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How We Learn


Wed Jul 03 2013

How We Learn
How We Learn-e8b75b14711f5fd56f0f14a35a91f37d29851fe572b3209df7fddc051da69f2b

A few months ago, I set out to describe the ways in which people learn. It seemed to me that someone must have tried to do this before—but my Google search didn't turn anything up. To be sure, there are plenty of conventions around learning. There are plenty of theories.

But as for a simple field guide that detailed the kinds of learning that you might see happening around you, that didn't exist. And I wondered if this was a problem; that because we believe certain things about learning, we had ceased to notice what is right in front of us.


Learning contexts—or not

So far I have identified two dozen contexts in which learning occurs, and tried to arrange them along a “push-pull” spectrum. The first thing I noticed is that formal educational contexts, such as traditional schooling or modern CBT bear very little relation to the contexts in which we learn naturally. This is so striking that I am tempted to say that these are not learning contexts.

Evidential support for this view comes from Eric Mazur at MIT, who observed that the brains of students are less active during class than during sleep. The brains of the students are much more active when they are preparing for a test. And this makes sense: a test is a kind of challenge in which there are consequences for success or failure. Students learn not because they attend class, but because they anticipate the test. So a test is something that calls for learning—albeit an artificial context.

Other contexts reveal more about the underlying mechanisms of learning, such as status dense contexts. I shook hands with General Colin Powell once. I remember it vividly. He didn't say anything to me, but if he had, I'm pretty sure it would have stuck. What I do remember are the words of advice given me by my manager at BP as I nervously attempted to make a good first impression at our first meeting. And I recall quite a few of the painfully embarrassing things I have witnessed at senior team meetings. I am sure I haven't listed all the ways in which people learn, and if you can think of more I would be very grateful for your help with the Learning Field Guide.

Overall, our learning is a product of the significance attached to things by the irrational part of our mind. This is what Daniel Kahnemann calls “system 1.” Quite often we wish we could learn things but can't (passwords spring to mind), and sometimes there are things we wished we could forget. By and large our learning happens “without us” in ways and for reasons we only dimly grasp. I have called this way of thinking about learning the “Affective Context Model.”


But while the underlying mechanism of learning may be largely beyond our control, the contexts in which it takes place are not. Indeed, we can engineer these contexts quite easily, combining different approaches to achieve maximum effect.

Blending—new vs. old

This is sometimes called “blending.” But I've noticed two distinct senses of the word. The new sense is a combination of various learning contexts as described above. The old sense is combining online and classroom delivery mechanisms in a single program. In this model, online learning is often used to deliver pre-work (and sometimes post-work) in support of classroom-style events. Typically, the rationale is to improve the efficiency of the learning program by delivering some of the information in advance of the live session (because everyone knows it's boring to sit through PowerPoint slides).

Like many things in learning, this takes some disentangling—we are just modifying a dysfunctional convention. At worst, people skip the pre-work and the instructor feels under more pressure (pressure that is largely illusory because little learning actually occurs anyway).

Anticipatory challenges—when learning really takes place


There is a way in which something like this can work. You may be familiar with the term “flipped classroom.” Flipped classrooms are a kind of what I have called “anticipatory challenges,” and so they have quite a lot in common with old-fashioned tests. People learn not just from challenges, but in anticipation of the challenges they expect (like a test). So a flipped classroom is simply a way of saying, “We're going to create a challenge for which you need to prepare.” A good example might be a discussion about a book; don't read the book and you're going to look pretty stupid.

This brings me to my point: learning takes place as a response to challenges. As learning professionals, sometimes we present people with challenges (like with project-based learning), other times we are responding to challenges (such as “10 top tips to help you avoid looking dumb in your first six weeks of your new job”). The latter is more natural; if you're going to start creating challenges for people it begs the question whether your time wouldn't be better spent addressing the ones they already have.

So much of our work as an online team is now spent understanding the challenges our people face (for example, as new leaders) and helping them tackle these better. There probably is some value in online pre-work for classroom events, but this is very much a sideshow; the Internet is not life's pre-work.

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