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It’s been emotional

This post was written by Kath Fleet and first appeared on the Epic blog on 12th January 2011.

What makes learning stick? What makes a learning experience (and therefore the subject/skills learnt) literally unforgettable?

A few years ago,  two colleagues and I were sponsored by Epic to take part in a Habitat for Humanity project in Chile to build houses for families living in poverty. Throughout our two weeks there we all learned a range of construction skills – skills which I had never before had the opportunity to learn.

Those of us who work in learning design know that learning has only taken place if (a) the learner retains what they have learnt in their long-term memory, and (b) can retrieve what they have learnt when they need it. Without retrieval, learning hasn’t taken place. So what glues a learning experience to our brain cells? And what helps us recall it?

In other words, why is it that after the years have passed, with no repeat opportunities for applying what I learnt back then, that I can still remember how to construct a wooden-frame house?

What made that unforgettable?

On the face of it you could say that it was truly effective learning because it followed the three basic tenets of adult, work-based learning: it was task-based, structured and applied.

Why was it such a good example of task-based learning?

  • It was focused on problem-solving – how to build a construction with very limited tools and resources
  • The learning outcomes were of value – there was a clear link between the individual tasks and the ultimate goal of constructing a house
  • It was relevant – the learning took place in a context directly pertinent to that in which it was going to be applied

In terms of being structured – the experience was underpinned by a sound instructional model:

  • We were first told what we were going to be doing
  • We were then told why we had to do something in a particular way
  • The task was then demonstrated by an expert or practised peer
  • We then practised the task
  • Then we did the task again
  • Then we did it again

Which evidences the last of the three canons of good work-based learning: there were plenty of opportunities for practical application.

But what really interests me about this learning experience concerns three conditions that we generally think less about when we are designing work-based learning for adults: it was social, fun and emotional.

Let’s start with social – collaborative learning. OK, we are thinking more and more about this since the advent of simple to use tools that make ‘learning 2.0’ a practical possibility in many organisations. But let’s examine what we mean by social learning. In the Chile context it was very intensive – we shared accommodation, ate all our meals together, worked hard together, socialised together and took time out together – the closest thing I can imagine to being a contestant on a reality TV show. But let’s face it, this is not typical of most work-based learning experiences so what are the key principles that can be carried forward?

  • We supported and encouraged each other
  • We observed each other’s practice
  • We helped each other improve

In other words – we shared knowledge and best practice. And it was fun – really good fun!

But when I think about the social aspect to this experience I ask myself what was it that made me want to get up at stupid-o’clock just to get back onto the construction site, even with a crippling sugar-cane rum hangover! All 14 of us in the building team felt this enthusiasm. Recreation days were built into the programme to give us a break, but we’d have happily sacrificed those days off to carry on building. One reason for this was clearly that we were motivated to complete the build within our given time frame. And the reward for completion was so valuable – to enhance the quality of life for the families we were working with. And that sense of reward was tied up with the final condition that I think is vital for making learning ‘stick’.

In order to reflect on this I want to digress briefly. In 1999, on the dawn of the new millennium, Professor of Pharmacology Dr Susan Greenfield delivered a Richard Dimbleby lecture called ‘The Future Could Be Too Much Fun’. In it she investigates the idea of dispensing with the physical flesh, which ages and dies, and immortalising ourselves by storing our identities on computer chip or CD:

“What about dispensing with tenancy of one’s flesh altogether, and effectively becoming entirely silicon? There are some that already cherish the dream that one day they will be immortalised by having their personality and entire memory banks down-loaded onto the future equivalent of a CD. The idea would be that every single memory you had ever had, the portfolio of ‘you’ therefore, would be on a disk, and therefore the essence of ‘you’ would be there too. The immediate problem here is, of course, a disk doesn’t actually feel very much. It wouldn’t be actually reliving those memories first hand, so it wouldn’t actually be you.”

So remembering something – making something stick, and more importantly, recalling it, bringing it back, may rely on the feelings that are attached to that memory. In other words it has to be…

…emotional.

Nick Shackleton-Jones has recently been exploring what he calls the Affective Context Model of learning. He believes that: “Learning is the process by which people attach emotional (or affective) sense to information.”

This really struck a chord with me as I’ve been thinking about the emotional significance of storing and retrieving memories (the essence of ‘learning’) ever since seeing Dr Greenfield’s lecture. Nick Shackleton-Jones created a short video to explain this model. In brief below is what we mean by ‘affective context’:

“According to this theory the storage and subsequent processing of information depends on the broader intrinsic or extrinsic affective context. Humans ‘tag’ information in emotional terms; some provided principally by the learner, others by an external stimulus. To put it crudely: sometimes it really matters to people to learn, other times someone else makes it matter.”

When learning really matters to us, the affective context is already there so, arguably, we will learn. This is what happened to us all in Chile – working side-by-side with families who live in extreme poverty, seeing how they have to live in comparison with our own privileges, was highly charged emotional context. It’s when that emotional imperative is absent that we may have a problem with learning. Sometimes we artificially create this context, for example, not wanting to let a favoured lecturer down may motivate a student to study hard.

But in a work-based context, how can we re-create the emotional dimension? Herein lies the inevitable tension between carrot and stick – between ‘pull’ learning (when the affective context – or motivation to learn – comes from within) and ‘push’ learning (when it is created, even enforced, by someone else).

There will undoubtedly be no easy solution to this tension in the workplace, but the rise of social learning and its building tidal wave of Gen Y ‘bottom up’ insurgence should give employers a strong steer towards empowering their employees to create their own emotional context for learning related to personal motivations, rewards and values wherever possible and practical.

However, emotions do not promote learning wholesale. As Clinical Psychologist Dr Candy Lawson points out: “The connections between emotion and learning are bi-directional and complex.”

Learning can be inhibited by negative emotions just as it can be promoted by positive feelings. Good learning experiences can also create positive emotions, while poor ones can have a detrimental affect on mood. Lawson states:

“When the limbic system interprets sensory information and dispatches it to the cortex for processing, it sets the emotional tone of the information before it reaches the cortex. If the limbic system interprets the information as positive, it dispatches a message of purpose and excitement and directs our behaviour toward a goal. When this happens, we become motivated to act; thinking and learning are enhanced. When the interpretation is negative, the switch is turned off and thinking and learning are stifled.”

Which brings me back to the three conditions of good learning we generally think less about (but need to think more about) in learning design: where it is social it is more likely to be fun, where it is fun it is more likely to create a positive emotional context and where there is a positive emotional context there will generally be effective learning.