Why We Must Get It Wrong To Get It Right and 4 Other Fascinating Facts About Learning

Why is it that you can sit in a training session for half a day, really enjoy it and think it’s the best learning opportunity you’ve had all year, and then a week later you’ve forgotten almost all of what you had learned. You’re back to old habits (because it’s easier), and your memory just ain’t what it used to be when you were learning new things in school.

I love this saying, from my dad:

“Everyday’s a school day — and if you didn’t learn something, you weren’t listening!”

It’s mostly true. Everyday life brings us learning opportunities. But the listening part… well, it’s more complicated than that.

Now that we’re all grown ups, you’d be forgiven for thinking that your studying days are done. Not so much. Especially in today’s disruptive-innovation environment, where training and continuous professional development is (thankfully) becoming the norm in the workplace, we are being put forward for training courses to help us perform better at our jobs more frequently.

However, while the content of what you’re meant to be learning is of merit, it just doesn’t stick. It’s a real problem for us as individuals, because ultimately it means that we’re stunting ourselves from growing our knowledge and becoming more productive and effective at work. As an L&D Manager, you’re at a loss as to how to get your colleagues to learn new stuff. As a Team Manager, you realise it was a waste.

Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code

I’ve been researching this for a while — how can we improve how people learn? — and stumbled across Daniel Coyle’s brilliant book, The Talent Code. Here are some of the main points he discusses about how we learn, and how we can get the most out of training.

1. It’s More Microbiological Than Mental

Learning is a skill. And that skill is learned. Which sounds strange, but stick with me. To be able to effectively learn a new skill (or skill-up in learning), your brain has to be able to grow myelin. Myelin is an insulation material that coats parts of your nervous system, enabling signals to pass along your nervous system quickly. You may (or may not, let’s face it) remember this from high-school biology.

When you were born, you produced myelin quickly, which facilitated your rapid development and learning — figuring out the world, forming language, beginnings of your memory, learning to walk and back chat to your mother.

Trick is, your myelin production starts to slow down as we go through adolescence, so it’s technically more difficult to learn at the same rapid pace, unless you practice and train. So those brain-training games on your phone (or crossword puzzles as they were once known) are actually good for you.

Similarly, embarking on regular training will help you to train your brain in learning. Treat every day like a school day.

Remember playing Ring Stack? Practice, practice…

2. Learning Takes Deep Practice

Figuring things out for yourself as a kid was fun, and educational. You learned the shortcuts in your neighbourhood by getting lost and having to find your way back again. When you struggled with a math problem, getting it wrong probably helped you figure out the right way to do it. Same with learning how to use any new piece of technology. It was those mistakes that helped you to learn.

This is known as deep practice, which requires hard work, mental struggle and extreme attention to detail. As Coyle says, “[s]truggle is not optional — it’s neurologically required: in order to get your skill circuit to fire optimally, you must by definition fire the circuit sub-optimally; you must make mistakes and pay attention to those mistakes; you must slowly teach your circuit. You must also keep firing that circuit — i.e., practicing — in order to keep myelin functioning properly.”

If you’ve ever played the mobile game Monument Valley, you will know this all too well. You were only able to find your way through the game by making mistakes and working it out. If you ever re-played the whole game, you probably got through it in 10% of the time it took you the first time (way quicker than you thought imaginable — a 9x productivity increase!). Your memory isn’t the only thing at work, you have properly learned how to get through the game.

If you’re learning a new skill, or taking on a training programme, in order for you to successfully learn the material, you must practice it. It’s not good enough to sit in a classroom and take it in. You must make mistakes in your implementation and receive feedback in order for you to get it right. In a work environment, it is important to have the opportunity to practice. Maybe that’s having a manager or team leader who sets up dedicated practice sessions, maybe it’s finding opportunities in your everyday tasks to put your new skills into practice.

Whatever way you do it, practice makes proficient.

