The 4 D’s of Learning

What is learning? The dictionary definition is …

“the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught.”

For many people, however it is the “being taught” aspect that they focus on – for that is how they have been conditioned to think they learn – having spent many years of their life in a classroom with a teacher. So it is inevitable that organizations focus on training as the main way to enable people’s learning in the workplace, since this approach has evolved from the education system. And that, too, is how many managers believe their people learn at work – by undertaking training. Hence, they see the Training Department as having total responsibility for workplace learning. In other words, if they have a perceived learning problem, they generally go straight to the Training Department to ask them to create, deliver and manage the training process for them.

Training is (mostly) a highly directed approach to learning; it involves telling people what, how and when to learn – and making sure they do it by tracking their activity to monitor learning outcomes. Although we have seen an evolution in the way that training is being delivered in the workplace (primarily through the use of technology), it still, essentially, about managing that same training process. Training Departments started by providing classroom training, where people were taken away from their day job in order to train them in scheduled events – in a separate training room. And, although this approach still continues in many organizations today, others have automated the process through e-learning so that individuals no longer need to travel to training but can take online courses at their desktops.

However, long held views on what learning looks like and how it happens are changing. For the last 13 years I have been carrying out a tools for learning survey, and this has revealed not just the most popular tools for learning, but also some interesting features about how and why people learn today. The Top 200 Tools for Learning 2019 list was published on 18 September 2019, and the following infographic illustrates the top 200 tools.

However, this list doesn’t show how these tools are used in context, so the sub-list, the Top 100 Tools for Personal & Professional Learning 2019 provides a better insight into how individuals use these tools for learning. It shows that many individuals use digital tools to learn in 4 key ways that I call the 4 D’s of Learning. The graphic below plots the tools on the this list around the 4 D’s of Learning and each of the 4 D’s is summarised beneath it.

  1. They learn through DISCOVERY – that is by finding things out themselves (mostly on the Web) through searching or serendipitous browsing. We might also refer to this as Informal learning
  2. They learn though DISCOURSE – that is by interacting with others (whether it be in their professional social networks (like Twitter or LinkedIn) or with their work colleagues. We can refer to that as Social learning.
  3. They learn from DOING the day job and from their everyday work experiences. We might refer to that as Experiential learning.
  4. They learn throughDIDACTICS – being taught or trained – what we usually refer to as Formal Learning. 

This graphic show how the 4 D’s of Learning applies to how people learn at work – and some of the activities associated with each of them.

Of course, the 4 Ds of Learning are highly interconnected so that workplace learning looks more like the diagram below.

Many people recognise that they do learn in these 4different ways: DISCOVERY, DISCOURSE, DOING and DIDACTICS, but they also recognise they learn more from some than others. So what percentage of what they learn comes from these 4 different elements? 


⇒  How much do you learn from the 4 D’s of Learning?


Last updated: June 13, 2020 at 9:45 am