Sunday, 26 September 2010

No pain, more gain? Research supports "less learning more often"

Many years back, I coined a phrase that neatly summarised my view on how to change current training design and delivery practice so that it can dramatically improve effective learning and performance. My phrase?

Is it happening? Well, it's beginning to it seems. We are clearly recognising that the concentrated, content-heavy course delivery model often fails to transfer effectively to competent performance in the workplace. A new approach that favours little and often, campaign over course, interwoven activities is, counter to many people's current beliefs, far more effective. Not only that, new research at Northwestern University suggests this new way of training could reduce by at least half the effort previously thought necessary to make learning gains.

The research also may be the first behavioral demonstration of meta-plasticity, the idea that experiences that on their own do not generate learning can influence how effective later experiences are at generating learning.

"Prior to our work much of the research into perceptual learning could be summed up as 'no pain, no gain,'" says Beverly Wright, first author of a study in the Sept. 22 Journal of Neuroscience and communication sciences and disorders professor at Northwestern. "Our work suggests that you can have the same gain in learning with substantially less pain."

The Northwestern researchers found that robust learning occurred when they combined periods of practice that alone were too brief to cause learning with periods of mere exposure to perceptual stimuli. "To our surprise, we found that two 'wrongs' actually can make a right when it comes to perceptual learning," says Wright. What's more, they found that the combination led to perceptual learning gains that were equal to the learning gains made by participants who performed twice as much continuous task training (training which by nature of its repetition and length often is onerous).

The findings hold potential for members of the general population with an interest in enhancing perceptual abilities -- for musicians seeking to sharpen their sensitivity to sound, people studying a second language or physicians learning to tell the difference between regular and irregular heartbeats.

This is great news for my me and my son as it means our intuitive, supposedly "lazy" approach to guitar practice, appears to be pretty effective!

 In my own article I referred to some earlier research which supports this further:

Back in 2001, the American Psychological Association published (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 2001, Vol. 27, No. 4) some interesting research. It concluded that practicing different skills in concentrated blocks is not the most efficient way to learn. While focusing on a particular skill leads to a short term boost in performance during the period of training, this leads people to over-estimate how well they learned the skill they practiced and results in poorer long term learning. This has the potential to fool trainers and trainees into believing that the apparent progress made during the training will be sustained in future performance back in the job. In fact, for long-term retention, practicing skills that are mixed with other tasks (contextual-interference practice as the researchers call it) results in better learning.

This has far reaching implications for most training design. It clearly points away from focused training on single skills and concentrated repetitive practice and suggests we design learning experiences that are deliberately interwoven among other tasks, requiring people to actively recall and then practice the new skill over longer time intervals.

As we acquire a better understanding of these learning processes perhaps the wider L & D world will be able to bite the bullet and accept that a more fundamental change in approach is needed. And hey, it looks like learning these new ways may be less effort than you first thought.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The catalyst to accelerated learning and performance

Here's my article just published on Trainingzone, recorded here for your comment.
Lars Hyland explores how social tools can be harnessed to deliver a more engaging and effective learning experience.

  • The experiential divide between using online technology externally and internally within organisations
  • Using the crowd to accelerate learning and innovation
  • Three ways to begin nurturing self-learning, self-motivated communities
It seems not a second goes by without some form of social media clamouring for our limited attention, whether it is on our desktop or smartphone. The speed at which we have access to the latest news and information is now literally instant (I assume most of you will have by now experienced the spooky nature of Google Instant search, if not give it a try). The irony is that while this may be true for us as internet consumers, in a workplace context the pace and access to available knowledge and tools is often much slower, hidden behind confusing interfaces and bureaucratic barriers. As a result it can lose much of its value when it comes to that crucial moment of application. 

The experiential divide

The learning management system (LMS) can often fall into this trap, struggling to be perceived by its intended audience as valued learning gateway, instead relegating itself to a distributor of tracked learning events, typically compliance related. Clearly this still plays an important role but perhaps, like plumbing, the LMS should be invisible and increasingly vendors do allow more distributed access to the valuable content it holds. However too often users are forced to engage with systems and content that just doesn’t sustain the required motivation to learn and apply as intended.

This experiential divide is beginning to create real tensions, as employees look for and find ways to circumvent sanctioned communication channels. Many of these are social tools (such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin) and the very fact that these are being proactively searched out and used suggests that organisations are missing out on huge productivity benefits.

Crowd Accelerated Learning

A worldwide exemplar of the catalytic effect of social learning is TED ( TED has grown from a fairly exclusive gathering of thinkers, artists and experts sharing their latest thinking in 18-20 minute talks. Under the stewardship of Chris Anderson, TED opened up access to these using online video which has led to vast, self-fuelled growth in participation through an extended network of TEDx events held around the world. This experience has led Anderson to notice a definite acceleration effect in the learning process for those involved – he calls it Crowd Accelerated Learning or Crowd Accelerated Innovation. As more and more people around the world create videos sharing their expertise/skills/latest thinking which in turn is inspiring others to be better. As a result, he reflects on the wider implications this has for education and training:

“We’ve actually got to bring back real creativity and find a way of nurturing that in the education process. In the age of Google the notion of having to cram all these little brains with facts is bonkers. What’s needed is to build skills like how do you stimulate people to ask the right questions? How do you stimulate people to have a meaningful conversation? To think critically? What are the lenses you give people to think about the world?”

