The Complexity, Non-Linearity, and Inefficiency of Learning

"...when acting within a rigid or essentially a closed system, the goal seeking effort of individuals and societies to improve their capacity for independent action tends to produce disorder towards randomness and death. On the other hand...the increasing disorder generated by the increasing mismatch of the system concept with observed reality opens or unstructures the system." - COL John Boyd, Destruction and Creation (1976)

As a police instructor, I am continually tasked with developing instructional curriculum, writing lesson plans, and delivering training. For a dozen years, I believed more structure would equate to more efficient learning. For the last three years (and more specifically the last year), after realizing I wasted much of my time organizing the unorganizable, I've been destroying what I had built.

Why? I wrongly thought that structuring my teaching would equate to structured learning. Lectures, PowerPoint, course flow, exercises, drills, projects, or online modules can organize teaching or delivery/presentation of content. But this is a mismatch; human learning cannot truly be structured. Learning is an organic, unpredictable, personal journey that cannot be broadly scaled or formatted for efficiency. Learning is:

COMPLEX. Learning contains many unknown and unknowable variables. We simply do not know enough about how humans learn, retain information, process data, make connections, synthesize ideas, build mental models, or perform physical tasks. To complicate the matter, we are dealing with unique individuals within student groups - who have different experiences, backgrounds, education, and abilities. 

NON-LINEAR. Learning does not follow a defined path. The moment a student raises a hand to ask a question, the direction of content or material might make a serious turn. (The term "side-tracked" comes to mind.) The question might probe foundational content that an instructor assumed to be already understood by students...or content that is associated in some manner to the currently presented (or desired) content...or seeking to identify the relationship between other content or ideas.

INEFFICIENT. There is no magical formula for teaching in zero-waste conditions. Rather than forcing a specific delivery method or content, trainers and educators must embrace this inherent inefficiency. Teachers must adapt their educational methods to their students progress. We should seek effectiveness (forward progress) over efficiency(lowest teaching effort or resources). However, we also cannot ignore certain research in human learning that identifies trends and generalities in what works better than alternatives (just don't become a slave to the "studies.")

Human development is the biggest investment of time, effort, resources, and money any organization or school can make. (It can also be a complete waste of the same!)   To do it right, training staff and educators have to remain flexible, adaptable, and creative. We seem to have factory assembly-line robots...punching out as many standardized machine cogs, as quickly as possible. Rather, they should be the artisan craftsmen of learning!

Our training staffs should include generalists who have an ability to connect-the-dots. A limited number of specialists should act at the discretion of these generalists...ensuring students understand the proper relationships between various content, by relating specialty material to the big picture. Hyper-specialization should be resisted; multi-perspective approaches should be sought. 

We in the training and education industry must understand: how the linearity of a teacher's slide deck presentation effects the natural non-linear process of a student's learning; how the over-structure of curriculum limits the growth of learners; how pre-determined lesson plans can be a pipe dream to what's actually covered or addressed in class; how standardized class design ignores student needs or wants; how self-discovery is more effective than force-feeding.

Students must build the class. But with focus, oversight, and moderation. This is notlearning without direction or constraints - but with parameters that allow for self-examination, discourse, and exploration. This requires a new perspective on how we have traditionally viewed lesson plans, course objectives, teaching methods, and formal education systems. 

It's my responsibility to bring the building blocks to class; it's their commitment to learning that connects the blocks to each other and build something new. We have to share a purpose, objective, or goal. We can even share a broad plan or strategy. But the moment we bring a step-by-step instructional guide into the mix, we limit student growth and potential. We can surely help our students make connections along the way...but it has to be driven by their curiosity, analysis, critical thought, and creativity.

It's time we step back and re-evaluate how we teach...based on how they learn. 

It might require we disassemble what we've previously built for ourselves. 


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. His study of learning and performance science has radically flipped how he provides "training" to police officers and others. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr


  1. Great piece Lou. I have heavily reduced my Power Point decks and hardly use them at all except perhaps in a ShortbBriwfing where time is scarce. I in stead focus on scenarios, decision making exercises or critical question mapping etc in an effort to break up the class and have students take ownership of their learning. For jobs like policing where adaptive challenges are the brunt of what we do the experiential way is in my humble opinion the most effective way to learn.


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