Learning by numbers

Photo Credit: Dey via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Dey via Compfight cc

I was never much good at painting when I was younger. I can always describe the idea of what I wanted to create but couldn’t make the pen, pencil, brush, charcoal etc do what I wanted it to do.  In my minds eye at least, it was the next Mona Lisa. In reality it was a colourful but quite unidentifiable mess.

My parents, after years of putting up with papers of various states of splodge and mess, decided that the way forward was to create some guidelines around how to paint and got me a painting by numbers kit for my birthday. In case you’re not aware, painting by numbers comprises of a line drawing of an image (mine were always footballers) with a colour code to make sure that you paint the right colour into the right space.

Hours of toil later on numerous wet Sundays and I produced recognisable images that were completed as per the instructions:

  • inside the lines
  • right colour right space
  • Followed the order of colours.

Success! Realistic pictures that were more than good enough to be presented in a 70s suburban living room. I remember the pride my parents had showing a distant uncle the pictures I’d created. Well done.  Didn’t I do well. They didn’t feel like my pictures though.

This is where Jane Hart’s work on scaffolding is interesting me so much. Jane is entirely correct in her assumption that LD wants to maintain control – only this week someone asked me about our model and how we could control the outputs that came from it.  It seems the need/desire to control and to measure and count seem to be the drivers to so much that LD want to do.

I think we need to take care with scaffolding though; if it’s too constrained, specific and structured you’re in the same realm as a painting by numbers picture. The problem with painting by numbers is you never meet the outcome of being able to paint; you meet the output of producing pictures.

Do you:

  • Offer painting by numbers?
  • Let people paint outside the lines?
  • Limit people’s choice of colours?
  • Only use specific templates?
  • Let people use NO templates?

Comments, very welcome.  If you want to submit a response through the medium of paint, please be aware we can’t return your pictures.

12 thoughts on “Learning by numbers

  1. Really interesting article, thank you. I think that if you are measuring against a set competency, as pre-defined by business objectives, then there’s some non negotiable measurables and things people must do to a certain standard, particularly in certain industries where Health and Safety are big concerns. But having said that, learning is more personalised, on the job and frequently more flexible and bite sized and also people learn through different networks, informal and formal. I guess the L&D professional has to manage these as part of a learning strategy. The measurement and the end result should be fixed and pre-determined but the means of getting there is becoming more diverse and less ‘paint by numbers’.


  2. Thanks for your comment. I don’t disagree with statutory elements; it’s when we (LD, the sponsor, an ‘expert’) add mandatory elements that aren’t challenged.
    I don’t agree though that we can fix the end result in most cases. Too often LD is too far from the business to be able to understand how to measure improvement effectively; measurement at this level should be in the workplace by the manager, through the performance management system.
    LD role is to help managers to understand how to measure this through the workflow.


  3. […] In Learning by numbers, Andrew Jacobs thought back to painting in his childhood, what had  been the outcomes when he painted freehand and when he did painting-by-numbers. Does setting up a tight framework for learning with measurable outcomes work, or do people learn better when they have more freedom? Carolyne Mitchell was thinking about design as My perfect cousin taught her and her colleagues something about design and what wider possibilities there could be for public services mobile resources for the public. […]


  4. I designed a learning programme which was learner centric and involved a no teaching approach. It was inquiry based and the discussions were far reaching. the results in terms of the delegates ability to challenge and think critically were very good. In addition all delegates who agreed to an interview 20+ stated their confidence had increased as a result of attendance.
    The programme was definitely not “painting by numbers” and I was more interested in the outcome and benefits to the organisation than for instance happy sheets.


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