The Difference Between Training and Education: Rediscovering Training Fundamentals From Pocket Billiards

Editor’s Note: In today’s fast-paced business environment, it’s easy to overlook the importance of three learning essentials: (1) there is a difference between training and education; (2) training requires mentorship expertise and; (3) continuous learning and knowledge sharing are integral parts of the training process. 

We illustrate the learning essentials through the anecdote of a colleague who became an avid billiards player, first as a self-taught novice and then instructed from one of the sport’s top players.

We should mention—indeed, emphasize—learning was arguably the most pervasive of Peter F. Drucker's multiple intellectual interests.

According to Drucker, the debate which pinned behaviorial learning against cognitive learning was a sham intellectual contest. Both, he said, are pertinent. 


If you’re a pocket billiards enthusiast, you’ll relate to this story. Several years ago, a co-worker purchased a top-of-the-line Gold Crown III pool table, a dozen or more instructional videotapes, how-to books and DVDs that enabled him to simulate playing a world-class professional.

He viewed, studied, and carefully practiced what he learned. Pocket billiards (i.e., pool) is a game that can be played equally well alone or competitively. He learned the fundamentals and his level of play improved, but most of his playing was confined to nightly practice sessions in his basement.

Then, one day, he ventured into a New York City billiard establishment populated by the world’s top-ranked professionals. Men and women of all ages were competing in tournaments.

Some took clinics taught by professionals that were designed to improve playing ability. Others—mostly prosperous Wall Street types—were busily engaged in one-on-one instructional sessions with world-champions-turned instructors. 

In one defining moment, he realized he was an inferior player. He was amazed at the playing ability of those fortunate enough to afford weekly private lessons.

Prior to showing up at the billiards established, he thought he had progressed and was satisfied with the skills he possessed.

Now he saw he had wasted his time, and he knew he wasn’t equipped to play competitively against the people he would have thought (in his basement, practicing alone) he would unmercifully defeat.

But that’s not all. He also discovered that many of the players were students of the game.

They shared “secrets” and newly acquired knowledge—how to make recurrent kinds of rail shots, determine the exact path of the cue ball after contacting the object ball, and use the overhead billiard lighting fixture to determine the exact aiming point.

None of these “finer points” could be found in any of the printed or visual materials purchased by our friend. 

So he secured an expensive two-hour lesson from the 12th-ranked player in the world at the time. This individual was an accomplished instructor and a marvelous diagnostician.

His verdict? Our friend’s skills were deficient—he stunk. In the process of self-instruction, our friend developed many bad habits.

He jumped up too quickly and thereby deflected his aim, which meant he missed a lot. He hadn’t acquired the habit of a full backstroke accompanied by a complete follow-through, which meant his stroke was choppy. 

The champion player and expert instructor also said: “You understand very little about the basic skill sets that must be mastered before anything else. Self-development is great, and all learning relies on self-development. But, you need the watchful eye of an instructor to make sure there’s no slippage.”

Our friend, an Ivy-leaguer, decided to engage his instructor for a series of expensive lessons. The instructor corrected, mentored, coached, demonstrated and provided take-home lessons. As predicted, slippage always occurred and more coaching was required to make the lessons taught become firmly ingrained habits. 

A Rude Awakening 

Initially, our friend was near-certain he could master the game. Why? Because he thought he had the natural attributes reflected by past academic achievements.

Granted, he had promise, that is, potential. But the key to success in pocket billiards—as in any skill-based sport—is practice.

Learning theorists have a fancy name for practice: They call it behavioral learning. Behavioral learning focuses on drill, rote, routine, repetition, and feedback. Skill building requires training.

Training requires a big dose of behavioral learning. Indeed, after much reflection, our friend realized the reason individual promise was so rarely converted into performance was the absence of practice.

According to Drucker:

Many brilliant people have never learned that everything degenerates into work… Moreover, the goal of achievement for any practice is the 'capacity' to make common people achieve uncommon performance… 

Natural attributes, as reflected by high IQs, and outstanding test scores were usually irrelevant in terms of behavioral learning 

In this regard, academics always have a tendency to label promise (which is really arrested development) for performance.

Our friend noted that a lot of the Wall Street types, obviously quite brilliant, never learned the fundamental lesson that brilliance was usually irrelevant in terms of behavioral learning development.

In other words, they didn’t practice. He also observed that “the less brilliant” achieved uncommon performance through practice.

Finally, he understood—in very practical terms—what learning experts have been claiming for decades: The achievement of sophisticated skills demands relentless practice, incessant drill, and dull routine.

