When we try to compress learning programs, results may not be drawn to scale.
I recently sat down with an executive from a Fortune 500 financial services firm to talk about how they had built their leadership development curriculum. “We created various levels of leadership within the organization,” the executive said, “such as first time leaders, and leaders of leaders. Then we planned a series of training programs for each level, identifying the big ideas that needed to be covered in each program, such as giving feedback or thinking strategically.”
Outside consultants were then brought in to work out the contents of each module. Like many organizations pressed for time today, there was pressure to shorten everything. Two days of training became one, which became a half-day, which then became a few hours. These condensed modules were then packaged together into a two-day program. “We basically pasteurized all the learning,” the executive told me, shaking his head in disbelief. They had taken all the goodness out. With so many ideas packed into a short time, there was simply too much to digest. The result? The needle wasn’t moving on what employees were saying about their bosses, which is the only honest measure of whether a leadership program is working.
This is not an isolated case. Every week I speak to clients struggling under the pressure of teaching more, in less time, with shrinking budgets. Unfortunately, there are no widely respected guidelines for how much you should teach people in a day, or how to be sure ideas will stick. Many corporate training programs are the mental equivalent of trying to eat a week of meals in a day.
The pressure on learning isn’t going away any time soon, and allocating more time to training programs is rarely realistic. Instead, I think we need to better understand the processes involved in digesting learning, so that we can experiment and find faster "transmission speeds" for learning—the training program equivalent of going from the 56k modem to high-speed cable.
Fresh thinking about how we learn
There are two kinds of learning. Learning physical tasks, like how to snowboard without bruising your buttocks or ego, is embedded through repetition in the deeper motor regions of the brain such as the basal ganglia. This is known as procedural memory. Given that work today is more mental than physical, workplace learning now involves ideas that need to be mentally recalled, known as declarative memory.
For workplace learning to be useful, we need to be able to recall ideas easily. There’s no point learning a great new model for running a meeting if you can’t remember the model easily on meeting with your team. In order to recall information easily, we need to build a complex web of links across many parts of the brain. Picture a spider web, with the silk linking huge numbers of neurons right across the brain. The more robust the web, in other words, the more nodes and links within an idea, the easier a memory can be recalled, because there are more ways in---more entry points to the web.
In the last decade, Neuroscientists discovered that whether an idea can be easily recalled is linked to the strength of activation of the hippocampus during a learning task. The stronger the hippocampus fired up while learning something (which means the more oxygen and glucose it was using), the better people recalled that information later.
With this finding, scientists such as Lila Davachi at NYU and others have been able to test out many variables involved in learning experiences, such as what happens to the hippocampus if you distract people while absorbing information. There are many different intriguing findings emerging, and I decided to see if these could be chunked into a framework that could be recalled easily (chunking ideas is a useful tool for effective recall). Over a few months of collaboration, Lila Davachi and I, along with Tobias Keifer, a consultant from Booz & Co., found a useful pattern that summarized the four biggest factors that determined the quality of recall. These are Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing, or the ‘AGES’ model. The AGES model was first presented at the 2010 NeuroLeadership Summit, and then published in the 2010 NeuroLeadership Journal. Below is a summary of the key ideas in that paper.
Learning that lasts through AGES
Attention is about how much people are focused in the moment on a particular learning task. This is no small matter in an era with ever shrinking attention spans. You get dramatic drop off in memory simply by diverting people’s attention with a secondary media, like another screen on while focusing on a memory task. We need people’s full attention during learning – yet that is getting much harder with the prevalence of always-on devices. Even webinars have their flaws – people can be easily distracted from the core idea by all the bells and whistles of the technology. To speed up learning we need to focus more on, well, focus. The research is clear that even tiny distractions during a learning task take a big toll on later recall of ideas. Yet we seem to be going in the other direction, giving people so many things to focus on all at once in learning environments, to try to make learning as ‘rich’ as being online. Rich, deep focus is a critical factor for learning, and anything that gets in the way of this focus needs to be removed if you want people to recall ideas later.
Generation means that people need to be making their own meaning, literally generating their own links, not just passively listening to ideas. We need our own brain to create rich webs of links to any new concept, linking ideas into many parts of the brain. Using many different types of neural circuitry to link to an idea is the key, meaning we should be listening, speaking, thinking, writing, speaking, and other tasks about any important idea. This takes time and effort and can’t be rushed. A quiet mind, not a rushed one, sees subtle links, as many studies show. And we often generate ideas in dialogue with others, not just alone. These conversations take time, time that is being stripped out of classrooms.
Good levels of Emotions are also necessary for embedding learning. The stronger the emotions people feel while learning, the better they can recall information later. Strong emotions can be either positive or negative emotions. Negative emotions like learning anxiety are easier to activate in people, because of the brain’s basic physiology where bad is stronger than good. Yet overly strong emotions can shut down learning altogether. Building positive emotions requires time and space, and usually involves human interactions, as social rewards tend to be the strongest. In some classrooms there is no time for emotion, there is just too much material to get through.
Spacing is the surprising finding. We tend to predict that learning in a block will be better for recall. This turns out to be true, but only if you need to remember something for a short time, such as for an exam the next day. (This is technically known as the ‘massing’ effect.) Long term recall is far better when we learn information over several sittings. Any amount of spacing appears to help a lot. Counter-intuitively, the longer we need to remember information, the more the learning should be spaced out. Clearly we’re not taking advantage of spacing in the current design of most training programs.
The AGES model is a template for designing more effective learning experiences. Firstly, we need people to focus intensely to learn, with no distractions at all. Realistically, this probably works better in small bites given how busy we all are. How can anyone focus intensely for days on end with so many emails are piling up? Secondly, people need to make their own connections to ideas, which happens more easily in unrushed conversations or activities. Third, we need emotions present for learning, though preferably a good balance of positive and negative emotions. And finally, we should be spacing out learning, giving people the chance to reactivate ideas regularly over time.
While these four variables sound challenging, they actually open up interesting possibilities for significant efficiency increases, and dramatic cost savings too. One project I was involved with taught 3,000 leaders over 64 countries how to be better workplace coaches. The training program was delivered in six one-hour bites in small groups over 6 weeks, with no one traveling. It was executed by the old fashioned telephone (on phone bridges). The training program, despite being telephone based, focused people’s attention through specific telephone techniques, modeling a high-energy radio show, but with everyone participating. It had people generate their own connections through specific exercises between calls. It had high emotion as a result of calling on people to participate throughout the sessions, and had significant spacing of ideas, with what would have been a two-day training program spread over 6 weeks. Virtually everyone before the program predicted this approach wouldn’t work for them. Afterward, 92% of 150 participants randomly surveyed said the experience was very effective or effective for them. Real learning occurred, at dramatically lower cost for this organization. It turns out that many of our intuitive hunches about the brain and learning are wrong.
It has never been more urgent that we improve the effectiveness of teams and management, yet much of our approach to embedding learning hasn’t been updated for decades. This new research about the real conditions necessary for long term memories provides a framework for both tweaking existing programs and designing whole new approaches from scratch. The training industry is around a $100bn field, with enormous resources devoted to trying to educate and re-educate employees the world over. With a new understanding of the active ingredients in learning, of the ‘goodness’ inside, perhaps we can all spend less time in pasteurized classrooms (which means less time away from our families), and learn much more while we are there.