In 2016, Michael Beer of Harvard Business School released a paper entitled ‘The Great Training Robbery.’ Beer’s pun alluded to the fact that despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars on training and education, evidence and experience showed that corporations in the U.S. had been largely unable to create lasting changes in individual behaviour and organisational culture. As Beer put it, “by investing in training that is not likely to yield a good return, senior executives and their HR professionals are complicit in what we have come to call ‘The Great Training Robbery.’”
It would be a mammoth task to assess all the faults and weaknesses of the various training and education programmes undertaken by the myriad of companies Beer surveys. Yet recognising that the general deficiency of these programmes is a failure to create lasting changes in behaviour leads to a perhaps more productive route of inquiry. Rather than pointing out minor faults in these models, we should look instead for the key factors that engender lasting change and then use this knowledge as the basis for creating programmes that positively affect day-to-day behaviour in an organisation.
Since behaviour is influenced by a number of factors, changing it really requires a holistic, multifactorial approach. But there is one simple method of learning that is proven to make information stick and should, therefore, be considered as essential for training programmes that seek to make lasting changes to behaviour and culture: watch one, do one, teach one.
In an abstracted sense, this method of learning—which is also known as “see one, do one, teach one”—is based on a three-step process that involves the first visualisation, then performance, and finally demonstration. While practised in a variety of professions, this method is most commonly used in medicine, the field in which it is thought to have originated.
In the late nineteenth century, William Stewart Halsted deployed the see one, do one, teach one method to train students in Johns Hopkins University’s surgical residency programme. Halsted’s students would begin training by watching surgical techniques performed, thereby gaining a model for their own actions. Then, following this memorised model, students would attempt to perform the actions themselves, aided by constructive critique as they progressed. Once the student had displayed sufficient skill, they would proceed to teach the techniques to others. While the two initial actions—watching and then doing—formed for Halsted the educative scaffolding whereon his students could build their understanding of surgical procedures, this understanding was ingrained and refined in the latter stage of teaching, which allows the student to articulate, self-reflexive critique, and explore ways of improving their action.
Contemporary researchers have shown that Halsted’s see one, do one, teach one method, which is still in use today, is highly effective in comparison with other learning methods. Sarah V. Kotsis and Kevin C. Chung have found that the retention of information is far greater in a learning method where, as in Halsted’s, the approach is “hands on”; while only 5% of information is retained when information and behaviors are learned in a lecture format, the retention rate is markedly greater in formats with more multisensory and active a learning activities. This is corroborated by J. D. Beard’s research, which suggests that learning in the surgical space is most efficient when learners are actively involved, either physically or mentally, in the learning process.
One of the keys to this method’s success is that it allows them to take ownership of the learned knowledge or behaviour. Ownership is developed most potently through the process of articulating and refining the knowledge or behaviour when teaching it to others since this repetitive act enhances a sense of possession, which can be hugely beneficial for an organisation. Since, as Linn Van Dyne and Jon L. Pearce argue, ownership and possession are linked to increased motivation and confidence, the teaching stage of the method is a psychologically powerful one, with the potential to positively influence levels of performance and wellbeing.
As well as engendering a sense of ownership, teaching and therefore repeating the learned knowledge or behaviour means that it will become more automatic over time. This is due to neuroplasticity—the process whereby the brain forms new neural connections and rewires itself based on an individual’s behaviours. The fact that the repetition of the new behaviour can precipitate a process of neural rewiring—literally altering the structure of our brain—ratifies the idea that the see one, do one, teach one method creates lasting change.
Since it is so crucial to establishing motivational feelings of ownership, embedding new knowledge and behaviour, and disseminating knowledge throughout a group, the teach stage of the three-part model is perhaps the most important. We found this in one of our recent studies at Positive where usage of particular tools to enhance psychological wellbeing was seen to increase in groups where teaching was high and decrease in groups where teaching was low. In other words, teaching aided the process of psychological change.
It is because this method aids psychological change that it might help combat one of the foremost problems Beer highlights with training programmes: that follow-up studies often show managers having regressed to their pre-training beliefs about effective leadership. To ensure that learning sticks and behaviour and culture change, the continued practice of and belief in what has been learned is vital. As a method of learning that encourages ownership (which links to belief), embeds knowledge through repeated practice and facilitates the continued deployment and dissemination of new knowledge and behaviour throughout an organisation, the see one, do one, teach one model emerges as one that can counter this regressive tendency. One potential solution to ‘The Great Training Robbery,’ therefore, is to create training programmes that understand the science of learning and the psychology underlying behavioural change. This will give organisations the best chance to engender lasting changes, optimising performance and bringing about the financial rewards they have been missing out on.
 Beard J. D., Robinson J., Smout J., Ann R. Coll Surg Engl. 2002 Jul; 84(4):227-9