Stop Talking and Get Moving!

What science tells us about team training.

We’ve all struggled to maintain our attention during classroom instruction at times; most of us have even dozed off. It’s a matter of folkloric jokes and common knowledge. That said, we tend to assume teacher knows best, and that during the rest of the time, classroom instruction must be a good way to acquire new skills and behaviors. After all, why else are we doing it?

However, emerging scientific data now is beginning to confirm that our worst fears about traditional training models are true—showing that our attention and workload nosedive in a classroom in a matter of seconds, even when we’re highly disciplined and wide awake.

As a guy who has been observing workplaces and running face-to-face, simulation-based team and leadership training since the mid-1990s, my experience has been that around 80 percent of people’s attention (even to the best classroom presentation) drops away in less than a minute. Based on that, my colleagues and I established long ago that competently run and work-relevant simulation-based training, which engages both mind and body, is far more effective than traditional classroom teaching. What’s changed recently is that we now have the scientific evidence to prove it.

An ongoing opportunity to partner with UCLA’s Brain Research Institute now is providing proof.


A group of six nuclear submariners stands on the bridge of an imaginary sub in a basement lab near UCLA. Each is wearing what looks like a light plastic bike helmet. Connected to the helmet is a series of sensors gathering electrical signals from each person’s scalp. In a corner of the room is UCLA’s Trysha Galloway, operating a bank of computers that processes the EEG (electroencephalography) information being collected, but the team is too busy to care about that. They’re doing a mock navigation exercise in which the objective is to avoid surface collisions in a $2 billion nuclear submarine.

The simulation exercise ends, and it is time to sit down in a classroom to discuss the experience. The EEG headsets are cumbersome to remove, so the UCLA team leaves them running, still measuring the cognitive workload and engagement of each team member—how hard their brains are working, and how focused they are on the task.

“Good grief,” says Galloway.

“What’s up?” asks professor Ron Stevens, the head researcher on this project at UCLA’s Brain Research Institute, peering at the screens of data.

“Look at the engagement data now. I mean, we knew workload and engagement probably would drop once they got back into the classroom, but…”

Plotted before Stevens, the neurodynamic workload and engagement of their team of expert submariners shows a dramatic picture. After a series of dips and climbs during the navigation exercise, the half-dozen graphs reach the moment when the group began classroom instruction—and then the measurements plunge to nothing almost vertically, like a sub diving off an undersea cliff toward the ocean floor.

Stevens and Galloway are part of a growing collection of academic pioneers who are learning about learning by using new technology to look directly at the living brain. EEG is the measurement of tiny electrical signals in the brain through the collection of data from sensors on the scalp, and is one of a number of technologies now being used for this work. In many cases, what’s new is not the base technologies (electroencephalography, for example, has been used in medical applications for years) but the modern techniques that allow simultaneous data to be gathered from teams and groups.

Following the work on nuclear submariners, UCLA and Team Results partnered to design a task for civilian office workers in which a small team had to collectively steer a toy car while wired to the EEG headsets. After that, UCLA gathered neurodynamic data from a surgical team at the Jump Medical Simulation Center in Peoria, IL, using a robotic surgical dummy as the patient and leveraging Team Results’ expertise in safe simulation to create a convincing “operating room fire” at a critical moment.

In all cases, we saw a gigantic difference in brain activity and learning uptake when people were actively engaged in their own learning. It turns out that humans are wired to learn primarily from their own experience, and that while classroom training can be very useful for theoretical knowledge, it’s a highly inefficient way to learn new behaviors.


What is fascinating about this new research is that, while it’s at odds with common beliefs and claims in the training and instructional world, it’s completely in line with common knowledge.

To convince yourself of that, ask this: Would you rather have a heart bypass done by a doctor trained solely in the classroom, or would you prefer a surgeon who also has done thousands of hours of hands-on simulation? How about a nurse or a firefighter who simply passed the online course?

It’s doubtful you could teach a child to ride a bike by throwing a manual or a Web course in his or her general direction and walking away. Certainly, the skill acquisition would be slower, and probably much less effective. Most parents remember tricycles, then training wheels, then days of running behind your child’s bike with a steadying hand on the seat, and finally just running alongside until your child became confident and we could no longer keep up. A better example of what’s meant by cognitive learning through simulation would be hard to find.

The brain doesn’t load new software like a computer. Rather, if it sees the need through repeated demand for a skill, it builds brand new physical circuits. The payoff for those hours of effort and scraped knees learning to ride a bike is that you now have a permanent “bicycle riding” circuit in your brain, and while it may fade with disuse, it will never completely go away. Conversely, “I don’t know what went wrong, I TOLD them what to do” is the catchcry of bad managers everywhere.

What does this all mean for working leaders?

It means we should classroom train a lot less, and train by competently run simulation a lot more. Consider the case of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which now spends just 10 percent of its training budget on classroom instruction. The remaining 90 percent—20 percent for initial training and 70 percent on the job—is for simulation at work. What you simulate and who helps you, of course, depends on what your team needs to learn.

It also means that the sense of disquiet you may have felt about all-classroom or all-online learning has been right all along. The science is on your side.

Now go build some exciting simulations!

Team Results USA CEO John Kolm is a leader in team productivity programs, a bestselling author, and a former intelligence officer. Kolm founded Team Results USA in 1996 to provide customized training and measurable results for work and leadership teams. The company works with numerous state and federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Labor, Commerce, the EPA, HHS, and FEMA, as well as Fortune 500 companies such as Toyota, Pfizer, IBM, Cisco, and Goldman Sachs.