3. Light Your Fire

It’s not good enough to just attend the training session for you to learn something. You have to want to be there. Why would you want to do anything? Because you’ve seen the outcome and it’s desirable; you feel that you want to be able to do that someday; you feel inspired to get to that point.

Dynasty careers are hardly anything new. If your parents were lawyers and doctors, you’ll probably become a lawyer or doctor.

The point is, something ignited your desire to learn to become what you are now. If their parent wasn’t a lawyer, millions of other lawyers cite Atticus Finch as the reason why they love the law. Mark Zuckerberg’s success with Facebook has inspired hundreds of thousands of young people to study computer science in the hope of creating the next big social network. Why does every season of The Great British Bake Off or Masterchef get better each year? Because this year’s contestants were inspired by previous years’ contestants and want to top the bar.

Ignition matters. Seeing the expected outcome before you take part. Getting the inspiration to perform well, because it relates to your own personal goal. Igniting your passion.

So next time you’re trying to convince your team members or colleagues to get as much as they can from the training session, show them the outcome first. That outcome should be relatable to their personal goals. “Hey, by learning how to operate this new CRM system, you’ll be able to convert your customers quicker because you have the right information and tools to communicate with them. That means you’re closing deals faster, which means you’re more productive at your job. You could leave the office earlier, beat the traffic and be home spending more time with your family. Win!”

Practice makes proficient, but passion makes perfect.

4. Think Long-Term

Those who practice playing a musical instrument with ambitions for becoming a musician will out-perform those who learn for the sake of it.

To really be successful at gaining a new skill, you have to be in it for the long haul. Think about learning to play the guitar. Do you want to learn because it’d be great to be that guy who can play the guitar at a party? Or do you want to learn because you want to be a musician? Believe it or not, those that think long-term about their skill, even if they practice less, become much better than their peers who think short-term and practice for a longer period.

So when you’re relating training to your team members, or to yourself, don’t think “this is just to get through this job, when I’ll move on in 2 years”. Think “this is for my career”. Your career is long term, and you will ultimately be more successful in learning your skill and changing your old ways of doing things.

5. Slow and Steady Wins The Race!

The idea of “chunking” tasks in learning has been practiced for generations through the education system. This is where an overall curriculum or task has been broken down into its composite parts, where each chunk is learned in a session. Overload of information is never helpful, and you stand more risk of losing the information you attempted to learn, than if you were to take small chunks and learn them slowly.

At Social Talent, we’ve put thousands of recruiters through an intensive training programme to change their behaviours and teach them a range of new skills. What’s so interesting though is that those recruiters who wait until close to their deadline and do their training in one big sprint (watching a marathon of training over two or three days) perform incredibly poorly in comparison to their fellow trainees who do just an hour’s training a week for 3 months.

I suppose all of this is explained by the other findings above. The successful learners have the time and opportunity to practice their skills while doing every day tasks. They practice using trial and error, finding what works for them to get to the right answer. They can see what the outcome is (“I will be a better recruiter and perform better at my job when I have these new skills”), and they relate this to their long-term career.

Those who speed through it don’t have the opportunity to practice, look for quick wins instead of figuring it out, and typically see it as a means to an end rather than contributing towards their career.

Quick Tips For Individual Learners:

  1. Try to progress your learning every day — train your brain
  2. Find every-day situations to practice your new skill
  3. Visualise the end result — you will be a better performer in work!
  4. Think long-term: it’s about your career, not just another training programme
  5. Break down your learning into small chunks that you regularly consume. Don’t do a marathon sprint at the end. You won’t remember anything!

Quick Tips For Team Managers and L&D Co-Ordinators:

  1. Make learning an everyday part of your team’s performance
  2. Create practice opportunities and organise practice sessions
  3. Show your team members what they will have achieved at the end to inspire and light that fire!
  4. Relate their training to their careers
  5. Set goals for team members to have completed small chunks in regular time-scales, and don’t let them leave it all to the end.

This blog post originally appeared here on the Social Talent blog.

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