The Not-So-Straight Poop

What is the median age when children are potty trained? Pick the choice that is closest to the actual figure. Go ahead and pick an answer before you read further—just for the heck of it.

  1. 1 year old
  2. 2 years old
  3. 3 years old


Most Americans are likely to choose the second and third choices because most American children are potty trained starting when they are around two years of age.


What’s interesting is that at least 50% of the world’s babies are potty trained by the time they are 1 year old. This piece of data comes from a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times, October 9, 2005 (citing Contemporary Pediatrics magazine).


And the practice isn’t just relegated to a few cultures. Parents in more than 75 countries use these super-fast potty-training practices.


While I generally keep to adult-learning topics in this newsletter, I decided to include this topic for several reasons.


  1. If the NY Times runs it on the front page, it must be fit to print (wink-wink).
  2. The topic held the promise of being an attention-grabber.
  3. The topic reveals lessons for our training-and-development practices.

One obvious learning point is that cultural and individual differences exist in learning. The potty-training example is just an illustration of how surprised we can become if we assume everyone does training like we do it. We cannot assume everything generalizes!

A second point is that while performance outcomes may not differ, different training methods may have different side effects. Most kids are going to be potty trained by the time they are five, but just imagine how much solid waste could be reduced if kids used less than a year of diapers versus three years of diapers. Different training methods produce many different types of side effects: cost differential, organizational morale, individual sense of efficacy, self-esteem, work-family balance, and even pollution! Do you know your training’s side effects?


Let’s not forget that training affects learner attention, even after the training is over. If we train learners on grammar skills, later when they’re in a meeting, they’re more likely to utilize some of their limited working-memory capacity thinking about grammar than if we’d given them no training on grammar. This can be a beneficial or disruptive side effect.


A third point we might glean from the potty example is that learner readiness affects the training investment needed. As the New York Times article pointed out, the parents who use the super-fast training methods must be in constant vigilance, looking for the faintest signs that their child is going to pee or poop. Some of the parents who use these methods swear by them, describing how it helps them feel closer to their children, but they all talk about what an incredible effort it takes to use the methods. As child-guru T. Berry Brazelton was quoted as saying, “I’m all for it, except I don’t think many people can do it.” It’s just going to be too difficult for most parents—especially the typical parent who has multiple responsibilities.


Similar analogs can be found in workplace learning. Learner readiness can play out in many ways. More training may be required for those who aren’t ready, more prerequisite learning opportunities, more effort, and more hand-holding. Lack of readiness may even trigger a reversal in the training calculus—perhaps some topics for some people in some situations are just too costly to train. Alternative interventions may be required or a decision to withhold training may also be appropriate. Do you know how ready your learners are?


The learner-readiness notion is also relevant to public policy. For example, investments in our public schools affect the investments businesses need to make in learning.





  1. We cannot assume that we understand our learners.
  2. Learning designs have different side effects.
  3. Workplace attention is a side effect of training.
  4. The less ready learners are, the more investment needed.
  5. Learner readiness is affected by your elected officials.


Questions to Think About


  1. What are the side effects of your learning interventions?
  2. What level of readiness do your learners have?