It is not just the brain that learns…

, | Feb 15, 2021 | Blogs

Learning has been the biggest quest for humans. We have outgrown other species possibly because of our ability to learn and adapt faster, to the evolving nature. It may be assumed safely, therefore, that nature has designed humans to learn.

However, modern systems that have evolved in the last few centuries have done a lot of injustice to learning ability of humans – in regimenting them to a sequential program and treating humans as sort of a pseudo-machine to deliver industrial rather than “industrious” work. Our education systems need a lot of re-thinking and re-application. Even the systems that are freshly evolving, mostly are minor variants of the institutionalized serial education system. Possibly, we need to completely draw afresh on a blank slate.

That apart, even adult education – that forms core of corporate learning, has also followed same set path. This sounds counter intuitive. Why must workplaces have a serial learning system. Is not a workplace about task completion in the most effective manner – and in that sense the focus being on productivity and availability of right resources at the right time. Then on a second look, we find that industry had the biggest influence on education system in the first place – wanting silos, specialization, and limited abilities to carry out the rhythmic industrial tasks. “As you sow, so shall you reap”.  That is another story, that on the other side of the value chain, we also want the same people to be equally robotic in consuming. While this had benefits in standards of living, it certainly is also devastating at the same time for human agency. Industry has been responsible in a way, in taking away the human agency from humans and making them akin to pseudo-machines.

And now, it is the industry that may have to start undoing some of this. An evolving society is most important in sustaining humanity – not a degenerating society. Our sustainability is in our evolution, not in robotization.

So, how to undo, this learning system? How to start afresh? Particularly in corporate learning, where bulk of the mindset of the individual is already set.

To understand this phenomenon, we need to look at the problem a little more deeply. Now, there apparently are three issues involved in upgrading skills in a workplace – one, unlearning the previous way of working, sometimes something that is deeply institutionalized – in the name of process, efficiency, and productivity. Second, the environment, that prevents formation of a new routine, due to different pace of learning or adoption of others. Thirdly, information is abstracted to a learning module – which may be slightly or quite farther from actual work a person does.

Learning is not just in the brain! It is also in the muscles, and even the cells of the body. Knowledge, in abstract form may continue lying in this physical entity – we call brain – although there is counter-research even in that domain to prove otherwise. For all practical purposes, mind is only one part of the learning equation. It is the psychomotor network, muscles and even the individual cells that learn. Mind only stores knowledge (as to how to react when a particular situation arises). It is the psychomotor that learns. And psychomotor loves habits – repetitive expression of programs hitherto learnt and valued by the mind as pleasurable. Now, pleasurable is relativistic and keeps changing with situations. At work as well one would have observed, a person tries to get to the habituated situation, as quickly as one can. While mind is the storehouse of knowledge, it is not the sole storehouse of learning.

This changes the paradigm in the way we look at learning – to be able to see interlinkage of learning with behavior change or performance effectiveness, one would need to design for habits – not for mental drudgery alone. How do we change the learning approach then?

Today’s times see unprecedented advance in technology. Shortly we would be having 5G networks, that would process information at unparalleled speeds from any time in the past. It is the best time in history, where we could salvage learning and make it available equally effectively for all. At no time in the past, this would have been possible.

Coming back on our challenges from a corporate learning point of view, how do we take benefit of this knowledge to design great learning interventions and content.

#1. Unlearning is not in the mind – We cannot do instructor-led trainings or dump video-content on learners and expect them to change! Even if the mind understands that, it will have no impact in workplace. Typical complaint of training professional – participant feedbacks were amazing, but the business saw no value.

#2. Behavior is a social construct – My behavior is in conjunction with the ecosystem – even if I have gained some knowledge, I will not be able to apply it unless ecosystem is conducive.

#3. Abstraction does not work – We can not tell people to do something in a certain way. It is not only to be demonstrated, but also practices contextually by the very individual to have any impact. Typically, leadership off-sites, have these great outdoor exercises – and companies invest a lot. But those offsites are soon forgotten in the “mundane organizational work”. Why? Because they are out of the context of business application.

In re-looking at learning, we need to therefore shift attention, first to awareness and secondly to observation.

  1. Awareness: “Feeling of a gap”. Internal inquisitiveness, or sense of limited ability, and a strong emotional sense or want to fulfil that gap. How do learning professionals do that? Not by teaching & educating but designing exposure – in line with business need and making it a personal need. Make people experience, what good looks like, let them experiment – play and try their hands continuously to get to the good, till they get some mastery. And most importantly, work on the whole ecosystem. Heightened awareness causes better exploration and self-directed learning. So no need to invest millions on a platform and external content – invest time with your people to deeply construct the exposure and experience.
  • Observation: Secondly, we should shift attention to observation. Providing people opportunities to observe, not create classroom sessions. And this must be driven collectively. Collective consciousness needs to rise to result in habit or behavior shifts. Working on whole workplace awareness, therefore is key to sustaining learning. If habits must shift, ecosystem must welcome those new habits. And there lies the task of a designer – to be able to create learning in such a way as to impact the whole landscape.

Immediately, it may look like quite tedious and something that is theoretical. However, if you see the whole civilization shifting their habits, with the advent of a smartphone, or during the pandemic – it would not sound so undoable. The intent of design is what needs change – moving away from man-days of training conducted to adoption of learning in business application. Moving away from brain-based techniques to emotionality, awareness and social learning mechanisms can immensely benefit corporate learning. As a natural extension – the same can be applied for transformation of education systems. More research and experiments certainly needed!