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Book Review-How People Learn: Designing Education and Training that Works to Improve Performance

It wasn’t the first time I got into a discussion with someone who claimed to be an instructional designer.  It wasn’t even the first time I encountered someone with a PhD in instructional design.  It was also not the first time that I shuddered to think about the training industry.  It was a comment that pushed the project to more abstraction, greater complexity, and less emotional salience – and it was more than I could take.

I’ve made the development of educational and performance support materials one of my persistent professional homes – and I remain amazed at the lack of understanding about how and when people need to learn.  That’s why How People Learn: Designing Education and Training that Works to Improve Performance is so interesting.  It organizes research that underpins what we should be doing but too frequently are not.  It all starts with understanding how memory works – and what makes things stick.

Memory Is About Meaning

Ebbinghaus is famous for his studies of learning – and forgetting.  In fact, Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve remains an important part of the training and development lore.  It remains scientifically correct, but also not indicative of how we learn.  Ebbinghaus had people memorize nonsense and was surprised when they couldn’t recall it later.

We know now that we need things to make sense so that we can encode it, connect it, and make it possible to recall it later.  The process of memorization involves building links so that we can get back to it later.  Sometimes, the connections that we make to the information we’re learning are good – and sometimes less good.  The better the connections, the more likely we are to recall it.

Put Out the Fire

All We Remember Is Not Gold (Or the Way it Was)

When we recall something, we have a mental image or movie of what we’re remembering.  It looks like something we would find in a scrap book or watch on television.  We think of it in these fixed terms, that the things we’re remembering are objectively real and could be replayed the same way next time – or even that someone else watching the same memories would see the same thing.

However, studies have continued to show that we can be nudged into remembering events that never happened, and we frequently remember things in a way that didn’t happen.  It’s because we don’t actually remember things precisely as they were, like a camera or video camera might.  We compress, adjust, and minimize to allow our brains to hold on to pieces.  Like a JPG photo that has been overly compressed, the details get blurry.  In our brains, we fill in the missing information with whatever is at hand.  Incognito has a great illustration of this where our brain fills in the hole where our optic nerve attaches to the retina.  Spooky stuff the first time you experience it.

Everything is Emotional

Descartes’ Error explains how Rene Descartes got it wrong when he said what has been translated to “I think, therefore I am.”  Lisa Feldman Barrett exposes the murky world that separates reason from emotional reaction in How Emotions Are Made, and Richard Lazarus takes a more structured approach to the same space in Emotion and Adaptation.  Collectively, this leads to the conclusion that emotion and reason are not as separated as we would like to believe.  Even Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow how “System 1” can lie or mislead “System 2” and thereby influence the results.  This means, then, that our emotions are silently placing their hand on the scale and changing the seemingly rational outcomes.

While we like to think of learning as a logical, rational process, the truth is there’s a lot of emotion embedded in it.  While I might stop short of Shackleton-Jones’ belief that everything we learn is emotionally based, he’s not that far off.  And that’s why most education and training fail to generate the learning and performance we’re looking for.  With the emotion removed, there’s no energy to drive the system and it falls flat.

Education and Learning Aren’t the Same

We make two big errors when it comes to learning.  First, we confuse the idea of education and learning.  Second, we forget that most people don’t actually want learning.

Education is an attempt to help (or force) others to learn.  It takes various forms to the near babysitting, cattle-like arrangement of our elementary (or primary) schools through the time-wasting approaches followed by most higher education.  Instead of being focused on the learning objectives (or, heaven forbid, the actual productivity), it’s focused on putting in your time and paying your dues.

Even if education is successful and can encourage the desired learning, it still often misses the mark.  It misses the mark, because the kinds of things that we educate and subsequently learn isn’t relevant.  With few college-educated children entering the field of their degree, we’ve got to acknowledge that sometimes what we educate people for – and what they may learn – isn’t what they need to know.  Estimates are that 90% of what people need to know they learn on the job.  That doesn’t include the recognition-primed decision (RPD) skills that Gary Klein wrote about in Sources of Power.  Those forms of tacit-based knowledge might drive the number even higher.