These are big questions, and are just as valid to consider within organisations, teams and across your own professional network, as it is on a societal level. Consequently, as learning professionals we need to be mindful of what behaviours social media can catalyse within our own domains of influence, and determine what these mean for how we design learning experiences going forward. A more specific example is Jove ( an online Journal of Visualised Experiments aimed at the scientific community. It uses videos to show in detail the method and results of experiments. This sharing is rapidly accelerating innovation as there is less duplication of effort and the community builds on each others efforts in a healthily collaborative, yet positively competitive basis.

So how can we foster similar virtuous circles within our own communities? Well it would be misleading to say it is easy, especially when working within a corporate culture that may have deep-seated aversions to sharing its knowledge and capabilities in a more open fashion. But here are three suggestions on how and where to begin nurturing self-learning, self-motivated communities.

1)      Start with the new joiner experience

New employees can be catalysts for wider culture change across your organisation. Delivering a social learning experience as a backbone to your onboarding experience can dramatically reduce the time to competence, reinforce best practice behaviours (sidestepping accepted common practice), while allowing new staff to much more rapidly build their professional networks across the organisation. One US insurance company redesigned the onboarding experience for their underwriters which included active participation within an online community across an eight month period, including weekly assignments, online coaching and shared experience roundtables. This resulted in a drop in attrition levels from 50% to 10% and crucially, each successful participant was underwriting $40 million of business, which previously would have taken nine years of experience to reach. That has the capacity to be truly transformational in terms of business performance.

2) Think “campaign” not “course” in all your designs

When designing a training experience break it down into a more extended campaign of activities that are aligned with opportunities to practice and share the results with a network of peers, mentors and experts, transferring learning into active performance. Putting a social thread throughout the programme can help identify those who need additional encouragement and support and enable those who can move faster to build their expertise and experience at their own pace.

3) Bring staff and customers together in a shared learning experience

Social learning can be used to cut across silos and bring fresh thinking to communities. The most radical approach is to open up to the customer and involve them in the learning process of improving your products and services. Providing a forum for listening, contributing, explaining and reaching a new level of shared understanding reinforces both customer loyalty and staff engagement. Starbucks has had tremendous success with its My Starbucks Idea ( site where customers can contribute ideas for improvement and see them being seriously evaluated and implemented. This concept can be taken inside the organisation too. We all have internal customers and using similar tools to draw out what really makes a difference in real and perceived levels of service focuses limited time and resources on what matters most. This could transform your standing within the organisation.

Opening up

So as Chris Anderson of TED says, it is time to “invite the crowd, let in the light and dial up the desire”. In other words, leverage social tools and techniques to open up access to knowledge and expertise, remove unnecessary barriers and nurture a community that sees the powerful value of creating and sharing. A more fitting definition of accelerated learning, don’t you think? 

Monday, 20 September 2010

Memes, genes and by Jove, the future of learning

Dutch biologist Gerard Jagers op Akkerhuis from Radboud University Nijmegen predicts that the next the next step in evolution will lead to a life form in which the transfer of the blueprint by means of genes is replaced with the transfer of knowledge and collective experience by so-called ‘memes’.

In Jagers’ view:

Memes are codes that determine the structure of the brain. In turn, the structure of the brain determines someone’s knowledge. In this way, memes are carriers of brain structure and the corresponding knowledge, just like genes are carriers of protein recipes and the corresponding cell physiology.

The next life form will not necessarily develop by means of biological evolution: as far as Jagers is concerned, a machine that shows intelligent behaviour based on a neural network fulfils the definition of life. If this system can then also pass on its memory to the next generation then this involves a new step in evolution.

Consider this alongside some of the recent genetic research that is uncovering the influences on our ability as organic beings to learn more effectively. For instance, this recent report on the RGS14 gene. Apparently, switching off this single gene in mice unlocks a part of their brain that is otherwise inactive, boosting learning and memory.

Other research reports on how increasing the production of this same gene can dramatically improve visual memory. In experiments, mice could remember objects they had seen for up to two months - ordinarily the same mice would only be able to remember these objects for about an hour. Clearly, it remains to be seen if the same effects are achieved in humans, but the indications are positive.

By Jove - what are the implications?

The implications of both these developments suggest we are entering a new era of dramatically accelerated learning that is likely to be boosted by both our interventions at the genetic and pharmaceutical level, as well as our application of technology. Where these converge nicely is in a site called Jove. As the site defines itself:

The Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) was established as a new tool in life science publication and communication, with participation of scientists from leading research institutions. JoVE takes advantage of video technology to capture and transmit the multiple facets and intricacies of life science research. Visualization greatly facilitates the understanding and efficient reproduction of both basic and complex experimental techniques, thereby addressing two of the biggest challenges faced by today’s life science research community: i) low transparency and poor reproducibility of biological experiments and ii) time and labor-intensive nature of learning new experimental techniques.

This is a fantastic resource which is dramatically accelerating knowledge transfer within the scientific community. Now imagine this happening in all other knowledge domains. TED is a major catalyst in its own right (I have an article coming out that discusses this next week) and I am sure others exist already in many other fields - let me know if you know of any so I can compile a list.

Thinking about Jagers proposition further, our methods for storing and sharing knowledge and skills online using ever more sophisticated cloud-based tools surely is leading us towards on a deeper dependence on technology to pass on our memories to future generations. The recent bleating about how technology threatens our children minds (Greenfield again) misses the point - the horse has bolted and frankly is evolving rapidly into a far faster animal that we cannot yet recognise.