Learning is the Business of Behaviour Change

Learning is hard on a good day. I mean real learning. I always like to say, “if it isn’t hard, it isn’t learning”.

It just so happens that changing our behaviour is one of the most difficult things to do in life. We cannot change our behaviours, whether they be in the form of thoughts or actions, without learning.

Learning is the business of behaviour change.

Sometimes the learning that we engage in is something we choose — other times, it is thrust onto us whether we like it or not.

If we did not choose the learning situation, perhaps something thrust upon us by the school of hard knocks, then we may have a longer road ahead of us. We must wait for our brains to catch up to understanding why the learning is important.

If we choose to learn something new on our own accord, we can choose to engage with programs that have been designed and developed to create the desired behaviour changes that we are seeking.

At the core of a formal learning program, is the ‘curriculum’ that describes the baseline of what will be learned. Formal programs will clearly delineate what learning (aka behaviour change) is possible if you undergo the program. They will be made up of goals, objectives, plans, and forms of assessment. These programs can range anywhere from learning new skills for the workforce, to fixing your car, or even how to lose weight.

We also know that learning is about more than just the person doing the learning. When we learn, we inevitably invite in the people who have influenced us in the past — the people and situations who have influenced who we are today – but we also inevitably need to include the people in our learning contexts, and our relationship with the curriculum itself. Struggles can arise at any of those levels, but where many people struggle with learning the most— is when it comes to building that positive relationships with oneself. Problems here can run deep.

To go deep, we peel back the layers of curriculum, goals, plans and assessments etc., we get to underlying levels of what learning truly means to someone, and how they will react and interact with the learning.

With the layers peeled back, we might not know what else is going to surface. For many, it is fear. The sheer underlying fear that we are incapable of learning anything new. That we are not good enough. That we are somehow different from everyone else.

Peel back those layers of fear, and we will find a host of other things, like past trauma, abuse — or experiences with teacher who were unable to help a learner to feel successful and special as a learner.

Fear stops learning.

Fear of getting the wrong answer. Fear of not being smart enough. Fear that our most vulnerable selves will be hurt, fear of not being able to write, type or speak fast enough, fear of being rejected, fear of new ideas, fear of the unknown, fear of having our own negative beliefs reinforced.

Fear is a powerful influence of behaviour. In some cases, it might motivate people to ask for more information, but in other cases, it sets off a chain of other internal events that create a host of uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Sadly, many learners may not even realise that they are at risk.

As a result, some of the most significant learning may not lie within the curriculum itself, but in the ability to change behaviour — and this includes teachers, students, and all those involved. Behaviour change is hard for everyone.

The Transtheoretical Change theory by Prochaska provides us with a great illustration of the stages we go through when we are involved in a change, aka learning:

1. Precontemplation Stage: Here, the learner has never thought about needing to change a particular behaviour. A great strategy is to provide reasons as why the change and learning will benefit them. Make it relevant and meaningful.

2. Contemplation Stage: The learner is starting to think about their own need to change behaviour. They are becoming motivated.

3. Determination Stage: The learner is taking ownership, and preparing to make the change. They are willing to accessing supports, get organized, and making plans to move forward.

4. Action Stage: The new behaviour begins. The learner starts doing the things they need to do to make the change, and starts initiating the new behaviours. This is very difficult. It takes time and practice.

5. Maintenance Stage: As we all know, new learning requires new behaviours, and new behaviours are very hard challenging to maintain. The behaviours we used before are not necessarily the behaviours that we need to keep up the new habits. What do we do when we feel bad? Or when that fear creeps back in? That trigger that reminds you that you ‘you are not good enough’. What happens if that trigger is never removed from a learning situation?

What do we as learners need as we develop through these stages of change?

The learner as an individual needs support in three different ways

  1. Support with the unique, individual self
  2. Support with the broader social context.
  3. Support with the curriculum.

When it comes to yourself as an individual learner, it is important that you are supported to feel confident. Hopefully, you can obtain support in identifying your own triggers, and support to learn real strategies for moving forward. Hopefully those strategies will not penalize you (like make you feel less important than others doing the learning).

Next, we simply do not learn in a vacuum. When it comes learning, we simply cannot deny that so much of our behaviour is triggered by others, and almost always occurs within a social context. Think that this only applies to children? Think again. Our behaviours are triggered just as much in the board room or staff room as the classroom. We all know logically that there are no such thing as stupid questions, but think about a time when you may have felt the fear of eyerolls and having others think we are stupid for asking questions that only we don`t understand — it happens to everyone. We can understand this and avoid ‘blaming’ others for the learning that we are supposed to be engaged in, and hopefully obtain support to understand our own behaviour in any particular context. Hopefully we will have leaders who honour the risk and vulnerability it takes to engage in new learning. We will need to learn how to manage new behaviours, how to replace triggers, and use new strategies on a regular basis.

As for the ~curriculum~ whether hidden or explicit, it has to be meaningful and relevant. Easy if you happen to already be at the determination or action stages. Not so easy if you are not even at the precontemplation stage.

Finally, it is always about taking the short-term gains and transferring them into long-term change, aka maintenance.

Learning is always about behaviour change, and behaviour change is one of the most difficult things that we can choose to do as humans. Learning is always the business of behaviour change.

I hope you will share some of your experiences here.