how we learnWhen you spend a decade working in Knowledge Management, you can’t help thinking a lot about how people learn. The book that first helped me understand the learning process was Nancy Dixon‘s The Organizational Learning Cycle. Nancy was writing about ‘collective learning’, a subject I was already skeptical about even then: I was, and remain convinced that learning is an intensely personal, individual experience, and that we all learn differently.

The graphic above is adapted from Nancy’s book. It says that, in general, we learn as follows:

  1. We take in information through our sensory receptors. Already there is a dreadfully low signal/noise ratio: If we aren’t paying attention, if we’re not good listeners, if our senses are dulled or distracted, a large part of the potential learning from the person or scene we’re ‘taking in’ is already lost.
  2. We next filter and ‘process’ this information through our personal mental models or ‘frames’. This is a function of the neuron structures in our brains, which were to some extent set at birth, and to some extent were formed early in childhood as we first began to learn and to acquire language and other information processing tools to help us learn. Here are two quotes from yesterday’s post on ‘laws’ that describe this ‘internal knowledge management’ process:
Frames trump facts. All of our concepts are organized into conceptual structures called “frames” (which may include images and metaphors) and all words are defined relative to those frames. Conventional frames are pretty much fixed in the neural structures of our brains. In order for a fact to be comprehended, it must fit the relevant frames. If the facts contradict the frames, the frames, being fixed in the brain, will be kept and the facts ignored. [George Lakoff]

Because people understand by finding in their memories the closest possible match to what they are hearing and use that match as the basis of comprehension, any new idea will be treated as a variant of something the listener has already thought of or heard. Agreement with a new idea means a listener has already had a similar thought and well appreciates that the speaker has recognized his idea. Disagreement means the opposite. Really new ideas are incomprehensible. The good news is that for some people, failure to comprehend is the beginning of understanding. For most, of course, it is the beginning of dismissal. [Roger Schank]

  1. Next, we store the filtered, processed, regurgitated, parsed ‘learnings’ in our ‘working memory’, the brain’s RAM, where they continue to be molded, considered, and amended until we have essentially ‘decided what they mean’. Then it gets filed away in long-term memory, to be accessed and extracted if and when it is ever needed again. If it is not used for a considerable time, it is ‘forgotten’, making room in the memory for other, newer learnings that may be more useful.

You may think this description is unduly negative. I arrived at it, from reading at least a dozen books on the subject since I read Nancy’s work, from interviewing co-workers after they attended presentations and seminars to de-brief with them what they said they had learned (try it — you’ll be astonished at the results), and from thinking about– not how people learn — but why people learn.

The purpose of learning is ultimately Darwinian — we don’t learn just for learning’s sake, or because it is fun. We learn, and learn the way we do, because it helps us to survive. In most situations, the recall and application of past learnings is far too slow and unreliable to keep us alive in critical situations, so to survive we rely much more heavily on instinct. Instinctive ‘knowledge’ is hard-wired into us, as it has been for us and our primordial ancestors since life first made its appearance on Earth. Intellectual and moral learnings are a back-up system, for when we have the luxury of time and the opportunity to apply more complex situational knowledge to a survival problem (such as planning a date, keeping a job, or designing a hydrogen fuel cell).

Bernd Heinrich, in Mind of the Raven, probes the sharp, massive (relative to body size) brains of corvids, the brightest species of birds. He describes the raven’s capacity for ruse (when hiding food so it won’t be found by others) and sophisticated memory of place (for finding the food again). He also describes a simple IQ test for animals that most ravens pass with flying colours: A thick string is hung from a tree-branch, to which is attached a well-wrapped morsel of a favourite food. It cannot be reached from the branch or the ground, and cannot be extracted by grabbing it in flight. Ravens quickly appreciate that the answer is to sit on the branch and pull the string up, claw over claw, until the food can be reached and unwrapped. There is no trial and error involved. The abstract reasoning is well within the raven’s considerable intellectual capabilities. Like us, they simply reorganize the accumulated learnings in their brains to fit the new problem’s context.

Heinrich surmises that the raven’s large and sophisticated brain evolved because it had to, to survive. Ravens do not possess the tools to kill their prey, so, like man, they began as carrion eaters. But then, they ‘learned’ to collaborate with wolves and other killers of large animals. Now they fly overhead and find the meal, and then buzz the wolves, flying circles between the wolves and the prey until the wolves, too, ‘learn’ what the ravens are ‘saying’, make the kill, and share the spoils with their avian scouts.

