The fundamental goal of instruction is to help learners retrieve and apply - or "transfer" - what they learned when it's relevant. In instances like our client's, the transfer process fails for reasons that can be frustratingly difficult to pinpoint.
In this article, the first in our The Science of Learning series, we discuss how some commonly-used training techniques can inadvertently cause problems with transfer and offer research-backed strategies to overcome these obstacles.
About 15 years ago I began having a strong desire to learn to knit. I didn't know anyone who knit and had never even held knitting needles, yet I had this feeling knitting would not only be something I would enjoy, it would also be something I'd be really good at. So, I bought a picture-heavy book called "How to Knit" (this was before YouTube and back when everyone went to bookstores). I also purchased some yarn and needles, and began dreaming of beautiful cable-knit sweaters, cozy hats, and warm scarves.
I spent the next few months "knitting" what could only be described as giant, horrible nests.
I've always been the kind of person that enjoys recognition. I still have my medals from kayaking in the 4th grade stored in a memory box at my parents' home. As a child, I relished in these rewards and recognitions-such as obtaining the high honor of having a sticker attached to a test, rewarding my academic prowess. The highest honor of all: finding my A-grade project or test on the refrigerator. The 98% on a science test gleamed over the kitchen reminding all who passed by (most specifically my brothers) that I excelled as a student.
I come from a long line of intimidating, and high academic achieving individuals in my family - a double specialty doctor of a grandfather, a hotshot lawyer of a father, aunts with master's degrees in Spanish literature, and published poets. My family excels in the world of academia, and so I followed suit as an overachiever and sought out the same recognition as a student. That recognition, and acceptance from my family, drove me to continuously pump out A+ papers, maintain an impressive sticker collection, and define my success by a percentage on an exam.
But as I reflect upon my academic/professional career, I realize that the pivotal learning moments that truly shaped me were not displayed on the fridge. I didn't receive a colorful "Way to Go" on the top of any page, but what I learned would have a lasting impact.
In 1944, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel showed a short animated film to 34 subjects. The film, which can be seen here, showed a circle and two triangles moving around a rectangle. The subjects were then asked to write down what happened in the picture. Interestingly, all but one of the subjects wrote a story to explain what they saw.
Sydney, the daughter of a good friend, graduated from college this past June, and I had the honor of attending her commencement. In the hours leading up to the ceremony, she took me aside and confided that she felt a strange mix of emotions, both exciting and terrifying. While she was proud of her accomplishments, she also felt a little depressed. She said she felt a bit like someone had just dropped her off in a scary, unfamiliar part of town at night with the message: "You're on your own from here. Good luck."
I empathized with her. Her laments sparked memories about my own graduation day, years ago. My fellow graduates and I sat facing the dais waiting for our names to be called, and I remember looking around and wondering if everyone felt as mixed up as I did. It was a breezy day and faces were veiled by blowing hair and flapping gabardine, but those I could see held expressions that were a mix of elation and trepidation. I am sure we were all wondering what life would bring in the months and years that lay ahead...
In today's world, with amazing technology at our disposal and the supposed need to offer the modern learner something engaging, quick, on-demand, and more mind blowing than anything they have ever experienced, it's easy to get caught up on HOW to build a learning program (i.e., how do we entertain the audience?).
Geeks are passionate people, and passion is good for business. Someone with a lifelong passion for literature might open an independent bookstore, for example. Or, someone who loves gardening and botany might break into the field of landscape architecture. A friend of mine used to bake bread in his kitchen and sell it to people he knew. These weren't your standard rye loafs or banana breads. They were complex and exquisite, like polenta and pumpkin seed sourdough and rye fennel crackerbread. He was a genuine "bread geek." About three years ago he opened a restaurant and has been very successful.
Any one of these people might make a good businessperson in large part because they like to "geek out" about their respective passions. The bookseller can recommend a book you're sure to love. The landscape architect has a great arrangement in mind for your backyard. My friend the restauranteur knows the perfect cheese-bread-wine pairing.
But are those same businesspeople likely to "geek out" about big data analytics? Do you think they'd have lively discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of various statistical machine learning algorithms? Would you expect them to have compelling perspectives about methods of data visualization?
The Socratic Arts difference is best captured in a simple memory relayed by one of our clients regarding his first interaction with our President, Mike McGarry. This client oversees the development of learning programs for a Big Four professional services firm. He was impressed by our immersive learn-by-doing approach, but was curious about what we charged for a traditional, lecture-based training program.
What would you charge for more basic learning programs - something just really straightforward?
We wouldn't do it. We don't think teaching by telling works; there are lots of vendors out there who can do that for you. We only do what we believe really adds value for your organization.
You mean, you're not clambering to do anything I'll give you to make money?