The Difference Between Education And Learning (And It’s Impact On Output)

A carpenter takes regular, precut wood from the hardware store and crafts it into an amazing treehouse. The materials and tools she starts with are made in a factory to near perfection. The act of building the treehouse is a craft. Through practice and experience, she creates a structure unique to the tree it’s built into.

The carpenter’s job is similar to our own. We deal with pre-made building blocks and then craft novel solutions for our clients. Depending on the outcome we want to achieve – optimized output or custom craftwork – will determine if need a system based on education or learning to get to our desired results.

Education includes memorizing facts, taking tests, and passing (or failing) grade levels. It requires a controlled environment. It’s industrialized and therefore lends itself well to industrial applications. If the outcome can be optimized for a predictable set of circumstances, we want to educate and probably automate our processes and procedures. We don’t want variation in our screws, nails, and boards, we want predictable perfection.

Learning includes putting instructions into action and then compounding our knowledge with practice and experience. The environment can be similar but doesn’t have to be the same. If the circumstances change, like the shape of a tree or the needs of a client, we won’t be able to automate everything, but we will be able to get better at solving related problems with practice. We want our carpenter to build the treehouse for our specific tree. Their practice and experience will influence the results.

We can educate ourselves, our clients and our colleagues about all the important stuff. We can automate any task where the outcome doesn’t require variation. But, we have to recognize where the assembly line stops and the applied skill begins. The point where learning takes over is the point where people feel like adults and not kid’s in a classroom. The point where learning takes over is where skill and uniqueness become a differentiator.

Whether we’re making a difference in our work for clients or we’re thinking about how our organization gets its jobs done, there’s an education and a learning system in place that we can use to our advantage. It starts with noticing the differences and determining where we need optimized output or custom craftwork. It ends with the people who are going to put and keep it in motion. If we want the right output, it starts with understanding the system that made it.


*h/t Seth Godin for the framing of this idea, he’s explored several avenues around it. Here’s one example, and another, and I’m sure there are many more.

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