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Beware the shiny objects of learning

Do your learning programs rely on science or flash? Learn how to apply the latest learning science insights when evaluating learning solutions.

Peter Talmers | May 25, 2017

Remember Baby Einstein? Those “educational” videos aimed at infants and toddlers claiming to boost a baby’s abilities? While it was a wonderfully branded product (bought by Disney), its ultimate fate was not so brilliant. In 2009, Disney offered full refunds on the product to millions of parents.

Why? Because research showed that videos have a neutral or possibly even negative impact on a child’s development across a number of measures, particularly when used as a substitute for social interaction with a caring adult. A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics discredited practices like using videos to improve the language skills of infants. In fact, research has frequently shown reduced verbal ability of children who watched extensive television under age two—the heart of Baby Einstein’s 0-4-year-old target audience. So that’s a story from baby education.

What about business education? Does corporate training rely on more robust science than infant videos? Most solutions claim to improve learning, but executives must take care to avoid the Baby Einsteins of learning and development (L&D). What should they look for? In a word: science.

For decades, vendors have promoted “engaging” product features, rather than evidence that their products promote learning. The exciting news is that we now have an extensive empirical base from which to draw. Cognitive scientists and neuroscientists have conducted hundreds of studies on how people learn that are almost completely overlooked by the industry. Why? Not from lack of interest, but from lack of awareness. This must change.

4 scientific insights to apply when assessing learning solutions

The following learning science insights are based on the stuff CFO dreams are made of: quantitative data, rigorous analysis, and extensive dissection of results. Keep these lessons in mind when buying or assessing learning solutions.

  1. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

  2. A well-designed platform might make a learning product more visually appealing, but does it make it more valuable? No. While bells and whistles may be interesting, they do not often correlate to building skill. Research shows that learning transfer is driven by the application, practice, and reflective feedback workers receive in repeated ways over time. These are the core elements to emphasize when deciding on a learning approach. Does the learning solution you are considering include opportunity for all three of these elements? If not, the solution may be nothing more than a compelling visual experience.

  3. Pre and post can get you the most.

  4. While training events are great anchors, they should be sandwiched between ramp up and reinforcement activity. In fact, what workers experience before and after training can be more predictive of successful learning than what happens during training. Recent neuroscience research has shown “strong evidence that positive anticipation has an impact on the formation of new learning” and “there is evidence that initial testing of newly learned items, with a small delay after the learning event, will further drive the building of long term memory.”

  5. Leaders need to lead.

  6. More broadly, researchers have found that overall attitude and atmosphere of learning drives results. The dominant role of leaders is so powerful that even “one misdirected comment by a team leader can wipe out the full effects of a training program.” Conversely, positive supportive comments that frame learning as an opportunity—not an assessment of weakness—increase skill transfer significantly. This means executives must take ownership for learning success by creating an environment that advocates training as an investment to be managed. It also means executives should not sweat the vendor solution more than they need to. Technology and content are only part of the solution. They may be the seeds of learning, but they require fertile soil in which to take root.

  7. Non-learning could be your ace in the hole.

  8. The proliferation of information today is simply staggering. The cost to distribute information was once very high (make photocopies and send through the post office), but is now approaching zero (retweet, reply all, share). Yet the cost to your brain to process that information has remained constant. We can’t read any faster than we did years ago, but we have more to read. And with more to sift through, there is higher cognitive load on our brains, which can cause our mental performance to fatigue and erode.

    What to do? