As the owner of a business creating learning events for individuals and companies, I’m often asked, “How do I teach my people (employees/customers) this topic?”
To approach this by comparing forms of media and modes of delivery (a common folly in the learning industry) is to make the mistake Einstein warned us about when he said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
Instead, we must start with how humans learn.
This post explores six important elements in any productive learning process: pattern recognition, prior knowledge, principles over facts, motivation, deliberate practice & retrieval, and scaffolding (with a bonus reflection on a 7th one).
The brain is wired to look for meaningful patterns of information. Have you seen the selective attention test by Daniel Simons? If not, stop reading now and check out this video before continuing.
Ok, watched it? Seen it before?
Did you notice the gorilla? Most people don’t, and that’s because they’re primed to selectively focus on the players in white. We only see what we aim at. How you organize content will influence pattern recognition. Think of a table of contents. It sets you up with an outline of what the book is about, and it serves as an easily referenced reminder of what you’ve covered and where you’re headed.
What we recognize is heavily influenced by our prior knowledge and past experiences. If you’ve never studied basic biology, how could you be expected to explain how the nervous system works? Knowledge builds on knowledge. A discovery process that uncovers the prior knowledge level of learners and builds from there, builds bridges between a learner’s knowledge and the learning objectives you set.
Principles Over Facts
True knowledge cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts or propositions. True knowledge reflects the context and applies differently in different circumstances.
Think back to your high school education. If you were like me, you had to memorize enough lists to make Buzzfeed jealous. These were lists of countries and capitals, steps to follow in a process or my personal worst, definitions. To test you on your “understanding” you had to complete multiple-choice tests that became more about trying to out-think the tester than actually applying what you learned.
This ability is completely redundant in the age of Google, Alexa and Siri.
The transfer of true knowledge is affected by the degree to which we learn with real understanding rather than merely memorizing a set of facts or following fixed procedures.
Understanding promotes flexibility in the face of changing contexts. If you are faced with a new problem, in a new context, you are more likely to make the relevant concepts your own if you have to draw on them to solve the problem.
Perhaps the most important factor to affect a learner’s input into the learning process impacts their time spent learning — motivation. Although extrinsic rewards and punishment clearly affect behavior, we’re naturally motivated to develop competence and solve problems. If we weren’t, our ancestral line would have stopped, frozen to death in a cave at the mercy of a saber tooth tiger.
We can stimulate this intrinsic motivation by articulating clearly why something is important; by beginning at the end. The power of intrinsic motivation is also why I am not a big believer in ‘gamifying’ content. If you have to rely on extrinsic rewards such as leaderboards and badges, at best you haven’t spent enough time clarifying your why, and at worst, you don’t have one.
Deliberate Practice and Retrieval
Our ability to retrieve knowledge when needed is as important as our ability to acquire it in the first place. Engaging in “deliberate practice”, which includes monitoring your own learning by seeking and using feedback about your progress, is one of the best ways to hone this skill of retrieval.
Have you ever taken a test where the results were used to present you with new opportunities to practice the areas you struggled with? That’s adaptive, deliberate practice and a great way to refine your ability to retrieve relevant knowledge.
A scaffolded approach to learning ensures the best chance of success for the learner in the long run. Scaffolding is the support given to a student throughout the learning process and consists of three elements: interaction with the expert; the expert’s awareness of the learner’s current level of knowledge; and the gradual removal of support and guidance by the expert as the learner becomes more proficient.
There is one more concept less fundamental than the others, but worth mentioning because its importance can be overstated without considering its limitations. Spaced repetition is often thought of as an instructional method designed to overcome Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve (our brain’s decrease in the ability to retain memory over time). However, it is most effective in contexts in which learners must acquire a large number of facts and store them in memory indefinitely, which as we have seen does not promote true understanding.
How To Teach Effectively
With a deeper understanding of how humans learn, we can now formulate first principles for how we can teach, and learn better. The following framework highlights some of the elements of our comprehensive 5-step process for creating digital training.
- Begin by identifying the nature of previous experiences and the level of prior knowledge of your learners.
- Seek concepts and principles, not facts and formulas.
- Ask multiple WHY’s to reach the first principle of any complex concept.
- Be ruthless about weeding out anything unrelated to the first principle or that can be looked up with a quick search.
- Make the structure explicit by signposting it throughout.
- Organize content by scaffolding it around each first principle.
- Lead with the WHY.
- Anchor it to prior knowledge.
- Present it in multiple contexts.
- Provide means for the learner to practice it in new contexts.
- Ensure ample opportunities for interaction with the expert on the topic, especially at the beginning.
- Encourage active monitoring of progress by enabling opportunities to receive feedback.
- Gradually remove support and guidance as the learner becomes more proficient in the topic.
With this framework, we’ve found that we’re able to be completely content-agnostic. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, if you apply each step in the framework you can create compelling, engaging, and most importantly, productive learning events.
In the context of a group, this formal approach to learning creation is not the complete answer. The most effective way to teach a group of people is to use the comprehensive 5-step process to create an environment and system that captures, curates and amplifies knowledge that already exists and is created on a continual basis through experience, interaction, discovery, and sharing.