They demand the individual show a high level of commitment, immense concentration, and continual practice with each ascending plateau.

Seasoned performers in any sophisticated skill realize they grow according to the levels of achievement attained once they reach a certain stage. They understand that learning really begins anew with each addition to the repertoire.

This sense of incessant achievement and reinforcement through the self-discipline of practice is perhaps the real secret of motivation. 

Lessons Learned

This story is given in such detail because it illustrates three easily forgotten learning essentials: 1) there is a difference between training and education; 2.) training requires instructor expertise and; 3.) continuous learning and knowledge sharing are integral parts of the training process. 

1. There is a difference between training and education.

Training, unlike education, requires coaching, mentoring, performance consulting, and “learn-by-doing” activities.

Simply put, the difference between education and training is like the difference between taking a music appreciation course and spending years learning how to play a musical instrument.

Many of today’s “training courses”—whether in e-learning, instructor-led, or a mixture of instructional methodologies—are not really training courses. They are lectures and reading programs. The development process will always have disastrous results if the role of behavioral learning is neglected.

Training requires drill, repetition, and constant feedback. Most good teachers lecturers are brilliant synthesizers who are capable of organizing a complex subject into a meaningful pattern. They’re also capable of engrossing their audience with dramatic wit and sparkling examples.

The lecture method is a valid technique in the hands of skilled practitioners. But the lecture method is at best only a preparation for learning—it’s not learning itself.

In too many instances the information goes from the instructor’s mouth into the employee’s notebook without going into his/her head. Similarly, reading is not the same thing as doing. 

Action learning, today’s newest term for training, rests on the old Chinese proverb: “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” Training requires doing. But doing doesn’t always mean you’re learning.

If practicing a craft with 30 years of professional experience essentially involves doing the same thing over and over, it probably means that the person has never gone beyond the behavioral dimension of learning. There is a difference between 30 years experience and one year’s experience 30 times.

Learning theorists have a fancy term for the component of learning that spurs learning to a higher level. It’s called “cognitive learning.” Cognitive learning incorporates insights into behavioral practice, thereby distinguishing the master professional from the pedestrian performer.

The key point: Many so-called training programs are really education programs.

2. Training requires mentorship expertise.

Applying the principles of pocket billiards requires the services of a live instructor.

For example, knowing where to strike the cue ball does not mean students actually strike the cue ball at the designated point. The mechanics of aiming—striking the cue ball at its exact center and dozens of other critical-to-success factors—must be mastered to successfully apply theoretical knowledge.

Our point? Getting an “A” in a web-based training program is next to meaningless if the program is not related to specific internal business processes.

Slippage almost always occurs when first learning a new subject. If the subject is important—whether it be in safety management, quality management, project management, or collecting and analyzing Web data—the learning program must constantly diagnose “fast forgetting” and reinforce what was previously taught. 

Real skill acquisition, after all is said and done, requires showing, doing, correcting, practicing, and customizing. This is best done by real on-site experts.

3. Continuous learning and knowledge sharing are integral parts of the training process.

The need for continuous learning and knowledge sharing, designed for specialists and/or individuals trained to do a given job, is rapidly becoming understood by training groups. 

Continuous learning does not replace formal training. It has different aims and satisfies different needs. The billiard parlor utilized the teaching services of many top-notch instructors.

To be sure, individual instructors did not share their teaching methods with other instructors. But students, eager to win tournaments, asked other instructors and students specific questions related to improving their own performance. 

Students of the game happily shared “best kept secrets” with others about solving specific playing problems.

Continuous exposure to the experiences, problems, and solutions of others produced remarkable gains in the performance capacity of most players/students affiliated with the billiard parlor.

In all likelihood, the management of this billiard establishment did little to create a “learning group.” But, at least, they did not discourage its emergence.

Internal training organizations would be well advised to create formal and informal online learning groups in subjects such as project planning, scheduling and control, maintenance management, integrated supply chain management, quality control, and other formal methodologies requiring continuing improvement in employee skills and knowledge.

Summary and Conclusions

Training groups must take a high view of their function, set high standards for their objectives, and accept the notion that there is a difference among training programs, education courses, and continuous learning.

Whatever deterioration there has been in the quality of employee training has resulted from the acts of senior management and internal training groups.

If senior management puts an emphasis on minimizing training cost per employee and refuses to take the purpose of the training seriously, in the final analysis, their actions ultimately will bring about a conscious downgrading of expectations.