Whether learning at a personal level or for professional purposes, Malcolm Knowles, et al. lay out the needs of The Adult Learner.  These form the basis of being able to learn but also include a bit of the “why” – and that “why” is how the learning will help the person.  (See Start with Why for more on the importance of reason.)

The end of the 1980s movie WarGames ends with the computer learning “the only winning move is not to play.”  Sometimes, the path to productivity isn’t even learning.  Sometimes, the best answer is Job Aids and Performance Support rather than learning at all.  Consider, for a moment, the map work done by our parents or grandparents as they planned a trip by taking up the entire kitchen table with maps.  Today, we don’t plan: we get in our car, start up the navigation application on our phone, and go.  The best answer isn’t necessarily for us to learn map skills.

Similarly, many lament that we can’t remember phone numbers any longer – because we don’t need to.  We carry around our phones with more contacts than even the largest rolodex ever held.  We speak to our phones, and it instantly dials the person we wanted to talk to.  Aristotle was concerned about how books would destroy our memory, but what really happens is we shift our limited cognitive resources towards other endeavors.

Measuring Learning Effectiveness

I published a white paper in 2012 titled “Measuring Learning Effectiveness” to combat the frustration I had about finding ways for people to be more productive and the relatively constant pushback I was receiving for my approaches of helping others.  I was doing micro learning with The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide well before anyone knew what the term meant.  That’s not precisely true, because I didn’t care if they learned or not – I wanted them to be productive.  The paper outlines just a few of the persistent myths that live in the educational world – and why they’re myths.

What I didn’t cover are things like the insights of Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation.  It’s a hierarchy of evaluation for the efficacy of training – and most trainers fail to get off the bottom floor.  Most trainers are focused on what Kirkpatrick calls “smile sheets.”  That is a superficial perception of happiness with the training – well before efficacy could possibly be established.  Instead of measuring how well the training did at making someone more productive, it asks how they felt and misses the point.

A commercial pilot walks out of a simulator covered in sweat.  The air conditioning in the simulator was working fine, but the pilot was getting a workout.  After an hour of simulated flight with simulated failures, the pilot is exhausted.  If you stopped to ask them to describe how they felt about the training, they might say grueling.  They’re unlikely to start jumping for joy and explaining how much fun it was.  Evaluated on this metric – happiness – one would think the simulator training wasn’t that good.  However, from a performance perspective, nothing could be further from the truth.  If you don’t believe me, ask “Sully” Sullenberger, who landed US Airways 1549 on the Hudson River.

One of the things I know from decades of speaking at conferences is that the topics you pick will influence your speaking scores.  If you pick an upbeat, positive, future-utopia topic, you’ll get good scores.  If you instead deliver a reasoned, limited, and appropriately critical session, your scores will go down.  Not night and day – but it’s much harder to get the top scores when you’re telling people that things don’t work.  The reason is simple: the evaluations of speakers are about how people felt about the experience, not about whether they are more effective because of it.  When you tell them that their grand vision won’t work because of limitations in technology, people, or society, some of that frustration rubs off on you and in your scores.

Peers Understand Feelings

Everett Rogers’ work is known from his book, Diffusion of Innovations, where he shares a Knowledge-Attitudes-Practices model for change.  The transition point happens in attitudes, where people change the way they think.  When we teach others something, we’re asking them to change the way they think and view the world differently.  Rogers explained that we need a relationship with the person who is trying to change our attitudes.  We need to trust them.  Another way to think about this is that they need to be “like” us.  They need to have some commonality.

One way to get this commonality quickly is to have the person who is doing the teaching be someone who has legitimacy – in other words, they’ve done it, or they’ve had similar experiences.  This is why we learn better from our peers than someone we believe is nothing like us.  The fact that they’re a part of the “in” group means they’re someone who can – and should – be listened to.

Format This

Have you heard that the more engaging the materials used for education, the more people will learn – that a video should be better than a book?  Everyone has.  The problem is, it’s wrong.  As I explain in the “Measuring Learning Effectiveness” white paper, it comes from Edward Dale – except he never intended to be used as widely as it has, and he never approved of the fabricated percentages that became attached to his “cone of experience.”  Shackleton-Jones explains that his research found that people learned better with a simple, text-based solution – rather than the other elaborate teaching approaches he and the team designed and developed.

