Learning about learning

4 11 2009

We tend to think of learning as just something we do: a general skill that we can apply to anything, and that lets us generalise things we learn in one context to another context. Let’s take an example; if you learn, say, how to conduct a successful coaching session in a training room environment, it should be easy to transfer that skill to the real-life environments you will be faced with. This assumption, in fact, basically underlays every training and development programme in existence.

You can probably see where this is going; like so many assumptions about the brain, we’ve discovered on investigation that it’s a little more complicated than that. Memory turns out to be a very context-dependent process; it’s much easier to remember what you’ve learned when you’re in the same environment as when you learned it, hearing the same sounds, looking at the same people, because when that information got encoded into your brain, it was encoded along with all the other data passing through at the time. If you’ve ever had a memory rush back vividly when you heard part of a song, or caught a whiff of a scent, you’ve experienced this phenomenon.

The classic study on how learning is affected by context was done by Godden and Baddeley in 1975; rather brilliantly, they persuaded scuba divers to memorise lists of words both on land, and some metres underwater. Godden and Baddeley found that the divers remembered the words much better in the same context they’d learnt them, either underwater or on land, because that evironment provided the “cues” they needed to effectively remember. We see the same phenomenon in babies; by tying a ribbon round a baby’s ankle and attaching it to a mobile above his cot, he will learn relatively quickly that by kicking his leg, he can make his mobile jiggle. But if one small thing about the scene is changed – the colour of the mobile, the wallpaper in the room – he has to learn the process all over again. We are brilliant at learning specific things, but what we learn IS specific – we learn it in a context, and a particular way, and it’s not always easy to take it somewhere else.

Think about it. Do you train your staff in a conference room or training suite, somewhere they never need to use the skills you’re trying to teach them? Are they getting to practice what they need to in the environment in which they’ll actually need to use it, or are you assuming that they will be able to generalise from their training environment into the environment they actually need to work in?

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