In Experiential Learning, David Kolb describes a four-phase learning ‘cycle’: Experiencing, Reflection/Observation, Conceptualization, and Experimentation/Application. If this is indeed how we learn, it is not surprising that ‘on-the-job’ learning trumps ‘book’ learning. If we learn by doing, it is hard to imagine a worse learning environment than the classroom or boardroom. And it also explains how stories, which are so engaging, so participatory, are such effective teaching tools: You are sharing your experience in the story, not merely your observations and conceptualizations. It also explains the popularity of Case Studies in the classroom and Best Practices in the workplace, though both of these are extremely poor substitutes for first-hand learning. Kolb describes four basic ‘Learning Styles’:

  • Diverging: most learning comes from experiencing and reflection
  • Assimilating: most learning comes from reflection and conceptualization
  • Converging: most learning comes from conceptualization and application
  • Accommodating: most learning comes from application and experiencing

His research suggests that women tend to prefer experiencing while men prefer conceptualization, but he hypothesizes this may be culturally learned behaviour rather than anything innate. There are of course many other models that parse learning styles differently, and different activities (note-taking, summary writing, reading vs. listening, graphics vs. text, oral recapitulation etc.) that enhance learning for each of us differently during each of the four phases of the learning cycle.

One of the things I have observed in watching people in social gatherings and in more formal meetings is that almost all multi-person social activities are essentially sequences of distinct two-party conversations. It is almost as if the signal/loss ratio is so poor in conversations, which are not really shared experiences but rather ‘playbacks’ of one individual’s (the talker’s) experiences and learnings for the supposed benefit of the other individual (the listener), that a simultaneous ‘bandwidth’ of two people is all we can manage. Perhaps the reason why we even tolerate these abstract social activities is that we hardly ever do anything together anymore. The job of the typical specialized ‘knowledge worker’ today (despite the prevalent and somewhat fraudulent hype about collaboration and work ‘teams’) is mostly individual, solitary activities and experiences. And social and family discourse often centres around the passive and individual watching of television or films or listening to music. We often don’t even eat together anymore, the primeval, original social activity of all species.

All of this got me thinking about the constraints to learning, and why, in this ‘information age’, there seems to be less learning occurring going on rather than more. Here is my list of the top 10 constraints to learning in our modern culture:

  1. We don’t allow ourselves (and society doesn’t allow us) enough time for wonder.
  2. Our workplace activities and our home routines are often repetitious and stimulus-poor.
  3. We don’t do anything together anymore.
  4. We get too much of our life experience second-hand (from books & movies, and online).
  5. We suffer from imaginative poverty — we won’t let ourselves imagine, and now we’ve largely forgotten how to imagine.
  6. Our lives are too organized and too scheduled to allow serendipitous experiences and hence serendipitous learning.
  7. In this world full of terrible knowledge and awful realities, we are becoming afraid to learn. We cannot bear too much reality, too much bad news, and we don’t want to accept the awful responsibility that knowing and learning brings with it.
  8. Everything about the current Western educational system impedes and discourages learning.
  9. The media have addicted themselves, and us, to facts rather than meaning.
  10. We have ‘desensitized’ ourselves — we process everything mainly with our left brain, so we no longer really see, really hear, really smell, really taste, really feel.

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  1. Philip says:

    Dave I think each one of your points can be “debated”. Where you make blanket statements I can’t see them being true for myself and many of the people I know.Learning is something you must wish to engage in, it is a personality trait as much as anything else. Not all people are built with the desire to seek new experience or to question or to wonder for that matter. These are not bad people they are just the way they are. They have purpose and meaning in their lives even if it isn’t one we would necessarily choose for ourself. There are ways for a teacher to spark an interest for a child or a seeker but those who are asleep you cannot awaken. Why should you?They are entitled to pursue life on their own terms. If they are holding you back you might point it out to them, if you can’t see your way clear helping them, steer clear and let them learn at their own pace.We participate in life to the degree we choose to. There is very little in our world today that will stop us from doing what we will. Our society has made it possible for us to do just about anything and go just about anywhere. If you choose to watch TV and sit on the couch well that is your choice no one forces you to do that.I am a product of a public education. A Western education raised in a military household for the most part. I find life interesting and worth living. I don’t like bad news because so much of it is childish nonsense, but I’m not the boss of you or anyone else. I am responsible for myself. I respect your right to go to hell in a handbasket if that is your choice. If asked I’ll volunteer the best advice I can, if I am needed and can help I am ready to provide what I can to my neighbors and friends, to a lesser degree I am known to help total strangers.We make individual choices everyday for how we spend our lives. The media “this” and the government “that” are a product of those choices. If you don’t like what you see then do what you can to make things right. What is wrong with the world is not what we see as wrong it is that we cannot see how to do good. “Things” are holding sway in society right now. This fixation on the material is cyclical. Society has been here before, things will change. Too slowly for some too fast for others. To make the world a good place to live make your own life something worth living. Democracy and the lowest common denominator has always been a difficult form of government but do you want the current cabal to lead with divine right forever?Every once in a while the people who think they should run the show get to. They then proceed to screw up so badly the rest of us toss them out on their self righteous keister. If that doesn’t happen then you live under the tyranny of the masses, knowing that, unless you posess a serious mojo there is not much you can do to swing them (the masses) over to make you king for a while.

