Conventional wisdom about how people learn is … completely wrong

Conceptual sign post. Directional sign with mixed message correctway difficult slow challenging hard ambitious wrong fastway We lost an opportunity to a competitor last week which was, of course, both upsetting (we never like to lose) and insightful.  The competitor that we lost to provides a technology based on a radically different approach to learning and motivation than we do. More specifically, they offer a system that is basically a gamified learning task tracker that relies almost exclusively on extrinsic motivation. In their system, they present two types of “learning tasks” – one that presents some content and asks people to do small “right/wrong” exercises (sort of like mini content quizzes) and another learning task which is primarily application exercises where people apply the “learnings” to something realistic.       People get points and move through multiple levels as they complete the tasks and their point totals are presented as a comparison to others. This is all pretty standard for online learning and the accepted conventional wisdom of learning – it just happens to be completely wrong This system is based entirely on fragmentation of learning and extrinsic motivation (none of which is supported by the research) and all of the evidence indicates that this stimulates neural response that are counter-productive to learning! Let me share my direct personal experience of this competitor’s system to give you a flavor for how this went. When I started working in the system, I was guided to do the first set of tasks for a program on leadership, which, as you know I have deep interest in – so I came at it with a good attitude. What could this teach me about leadership and how would it teach me? The first task consisted of a short exercise that presented a question about envisioning someone who is a great leader and recording an answer in a small box.  My first response was…OK…but why am I doing this? It was completely out of context and confusing, but I went ahead and was thoughtful about the question and put in a meaningful answer though one that many would see as a controversial choice. The exercise sort of trivialized the learning but the question was interesting — not great but not awful. However, this will have consequences later. Then I clicked to the next task as I was working in their system. Since I didn’t understand the format of the exercise, however, I didn’t put in the correct answer and so was told repeatedly that I got an answer wrong. I was punished for my sins with a big ‘X’ and the word “Incorrect” showing on screen. Unfortunately, this kicked off a cortisol response in me. I was pretty annoyed and wanted to either skip over it (I wasn’t allowed to) or stop the whole program (I eventually just started all over again). Consequently, this experience with their system put me in a pretty negative mental space. Eventually, I figured out what I had done wrong on that screen and now got it and the next few exercises correct. All of them were essentially trivial content – more little games than meaningful learning.       When I answered a question correctly, a point score floated very prominently across the screen. My first thought was – I am not doing this to rack up points but because I want to actually learn something. Unfortunately, the point system literally distracted me from learning and even prompted me to jump ahead to their points comparison screen which listed me way down at the bottom … and this kicked off both adrenaline and cortisol. Then I decided, ‘Well, let’s see how others did,” which I could see though a social media like sharing function. I clicked on the social media section and there were my initiative comments about the leader from the first question publicly available for everyone to read. Since this was a controversial choice, I would never have put this down if I knew that others would see it – and the ones that others had put down were essentially trivial.  Seeing my private content exposed and the level of discourse kicked in a big time fight or flight response — I wanted this experience to be over. I am an internally motivated, collaborative learner and this was trivializing the learning process, making sharing a negative experience and stimulating all of the wrong neural chemistry. The alternative to this is purpose driven learning and intrinsic motivation and collaboration based on positive neural chemistry – neural chemistry that promotes learning. That’s what Cerebyte’s system is all about. The big question is why would an organization choose a learning process that was so obviously detrimental to learning, particularly when much better alternatives were readily available? I pondered this question for some time and here are my thoughts:

  1. 1. I believe that the decision makers in many organizations are mostly unaware of the neural implications of such an embedded learning process so they didn’t realize its implications. Given all of the research available it is hard to imagine not knowing about dopamine, cortisol and other neuro-transmitters, but that appears to be the case. In essence, the decision makers didn’t know what they didn’t know and therefore made a decision based on the conventional wisdom of gamified learning. It was a safe choice for them in the sense that it fit existing expectations and therefore they couldn’t be accused of being disruptive.
  1. 2. I think that in this case they were somewhat aware of the implications though not in great depth. Yet, they still went ahead and made that choice so I think that they made this choice because the organization itself didn’t want to change. They had done some previous work with us based on our approach to learning that had been hailed as their most successful leadership development program ever – but apparently they didn’t want to repeat the experience. They wanted a learning program that was very “tasky” and gamified, but not something that is as inherently demanding as purpose-driven learning. Our previous program asked too much of the organization and it resisted this effort regardless of the benefits.
  This story now brings me to the larger purpose of this blog post. We are seeing that this choice between very transactional approaches to learning and learning systems which require more meaningful work and transformational leadership playing out in lots of domains (see our blog post on the “Motivate Millennials” Fallacy). Unfortunately, it seems that many organizations are selecting the most limited and incremental approaches to learning programs. There is little appetite for transformational change even when people know how to do it and when the market is forcing massive change.  As one colleague recently said, “Stability is more important to people right now than preparing for a disrupted future and so maybe learning programs that appear sensible but aren’t very impactful are a good thing for most people and organizations.” Maybe being just OK and getting just a little better is sufficient, particularly if your organization can’t tolerate transformational change anyway. Maybe the best approach is to re-think learning and consciously change to doing a better job at getting just a little better – that is much easier than trying for transformational change even when it is needed. Do you think an approach of these “baby steps” of incremental change is sufficient for your organization or do you aspire for more transformational change?]]>

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