70:20:10 – How Testers Learn


I’ve been thinking recently about the 70:20:10 model of learning and how it can help testers. If you aren’t familiar with 70:20:10, the basic principle is that the way we learn can be divided into three categories:

  • 70% is experience based – on the job learning and practice
  • 20% is social – coaching, mentoring, discussing with others
  • 10% is formal – for example courses, and classroom based learning

This model has been around for many years, originating in the 1980’s or 1990’s (depending on which reference material you look at). Instinctively it makes sense to me. Last year, whilst working on a professional development framework, I was drawn towards a couple of concepts or models about how we learn.

Initially I came across the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition’ (the Wikipedia page includes a link to a pdf of the original white paper). This is an influential model which describes five stages to acquiring a skill, starting with ‘Novice’ and ending with ‘Master’.

From there I spent some time looking into ShuHaRi – a concept grounded in Japanese martial arts. The three stages of ShuHaRi are focused on the journey from student to pioneer. A novice learns from a teacher and works on the required techniques through repetitive exercises. Once the techniques are embedded, the student breaks from the unquestioning first stage and begins to develop a style of their own. Finally the student is able to detach from established teaching and based on their own knowledge and experiences can innovate and teach others.

Both Dreyfus and ShuHaRi acknowledge the importance of learning through extensive experience. Sadly, the IT industry has gravitated more towards a model of certification, often after very brief periods of coaching. I refuse to use the word teaching here because I believe that often the training people receive in achieving accreditation is designed simply to get them through an examination, with no emphasis on retaining knowledge.

Once certified, an individual can update their CV and they have a golden ticket to a number of fantastic employment opportunities where they can apply their newly forgotten skills.

Naturally this means that for many in the industry the idea of learning and development equates directly with a desire to acquire certifications and accreditations, often in the use of tools.

70:20:10 challenges this approach and places emphasis on experience based learning.

It occurred to me that a simple way to demonstrate the relevance of 70:20:10 to testers is to look at how we familiarise ourselves with the technology that we test.

Imagine that you have been allocated to a team developing a website. You will be testing the website so you need to understand its purpose, the things it can be used for and the way a customer will use it. You have some resources at your disposal:

  1. You have documentation including requirements, specifications, and if you are lucky, a business case. You can sit and read the documents. You might take in some of what you read and you may even remember some of it. In reality you will probably get distracted and even if you absorb a reasonable amount of what you read, you will probably forget most of that after a short period of time. The documentation is Formal, the equivalent of a training course.
  1. You also have colleagues with responsibilities in delivering the website; other people who will be coding and testing, managers, perhaps a product owner and, again if you are lucky, you may even be allowed to talk to some of the people who will end up using the website. By talking to the people who you will be working with you will understand much more. You can ask questions, clarify anything you aren’t sure of and make sure you have a common understanding. You will also be likely to remember many of the things you discuss. This is Social, the equivalent of coaching, mentoring and discussions.
  1. Finally you have the website itself. If you are working on improvements and enhancements you may have an earlier live version of the website. You may have prototypes of some elements or you may even have access to something which is close to complete. If you have something you can use, you can try out simple actions and more complex processes. You can repeat these exercises and learn from hands on experience. Through exploratory testing you can learn whilst you explore and test. As you spend time using the website you will become familiar with what you are testing and will develop a deep understanding of the user experience. This is Experience Based

Which of these is most helpful in understanding what you are testing? A good tester will gravitate towards experience based learning and will supplement this with a healthy dose of social learning. The formal element may provide some useful reference points but cannot be a single source of knowledge.

If we apply 70:20:10 instinctively when we need to learn about something new in this kind of situation, why would we not apply it in learning and developing the skills we need for our careers?

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