How many times have you been asked to help create "training", "education" and "learning"—all in the same conversation? Or maybe you use all three terms yourself?
It's important to bear in mind that, despite their similarity, these terms are not interchangeable as they each have a slightly different meaning. By having a shared understanding of terms like these and clarifying what is required, it makes it easier to avoid misunderstandings (and likely rework!) later.
In this article we will look at each of these terms—training, education, and learning—and explore them in a workplace context.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives various definitions for the word “training,” but the most relevant is “to undergo instruction, discipline, or drilling.” The Cambridge Dictionary also has this helpful definition: "learning the skills you need to do a particular job or activity."
Training is typically focused on particular processes, procedures, and tasks. For example, a teenager who wants to learn how to drive a car needs to receive training in how to operate the vehicle safely, reverse it, park in different situations, do a three-point turn, understand the rules of the road, and so on.
Training is a two-way process. A trainer provides instruction to someone who needs to learn a new skill, either in person or in the form of an online course. A course is the formal structure whereby someone can obtain that training. The information, the training, is "pushed" to the person who needs to learn it.
Let's explore this term in a workplace setting. Let’s say your sales team needs to effectively demonstrate equipment that your company sells and answer common questions from prospects about those products. This is a task-specific goal that can be easily addressed with training in how to set up and operate each piece of equipment, the key functions to highlight in demos, and so on.
Similarly, if a company is rolling out a new sales order processing application, then everyone who will be using it needs training in how to use the key functions of the software.
Each training event is typically one-off, although of course there may be a requirement to repeat that training periodically to ensure the skills are kept fresh.
In a nutshell, training is "learning how to do something".
Is there a difference between being educated and being trained?
Referring to the dictionary again, “education” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “knowledge and development resulting from the process of being educated.” The word "development" implies a gradual change that happens as you gain knowledge. So, unlike training, which is usually a one-off event, education is a process that happens over time.
There is another difference between the terms too. To help with understanding this, let me share an amusing story that has stayed with me for over 30 years. I was working with a French education consultant who was asked about the difference between these two terms. Quick as a flash he said: "Well, I'm happy for my teenagers to attend sex education classes at school, but I would definitely draw the line at sex training."
Amusement aside, his explanation highlights very clearly that education is typically broad and conceptual in nature, not focused on skills acquisition. The knowledge we acquire through education is mainly theoretical, not practical or task-specific.
Returning to the example from the previous section of the new order processing software, most of us would agree that it probably isn't necessary to send the order processing administrators on an intensive sales education program. What they most need right now is specific training on how to use the new software.
In a nutshell, education is the process of "learning about something".
If training is the act or process of formally instructing someone (or being instructed) on how to perform a task, and education is the long-term process of developing knowledge, then what is "learning"?
Merriam-Webster defines it as "the act or experience of one who learns". The Cambridge Dictionary says it is "the activity of obtaining knowledge", and also defines it as "knowledge or a piece of information obtained by study or experience".
Learning is the desired outcome of training, and the path to becoming educated. However the best part of learning is that it also happens naturally through life experience. We can learn by working alongside someone who is more skilled than us. We can also learn by trial and error, as we find out what works and what doesn't.
In a workplace setting, learning occurs when people don't just gain new information or skills, but also retain it, apply it, and make additional connections to other things they’ve learned. As new knowledge is woven together with existing ideas and experiences, it forms the fabric of learning.
Regardless of how people learn, the process of learning equips them to take on more complex challenges. For instance, if we use our new software training example once again, a team member who’s been successfully trained to use the software to process returns is a training win. But even better is when the employee has also learned how to connect their knowledge of the new software with their understanding of the latest changes to your company’s 30-day return policy and then uses their customer service skills to do what’s right. That kind of layered, dynamic thinking and problem-solving is where training, education, and learning all intersect in the workplace.
Understanding the nuances between these three terms can be helpful for creating a shared understanding, making it easier to navigate conversations about creating new digital learning objects and events.
Training - learning how to do something
Education - learning about something
Learning - the end result of training and education.
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