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Training, learning, education - what's the difference?

Are you clear on the difference between "training", "education" and "learning"? Despite their similarity in casual usage, these terms are not interchangeable as they each have a slightly different meaning.

By having a shared understanding of terms like these and clarifying what is required, it makes it easier to avoid misunderstandings (and likely rework!) later. 

In this article we will look at each of these three terms—training, education, and learning—and explore them in a workplace context.

What is training?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives various definitions for the word “training,” but the most relevant is “to undergo instruction, discipline, or drilling.” The Cambridge Dictionary also has this helpful definition: "learning the skills you need to do a particular job or activity."

Training is typically focused on processes, procedures, and tasks. For example, a teenager who wants to learn how to drive a car needs to receive training in how to operate the vehicle safely, reverse it, park in different situations, do a three-point turn, understand the rules of the road, and so on.

A trainer provides instruction to someone who needs to learn a new skill, either in person or in the form of an online course. With training, the information is "pushed" to the person who needs to learn it - from the trainer to the learner.

Let's explore this term in a workplace setting. Let’s say your sales team needs to effectively demonstrate equipment that your company sells and answer common questions about those products. This is a task-specific goal that can be easily addressed with training in how to set up and operate each piece of equipment, the key functions to highlight in demos, and so on.

Similarly, if a company is rolling out a new sales order processing application, then everyone who will be using it needs to be trained in how to use the key functions of the software.

Each training event is typically one-off, although of course there may be a requirement to repeat certain training periodically to ensure the skills are kept fresh.

In a nutshell, training is "learning how to do something".

What is education?

Is there a difference between being educated and being trained?

Referring to the dictionary again, “education” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “knowledge and development resulting from the process of being educated.” The word "development" implies a gradual change that happens as you gain knowledge. So, unlike training, which is usually a one-off event, education is a process that happens over time.

There is another difference between the terms too. To help with understanding this, let me share an amusing story that has stayed with me for over 30 years. I was working with a French education consultant who was asked about the difference between these two terms. Quick as a flash he said: "Well, I'm happy for my teenagers to attend sex education classes at school, but I would definitely draw the line at sex training."

Amusement aside, his explanation highlights very clearly that education is typically broad and conceptual in nature, not focused on skills acquisition. The knowledge we acquire through education is mainly theoretical, not practical or task-specific. 

Returning to the example from the previous section of the new order processing software, most of us would agree that it probably isn't necessary to send the order processing administrators on an intensive sales education program. What they need most is specific training on how to use the new software to achieve the tasks they need to perform, such as processing new orders and product returns. 

In a nutshell, education is the process of "learning about something".

What is learning?

If training is the act or process of formally instructing someone (or being instructed) on how to perform tasks, and education is the long-term process of developing knowledge, then what is "learning"? 

Merriam-Webster defines it, somewhat unhelpfully, as "the act or experience of one who learns". The Cambridge Dictionary says it is "the activity of obtaining knowledge", and also defines it as "knowledge or a piece of information obtained by study or experience".

Learning is the desired outcome of training, and the path to becoming educated. However the best part of learning is that it also happens naturally through life experience. We can learn by working alongside someone who is more skilled than us. We can also learn by trial and error, as we find out what works and what doesn't.

So learning is more of a "pull" mechanism, where the individual is gaining, pulling, new knowledge from their own activity and effort.

In a workplace setting, true learning occurs when people don't just gain new information or skills, but also retain it, apply it, and make additional connections to other things they’ve already learned. As new knowledge is woven together with existing ideas and experiences, it forms the fabric of learning.

Regardless of how people learn, the process of learning equips them to take on more complex challenges. For instance, if we use our new order processing system example once again, a team member who’s successfully learned to use the software to process returns is a training win. But even better is when the employee has also learned how to connect their knowledge of the new software with their understanding of the latest changes to your company’s 30-day return policy and then uses their customer service skills to do what’s right. That kind of layered, dynamic thinking and problem-solving is where training, education, and learning all intersect in the workplace.

How do we know when training is successful?

Something really important to understand, is that just because some training has been completed, it does not mean that it was successful. Neither does a "happy face" on the survey form.

As we said earlier, learning is the desired outcome of training.

There is a great cartoon by Bud Blake, the creator of the Tiger comic strip, that illustrates this. The cartoon shows two small boys and a dog. In the first panel, one boy says to the other “I taught [my dog] how to whistle!” Next, the other boy replies, “I don't hear him whistling!” Then the first boy says, “I said I taught him; I didn't say he learned it”.

So the true test is whether the recipient of the training has learned the material. Can they perform the skills? Can they apply the new knowledge? How do you know? In a remote/distance learning situation, this is where online simulations can be incredibly valuable, not just because they help the employees to learn the tasks and procedures step by step, but they can also be used in a testing mode to evaluate the level of competence. (That is true of SimTutor Author, at least!)


Understanding the nuances between these three terms can be helpful for creating a shared understanding, making it easier to navigate conversations about creating new digital learning objects and events.

Training - learning how to do something

Education - learning about something

Learning - the end result of training and education (and the process of getting there).


SimTutor Author is a web-based app for creating interactive digital learning resources, including simulations. It allows you to rapidly and easily build modules for learning how to perform procedures and tasks. Simply film the process being done by an expert, then upload video clips and still images to build the simulation and add interactions. Everything is automatically tracked and a testing mode is built in. SimTutor Author can also be used for other types of eLearning such as soft skills scenarios, software training, and more. We also offer over 200 ready-to-use medical procedure simulations in our SIMTICS library. Want to know more or see the product in action? Visit our YouTube Channel or Contact us now for more information.

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