The Milkmaid's Stool: a Learning Metaphor?

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I was sitting in to a meeting at a university that I work with when one speaker suggested that the single, crucial need for good learning was the content. This got me thinking and I realised that providing good learning is like providing a milking stool to a milkmaid.

Why do I say this? The milkmaid’s stool is used on the bumpy floor of the milking parlour where a four-legged chair would rock (to the probable detriment of the milking, maid and cow). But a three-legged stool is stable on this surface.

I feel that today’s business and adult learning world is “bumpy” and there need to be three “legs” to ensure the provision of effective, efficient and consistent learning.

This page explores the "learning stool" and its purpose is to stimulate discussion.

“Bumpy” Environment

Today’s world is complex and ever changing – causing a bumpy ride for businesses and learning – technology is providing challenges and opportunities – the economic situation is providing problems and challenges, globalisation is providing challenges, problems and opportunities, etc. etc.

The stool showing the "legs" that ensure and support learning

The Three Legs

Unquestionably content is a key aspect but so are process and rapport and together these form the three legs of the learning stool.

Learning Content

Content needs to be of high quality and appropriate. Quality is multidimensional and includes correctness, currency and clarity. Appropriateness is also multi-dimensional including complexity, detail and relevance. This is illustrated by this article that hopefully will get you reflecting on what must be considered when designing a learning activity. And, having just wasted a day on a training course, I would add focused.


How the learning is delivered is a vital second leg and involves both the choice of method, the learning journey and the management of the learning. Today there are multiple methods – e-learning, informal, experiential, interactive, even the archaic lecture, etc. Methods that differ in terms of appropriateness, effectiveness and efficiency. Besides methodology there is the learning journey – how the learning experience evolves during a learning activity – evolution in terms of what is learned, the level of engagement & challenge and cognitive workload - a journey that needs to be planned and managed. Here, besides your reflecting, I hope that you will extend the journey by commenting on this article.


Rapport is the final leg and is concerned with the people (behavioural) aspects of learning. It involves building trust between the learners and the trainer, ensuring that the learners are engaged and challenged and the recognition of the learners’ needs, roles and contributions. My reflections here are based on more than 40 years designing and providing “learning”. But, having said that, I am still learning (a lot) and hope that you can help me refine my and others’ thoughts on learning design.

The Seat of Learning

OK, OK, OK this is a terrible pun but allows me to emphasise that although the legs are separate they need to be tied together into a whole. For example, a self-directed online course may be very appropriate to build basic, factual knowledge, but inappropriate to develop strategic leadership skills. Likewise a interactive, experiential, classroom activity will be appropriate where there is the need to analyse, synthesise and evaluate a business problem where there is no right answer. A situation where it would be inappropriate for the “professor” to lecture experienced business people about what they should do! (In that sense I hate the knowledge transfer idea promulgated by many univesities - it suggests that they know the solution when, probably, they do not even know the problem - knowlege exchange is right (provided that it is not just a politically correct way of saying knowledge transfer) I find it interesting that a Google search on "university business knowledge partnerships" had knowledge transfer on the first three pages with the first mention of knowledge exchange at the bottom of the third page!

Jeremy J. S. B. Hall
July 2012

© 2012 Jeremy J. S. B. Hall

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