If you’ve spent your career in education, having something that you believed was so fundamental disproven can be disheartening.  It can also help you to understand why he may not have a high opinion of instructional designers, who even today are pushing new interactive teaching approaches that don’t have any research support – and may actually make it more difficult for students to learn.

Efficiency in Learning does go through the research and one of the fundamentals that is too often forgotten is the principle of cognitive load.  In short, the more difficult we make it for people to learn, the less they do.  It aligns well with the work in Demand, which explains that even small barriers make a big difference in marketing.

It’s important to reconcile that we need to inject enough emotional and story-based content to connect emotionally with the learner but not so much that it becomes distracting.  Speaking of story-based content, The Art of Explanation makes it clear that when we use stories, we need to make sure that we’re telling the learner what they should be taking from the story.  If we don’t, they may take the wrong things from the story.

Simulations that Cause Sweat

What makes complicated learning strategies work?  When they make you sweat.  Pilots use simulations to learn how to fly in extreme conditions, because it’s the only way to safely learn.  It’s more than the specific knowledge of recall from a textbook.  There’s a feel to it that you can only get when you have the experience.  Gary Klein, in Sources of Power, recounts his work with fire captains and their inability to explain how they knew how to direct firemen.  They learned through experience.

That’s why firemen train in controlled situations with real fire – so they can begin to instinctively know what is happening and how things may change.  Simulations may be expensive to create but done correctly they make people sweat and can teach them things that they can’t learn effectively any other way.

Care for Our Future Selves

In Human Capital, Gary Becker first explored the return on investment for education (and presumably learning).  His work showed a solid return on investment when an organization or an individual invested in learning.  The problem with this is that we all view investments – and time a bit differently.  Philip Zimbardo in The Time Paradox suggests that we have fundamentally different views of time – including past, present, and future focuses.  Some people will be hedonistic and insist on living for the moment while others will save and strive for a positive future.

Shackleton-Jones suggests that some people can’t care about their future selves, and as a result, they’re often unwilling to make investments in learning.  Some of this is undoubtedly a result of the attachment style that these individuals developed growing up.  (See Daring to Trust for more on Ainsworth and Bowlby’s work on attachment styles.)  Over time, there appears to be a greater willingness to invest in learning – even if that doesn’t come through traditional educational approaches.

Good at the Expense of Health

It’s not a secret that people who stress and obsess about their performance live shorter lives.  The Paradox of Choice explains that maximizers are less happy.  Their higher expectations (of perfection) lead them to be in a constant state of stress and frustration.  The impacts of stress on our body and our mind as well as the causes and cures for stress are covered in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers – and it’s not pretty.

So, in our learners, we want the driven desire to improve themselves but not so much that they stress and obsess.

Finding Feedback

Purposeful practice is the way Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool explain in Peak that people become the best in their fields.  They explain that peak performers often have coaches, who drive them towards better performance by providing the right kind of feedback to help them improve.  It turns out that finding the right kind of feedback is critical to improvement whether you’re seeking to improve yourself or just trying to improve the training that you develop.

Most people want to provide feedback that is positive, expecting that the other person wants congratulations about their great work.  However, praise-filled feedback doesn’t leave opportunity for improvement.  While critical feedback is harder to give, it’s substantially more valuable.

The Education Game

On the surface, it appears that the objective of our educational system is learning, that’s really not the point.  While elementary education is a lot of babysitting, higher education isn’t about ensuring that someone learns what they need to do their job – it’s a way for them to get a job.

We’ve transitioned to a place where the fact that you have a degree or an advanced degree means you’re willing to jump through the hoops necessary and have the persistence necessary to be successful.  (This might be called Grit.)  Universities are now issuing certificates in addition to degrees.  Certificates have a substantially lower threshold to be crossed, but they still are a signal to potential employers that you’re willing to learn, and that’s perceived to be a good thing.

Education can no longer be just about the learning; it has to be about the way that you can demonstrate your learning – or purported learning – with a marker that the employer can use to sort you into or out of the candidate pool.

For me, while this is important, it’s not as important as How People Learn.

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