10 rule?

‘It is an interesting idea, although not enough academic research has yet been carried out in my opinion, so we need to be somewhat critical. The basic assumption of this ‘theory’ is that you learn most by ‘doing’: 70%. In addition, you learn 20% from colleagues and your network and 10% through formal training. I also believe that learning on-the-job is very important, but basing that 70% on independent learning is, in my opinion, too much. Few people are able to decide for themselves what they need to learn, as this is very difficult. People who know a lot often underestimate themselves, and people who know little tend to overestimate themselves. Furthermore, it is hard to judge what you need to learn in a completely new situation. First offering people a formal learning programme can get them off to a good start, which means that the 70:20:10 rule then works a little differently.’

How is it different?

‘It may be better to talk of ‘10-20-70’. In my opinion, the 10% and 20% come first, before the 70%. I would also rather combine the 10% and 20%, as you learn from teachers, coaches and other people in your network. In fact, the ratio between this formal learning and experience-based learning is more likely to be 50-50. I am convinced that you achieve more if you first learn formally, through training courses and the best practices of others, before starting on-the-job. People who are first taught the tricks of the trade on a course are able to start at a much higher level. Plus, if you first watch successful colleagues to see how to do something, you are better able to apply it in practice. I believe that this sharing of knowledge between more and less experienced colleagues is an important condition for an organisation’s success. However, knowledge is often implicitly present in an organisation and experienced colleagues pass it on without really thinking about it. It is therefore a good idea to identify this knowledge, and to make colleagues aware of their knowledge and of the fact that it is important for new and less experienced colleagues.’

So the 70-20-10 rule can be discarded?

‘Definitely not. It is a useful rule, although it should not be accepted unquestioningly. Think carefully about the 70-20-10 ratio and be prepared to adjust it – then you can create the most innovative, effective learning environment. Experience-based learning is a large part of the learning process, but it is good to start with formal teaching. It is also important to include coaching and reflection. As an organisation, you need to let people know what you expect of them, and guide them in setting and achieving their learning objectives. You need to monitor interim results and evaluate, so that you can make changes to the learning programme. The 70-20-10 rule can help develop a learning programme, but it is a useful guideline, certainly not a holy grail.’

Fred Paas is professor of educational psychology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He also conducts educational research in partnership with TinQwise.