  2. Heath Row says:

    You might be interested in the two most recent books by Marcia Conner — .

  3. chris macrae says:

    AA ADDICTION: I love your top 10 learning handicap list at the article’s end. It interests me that the two AA’s Accountants and Ad Agents are behind most of your list they have destroyed the intangible realities of trust-flow and time-flow which make the dynamics of human relationship systems valuable. It’s my belief and upcoming book that unless we quickly open source trust-flow governance as a second way of mapping how humans really serve value and socially produce knowledge (action learn) , we’re in for the least innovative era of humankind, as well as a globally risk-compounding one. And yet couldn’t networks have enabled the collaborative opposite? Could we be using email to find our own 10 perfect mentors howver geographically distant? Will we overthrow the addictions of ruling by separable numbers in an interactive age, and controling people with one way messages when we know have the technology to listen as well as shout? In a networking age of connectivity, will boardrooms discover how to model value multiplication instead of treating every performance act as if its a zero sum additive game? And at the same time, let’s put a wooden stake through that heartless accounting assumption that all machines are investemnts, all people costs.

  4. Susan says:

    Another public school kid here, doing just fine, thank you…perfectly healthy desire to learn, as usual…

  5. Rob Paterson says:

    Maybe there is “Learning” and LEARNING.At school I “learned” stuff. Most of what happened in the classroom is not part of what I need to survive. Interesting but not really very important. I think that we should be careful here about what Dave means by FRAMES. I doubt he is talking about recalling poetry or even learning how to read. When we think about frames we are talking about barriers to seeing another world. Being able to shift from one world to another is the key to survival and learning at a deep level.Several crises in my life helped me LEARN. Being fired was a big one – a friend broke through my frames 18 month before and told me that I was sending out signals that I wanted to leave. She asked me if I knew this and whether this was my true intent. As this was a frame busting question, my response was anger. After say 6 months i understood and built an exit strategy. My really big lesson was to learn to listen to myself – a survival issue. Becoming self aware is not a given in our industrial world. It is quite helpful if you can get there but no book or lesson will take you there.This is what i mean by school being somewhat trivial in the learning scheme of things. When my wife was diagnosed with cancer – my frame of security was broken – I LEARNED that life was fragile and that I should take more pleasure in the now. You can read all of this is a book. You can have a friend tell you all of this but I suspect that only life events can break the fames.As an academic and a university prof, I have a very low feeling for what we purport to teach in the formal system. I fear that we have made learning an essentially abstract process about stuff that is not core to us in the same way as Dave’s Crow would seek to learn

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Philip: I’m going to take your comment as straight, even though you could be making them tongue-in-cheek (you and I have very different ‘frames’, so if Lakoff and Schank are right it’s not surprising that we disagree more than agree, even though we seem to see the problems in similar terms). I respect the consistency of your libertarian beliefs, but I wonder what motivates them — perhaps a reaction to too much structure in your past? I believe we all have a responsibility, as citizens of Earth, to do something to make it better, or at least no worse, than how we found it. I find that incompatible with libertarian philosophy.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Heath: Great link, thank you.Chris: With all that jargon at your disposal, you must be a learning consultant. But I agree with you, I think ;-)Susan: I would guess that you’re a healthy learner despite the education system, not because of it. You undoubtedly would be no matter what education system you grew up with. I think you’re a minority, however.Rob: I know what you mean. The sad thing is, when I advocate more experiential learning, the tenured profs complain I’m trying to turn the university into a trade school. *sigh*

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