Learning is complicated

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I’d like to say that we as humans are better than these titles, but sadly we’re not. People want easy, bite sized information that they can take and consume with little effort, and then use to make their life better. Well that’s the ideal, it doesn’t always make your life better.

Or does it?

Religious figures of the past had this all figured out. In Christianity, the ten commandments are taught. In Sikhi, we’re taught to wear the five Kakhars. Organisations have this figured out with their values – we have to have a series of one word descriptors that fit our organisational culture. Airlines have this figured out with their emergency procedure pamphlet they provide – it’s all numbered and easy to follow with diagrams. Life is full of weird and wonderful ways of structuring information so that people don’t have to think. They just have to follow a set of instructions and have faith in the system to do the rest.

As L&D professionals this leaves us with an interesting dilemma. What do the people attending our sessions actually want? Do they want to come and learn the five easy steps to being assertive, or do they want a robust discussion which gives them the self-awareness of how to act differently in future situations, or do they want a combination of both?

In early memory experiments, it was found that humans organise information in different ways. Short term memory can hold up to seven pieces of information plus or minus two. So depending on what the subject is, people will retain a varying level of information they are presented with. There is also the well known primacy-recency effect. That is, information presented at the beginning and at the end of a message is what is recalled best. We are also very good at ‘chunking’ information together – this is why telephone numbers are generally remembered in batches of three as opposed to ten distinct numbers.

For long term memory though, we have to embed the knowledge we have in order for it to stick and help us make meaning of the world around us. And as L&Ders this is our constant battle. People at work are time poor, attention span poor, and do not have the proper resources to build on and increase their knowledge. They are fully expected to attend a learning session, be given the exact information they require, and then come back and use it gainfully.

What happens in the above examples, is that those easy to remember things are reinforced regularly and in different ways. We tell stories, we carry out plays, we sing songs, we create employee handbooks, we play videos, we even play games.

That disconnect between how people learn, and how the message is reinforced just isn’t compatible with organisational life. There are a good many L&Der who are trying their damndest to make sure when a person attends their L&D session there are further supportive sessions to embed the learning. The truth is though, we need it regularly reinforced and in different ways. At the same time it needs to be in line with the way an organisation communicates messages.

The likes of YouTube, Wikipedia, and ehow.com, might make accessing information easy, but it doesn’t mean the learning is any quicker. It’s just more readily accessible than it ever was before.

So I’m stuck on this one. I hate that we have to provide people with the “4 best ways to become a better runner”, yet am burdened with the fact that people really want to read the same.

On Friday 17th August I’m running an event called Positive Psychology in Application. It’s going to cover a range of topics to do with Positive Psychology. Book now to attend and learn more.


Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

One thought on “Learning is complicated”

  1. Good challenge. Thinking about the Ten Commandments and airline emergency pamphlets could be a good place to start… by and large we either don’t bother to remember them or even ignore them…

    I can’t accurately give you the Ten Commandments without looking them up. As with most people on the planet I’ve not stuck doggedly to all 10… I like to steal my kids sweets – they taste better that way!

    Also, in my experience, airline emergency pamphlets (& safety briefings) are the things most airline passengers ignore either because (they think) they already know what they need to or they are more interested in the airline magazine or their fellow passengers.

    Strictly speaking, in both examples if they just followed the set of instructions and had faith in the system everything would be “OK”. But even though it’s logical dogma isn’t enough…

    Perhaps the key isn’t to think of learning as complicated i.e. something that’s hard to get “right” – whatever that means. Perhaps it’s more useful to look at learning as complex – something that is multi-faceted and wonderful in it’s complexity.

    Dogma (ie “the 5 best ways to manage your budget”) might be a part of the way we learn but it’s just that. What are the other (perhaps complex) facets we need to service even when the learner says they only want dogma?

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