Are our attentions spans declining? To learn new things, do we need to practice for 1000s of hours, or can we just learn in bite sized pieces? Are our attention spans declining or reducing with social media and the connected world? Can we really learn all we need in just a fw short minutes, or are we tied to investing time and resources to developing people?
Lets start with a popular set of beliefs which have become popular in recent years.
The 10,000 hour rule – of practice to create experts
According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers all it takes is 10,000 hours of practice to become among the best in the world. Gladwell popularised “the 10,000-hour rule” to the world of self-development, personal development and the corporate training environment. It became popular as it is the name of one of the chapters in the book.
In this piece by the BBC: – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26384712
The 10,000-hours concept can be traced back to a 1993 paper written by Anders Ericsson, a Professor at the University of Colorado, called The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.
It highlighted the work of a group of psychologists in Berlin, who had studied the practice habits of violin students in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
All had begun playing at roughly five years of age with similar practice times. However, at age eight, practice times began to diverge. By age 20, the elite performers had averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less able performers had only done 4,000 hours of practice.
The reality is of course that in modern society (with declining attention spans of our population) if this were true, then we would be losing our ability to compete and operate
The 10,000 hours rule debunked
Scientists Debunk The Myth That 10,000 Hours Of Practice Makes You An Expert – http://www.fastcodesign.com/3027564/asides/scientists-debunk-the-myth-that-10000-hours-of-practice-makes-you-an-expert. In this piece it points to other research which clearly shows that there are other factors in the mix. Talent for example.
It is often argued by supporters that the stated “10,000 hours” is a short hand way of saying lots of practice is required. – http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20121114-gladwells-10000-hour-rule-myth
Practice makes permanent – so make practice right
The usual version of this saying is that “practice makes perfect”. This makes lots of assumptions. The biggest being that what you are practicing is accurate and correct. We can all practice golf, darts or netball. But without good technique and appropriate feedback all we end up doing is learning A way to do something. Practice does not automatically create perfection in time.
Declining attention spans
There has been a lot of research which seems to indicate that our attention span is declining. http://www.statisticbrain.com/attention-span-statistics/
Who suggest that:
- The average attention span in 2015 = 8.25 seconds
- The average attention span in 2000 = 12 seconds
Now that may not appear to be relevant, especially when the typical advert on TV is 30 seconds and a movie is 90 minutes. But a reduction of 30% in just 15 years is a worry!
In addition there is research out of Microsoft which also back this up
– http://advertising.microsoft.com/en/cl/31966/how-does-digital-affect-canadian-attention-spans – there is a great report worth downloading too.
Declining attention spans cause accidents
In this piece published in the Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/3522781/Stress-of-modern-life-cuts-attention-spans-to-five-minutes.html Research undertaken by the insurance industry shows that declining attention spans is causing more home (and probably work) based accidents. This appears to be when people multitask. Almost forgetting what they have started, as they are distracted by the subsequent tasks and activities. Interestingly this is less so in the over 50’s.
How does this help people in business?
Much like many other activities in business we need our people to learn new skills and knowledge. We need to train people with new skills and abilities. With so much change happening both in our businesses and the environments in which we operate, it is important that we train and develop our people. This is increasingly a challenge for all involved in people development.
For training to be effective we need to understand what is the environment or the context in which training needs to happen:
– We know that repetition and practice is important.
– We know people are busy and find it hard to take large amounts of time out of the “day job”
– We know that people have declining attention spans – reduced (changed?) focus
– We know that we don’t have 10,000 hours to train people!
Practical steps to ensure our workforce do learn new things
This is not to suggest that people don’t want to learn – they do. What we need to recognise is that times are changing, but the human brain and its evolution has not.
We do not have the luxury of 10000 hours (even if this “rule” were true). Nor do we have the luxury of 2 week residential training course of the 1980s. Come to think of it for many training courses now we do not seem to have a full day either. People expect quick, just in time injections of learning.
These quick injections, bite size pieces or learning nibbles have their place. But only in the right context. It is not a case of producing a “tool box talk” and forgetting about it.
When reducing the “training time” on any topic it is important to:
1) Reduce the time only as short as you have to … to cover the material safely
2) Ensure people know what they are there, and what is expected
3) That recaps are included in the learning or training intervention
4) That manager can coach and check understanding “on the job”
5) That there are regular reminders and follow ups.
Human are simple beings. It is rare for us to “get” something and fully learn it in one go. Repetition is critical. In days gone by, repetition happened on the training course. This is often why courses were so long. Instructors and trainers found new, varied and engaging ways or repeating steps and knowledge.
With the reduction of training to short elearning or toolbox style sessions something had to go. What went was repetition and checking of understanding. We need to find new ways of doing this.
52 bite sized reminders
One approach I advocate is short burst reminders. 10-15 minute “top up” style talks. At least once a week injections or reminders of key points. Often in different parts of the job or processes. There is little point for example in training people in DSE (Display screen equipment) or manual handling at induction and never doing it again. We need to remind people. We need to keep this knowledge on peoples radar.
Where each of the 52 talks, one a week, is a focused reminder of safety or key job based information.
Recency and ethics and the impact of declining attention spans
Research shows that recency of knowledge; especially around process or safety related content is critical in the reductions of incidents and variances away from process or policy.
We have all seen in the recent case of VW (http://www.open.edu/openlearn/money-management/management/business-studies/the-bottom-line-expert-opinion-the-volkswagen-scandal ) and how ethics have undermined brand value. What if ethics and transparency had been one of the 52 topics?
Repitition seems to have been a skill that many in Learning and Development have neglected in recent years. Seduced by the lure of “accelerated learning”, Neuroscience, and other “new fads”, we often forget the basics
Tell them what you are going to tell them
Tell them what you told them
Just because of declining attention spans does not mean we need to train people badly. We need to focus on what works and what people need to handle the changes around them.