Accelerated Learning and Learning Styles

The handwriting is on the (rock) wall: All that we know, ourselves included, will some day be squished into another stratigraphic layer of the geological record.

What's this talk about rock and squished have to do with Accelerated Learning and Learning Styles? At face value, not much actually, other than I sort of like thinking of squished rock and the stories that each layer tells us.

My first conscious, as opposed to the many accidental and serendipitous times I must have unknowingly brushed against it on my way to becoming who I am today, experience with accelerated learning and learning styles I owe to Intel and Dave Meier.

In 1993 Intel was on the cusp of taking over the mantle of semiconductor designing and manufacturing powerhouse. It got there thanks to three things: its engineering and manufacturing prowess and training. In 1993 Intel announced the Pentium chip; later that same year I went to work with them as a manufacturing technican/peer trainer. At this point in my career I'd been an electronics technician with the military and the semiconductor industry for over 15 years. I thought I knew about training, from the receiving end anyway. I was wrong.

In 1993 Intel began construction of these monster factories, fabs in Intel-speak. The one I went to work at was Fab 11 in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. I was quite surprised to learn as I went through new employee orientation that the fab was still in an early phase of construction. The surprise came from the fact that by November 3, 1993 — the day I started — Intel had already hired many hundreds of people to work in fab 11. Who does this: hire people to work in a factory that is still months away from occupancy? Intel.

For the next six months I worked at Intel fabs in New Mexico and California. Other new hires went there and to fabs in Oregon, too. I think some even went to nascent fabs in Scotland, but on this point my memory gets a little fuzzy. One thing that is crystal clear in my mind, however, is what I saw the day I got back to New Mexico the following July (1994): an aircraft carrier-sized (what the U.S. Navy calls a “big deck”) building rising up from a mesa overlooking Albuquerque. It was just the shell of a fab: the cleanroom, where the Pentiums were to be made, was still many months away from completion. All this time though Intel was still hiring.

Anyway, to make a long (interesting) story short: one day in early1995 an Intel engineer threw a switch and the fab began to hum. Thirty days or so the first Pentiums shipped to assemby fabs around the world. Product yields, I am still stunned when I think about this, were in the 90 percent range: unheard of in a fab so new: process engineering and designing for manufacturability baby. That's how they did it. That and training.

The accelerated training model Dave Meier developed stresses activites. In a nutshell an instructor/facilitator gets up in front of a class and briefly describes the thing to be learned. Then she gets out of the way and the learners engage in structured (some times not) activities where they work collaboratively on whatever it is they're learning. The course that Dave taught us, us being Fab 11's trainers and peer trainers, was how to train the thousands of people Intel was hiring using David Kolb's learning styles inventory.

In a nutshell Kolb suggests there are four distinct learning styles: Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization and Active Experimentation. People generally favor one of these styles. New Intel hires were asked to complete a survey to determine their learning style. When they got to the fab following orientation they were paired with a trainer who tailored their delivery to their trainee's learning style. The training objectives did not change, only the way in which the trainer worked with the trainee. For example, when I completed the learning styles inventory I learned that I preferred active experimentation: getting in there and doing stuff, making and learning from mistakes along the way. Contrast this with someone who had a reflective observation style: they need to watch and ask questions, sometimes LOTS of questions, before trying a task out.

I have had many painful (and not very productive) learning experiences before going to work with Intel. It happened a lot during prior training that the trainer would put me to sleep going on and on about something when all I wanted to do was get in there and “do”. To be sure, from a safety standpoint making mistakes and learning along the way isn't best practice. But even in safety situations knowing someone's learning styles lets the trainer tailor the learning experience to the individual rather than going with a one-size-fits-all approach.

Which brings me back to the stratigraphic squished layers of the geological record from the opening: if you buy into the belief that we (the total population of diverse individuals that are learners) are unique then it holds that each of us has a preferred way to learn. At the ballpark not all of us snack on peanuts: some enjoy hot dogs others beer, etc. We're all in there: in our learning environments and situations getting squished into conformance. Why can't we tailor the experience?

Now that I'm an instructional designer I try, within my organizational constraints, to present learners with a balanced learning experience. A big part of this is using story. More about this in a later post.

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