LEARNING SERIES: How We Learn…and Unlearn…is a Complicated Matter

We have all learned to execute tasks in specific ways from training, from education or from experience. The amalgamation of those methods has provided us a core routine to do each thing in life (personal and work) that we frequently perform.

Do something long enough and you eventually learn something more than when you started day one. Over time and repetition, we might figure out natural ways to streamline for effectiveness The result may or may not be the best way with regard to quality, but we did wander from the original method toward learning a different way to accomplish the same goal. Generally, only with strong enforcement and repetitive training do we maintain protocol, because there is stated reason not to deviate from the norm, and even that is not a guarantee.

Just this week, I read two articles in the news that reported on breaks in protocol that led to disastrous consequences. The http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/19/politics/us-air-force-plane-crash-afghanistan/ was a report from the military that cited human error in the crash of a cargo aircraft that killed 13 people. The pilot of the aircraft, while it was on the ground, jammed an object behind the yoke (steering stick) to keep the wing flaps up so a truck could maneuver underneath for maintenance. When the plane went to take off, the object remained behind the yoke and caused the crash. The second was a mauling of an expert and experienced zookeeper by one of her tigers, because she had neglected to follow the procedural steps designed to keep her safe.

This got me to thinking about how we learn and how we don’t. Learning can be either a passive or active activity. When we have decided to undertake something new or to enhance current understanding through exploring and/or education, that can be considered an active effort. We sit with someone else to observe and ask questions, we sign up for a class, we read a book to bring further enlightenment. However, learning can also be a passive experience, such as when we absorb external input without any purposeful action meant to do so. We, as complex thinkers, can also passively figure out other ways to accomplish tasks by combining elements in our environment. What about how we Unlearn? How is that we as people can have things beat into our heads, often at thousands of dollars at our own expense, only to effectively say, “Screw it! I much prefer this idiotic method that I just thought about!”? We don’t typically go out and take courses to remove knowledge from our brains, but the effect is strikingly similar.

The pilot mentioned in the above story passively combined an aircraft, a flap, spatial constraints, a need to remove the constraints for a period of time, the lack of intent to be burdened with constraint removal over that period of time, and availability of a tool to facilitate accomplishment of that goal. What’s of even more interest is that in seconds, in an environment that is maintains operational and organizational effectiveness based on structured regimen and protocol, the pilot’s thought process simply overrode all that training.

And THIS got me to thinking about the underlying intelligence of learning. In the work place, we encounter both passive and active learning opportunities. Organizational training programs are a great example. We are provided options to seek out training to enhance skill or capability for fulfillment and advancement, but we are often not outright ordered to take those courses. Conversely, when it comes to the obligatory compliance training course, there is no question that we are active ordered to attend. So, what is the difference in thought for a person that attends to the mandated compliance course and walks away with retained knowledge from a person who walks away with a check mark in the course completion box? How come one person falls asleep while another ponders what circumstances led to the need to develop a response that trained resources in advance?

Is it maturity? Is it topical interest? Is it recognized value?

It might be something called Emotional Intelligence (EI).

e·mo·tion·al in·tel·li·gence

the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.
"emotional intelligence is the key to both personal and professional success"

In a forthcoming post, I’ll discuss some of the things that hinder and help us learn and how this general topic relates so importantly to mentoring.

In the meantime, here’s some things to keep your brain busy. Keep these questions in the back of your head as you go through your work and home life. What do you come up with at the end of each day?

  1. How does state of mind impact training effectiveness and adoption?
  2. How can a person simply eradicate training or good judgment from thought?
  3. Why does taught knowledge not always “stick”?
  4. What is it in experiential learning that cements the lesson?
  5. How can we empower ourselves to learn, and then again by applying the learning?

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