How we learn – and making it work for us
With regards to learning are we evolving or regressing
Some years ago I was asked to speak at an international conference on elearning. What I was talking about is not relevant, but what I learnt from the keynote speaker has changed my approach to training and learning and development.
The speaker concerned was Professor Heinz Wolf from Brunel University (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinz_Wolff) . What follows is not ‘word for word’ but roughly what he said and how he said it. Professor Wolf essentially invented the science of ‘Bio engineering’, and specialised in designing tools for people with disabilities to live normal lives.
“I am not sure why I have been invited here to speak. I am an engineer. I am not a psychologist. I am not an expert in learning. What I will share with you is my experiences of how people learn and adapt to the tools I provide them with [prosthetics and the like].
But before I talk about that I think it’s important for us realise that while we are living in the 21st century. The problem is that we as a human being have hardly evolved in the last 40,000 years. So in effect we are cave men using highly complex technology.
One of the only real differences between us [humans] and other species is not our brain, but our ‘poseable thumb’. Our ability to get physical, to manipulate. We do not learn by thinking alone, but by physical interactions with the world around us. We build associations.
Forget all the complex psychology of learning styles, and learning theory. Humans have 2 fundamental ways of learning:
- Trial & Error
In life (and work), many of us do not have the luxury to learn by ‘trial and error’. It can take many 100s of hours to gain the most basic of skills. The most effective way we can learn is by copying.
Learning via computer
He went on to say that when interfacing with a computer, in essence we use a keyboard and a mouse. No matter how interesting the content on screen, the way we can progress required a fixed, predictable and irrelevant movement of keystroke or mouse. For no matter what you are doing on a screen a left or right arrow on a keyboard, or a click of a mouse is just that. A click. It is disassociated with the content on the screen. There is no physicality associated with the knowledge to the real world for us. Knowledge has been gained, but no learning…yet. “
So what does this mean?
Hearing this made massive sense to me. As a long term IT user (I built my first computer at school in 1979!), I love my tech, but have found that I also learn best when “I do things with the knowledge”. That is I learn most from application. Applying learning is not the result – its part of the learning process. It is also about repetition – we rarely learn from doing something once!
Some years before I heard this from Professor Wolf I learnt that as people we have an infinite learning capacity, and that it is our parents, early social experiences and school that set what we are good at and not so good at. I gained this as part of my learning of ‘Accelerated learning‘ techniques.
What do I mean – well imaging this situation
You are in class, you are learning maths. For whatever reason you were distracted and did not hear the who instruction. You are expected to do some maths. You do not know how so you try to look at what the people around you are doing. The teacher shouts out “Stop copying!” – so you are left with ‘trial and error’. You get a lot wrong. Lots of red crosses on your work. This happens again, and again. Its not a STRENGTH of yours and you keep missing details. You get sums wrong. Over time this “red marking” and low scores starts to teach you that you are no good at maths. Or that “you don’t do maths”! It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The reality is very different. Every adult human in the western world has learn to cross the road. When there is busy traffic, this requires for brain to calculate the distance from the pavement to the opposite pavement. How many steps, and what speed. You then look one way. Seen the oncoming traffic. Calculate the time, speed and distance until there is a suitable gap. You then add that calculation to the same you make when you look the other way. You calculate that you can cross between the second car on this side and the third car on the other side. You cross the road safely. This requires complex and significant maths capability… but of course you don’t do maths!
Its not that you cannot do maths – but at some time the ONLY real learning tool was take away from you. The RIGHT to copy to learn.
It’s not just maths!
This is also true for art, and a whole bunch of other things. And proven by those that learn to draw in later life using their non-dominant hand! Generally speaking, if one human can do something, given the motivation and support ANY other human can do the same too. The proof is out there. Many people that are in the Paralympics never did sports before life changing injuries. It is rarely about capability but opportunity, focus and effort.
Back to eLearning
So with me saying this, does it mean that things like eLearning are a waste of time? No but…
If a person is expected to click through some online content. Answer a test that has a high pass mark. All when working without the ability to “copy” then whilst some knowledge will be gained. The real ‘learning’ is how to pass an online teat – NOT learn the actual content.
Things that could be done to make elearning more effective:
- Make the pass mark low – 50% – we want people to LEARN not pass tests!
- Let people copy from each other. Collaborate. Let people do the elearning together. Social sharing increases learning, and starts to bring the content off the screen and into the physical world
Things like the Honey & Mumford learning styles tools have their place. None of us are just one ‘type’, the theory says that we need to do ALL 4 activities (Activist, pragmatist, theorist & reflection) in order to learn effectively – that is still true. So the tool can help us understand our weakness. But ultimately is how we COPY and relate learning to the physical world around us that makes the difference!
So however you learn. Whatever it is you are trying to learn – do it with others. Make sure that you can relate each step to the physical world. Keep learning. We are never too old to learn new things. Indeed current research in dementia shows that people that keep learning new things tend to have later onset, than those that do not learn new things regularly!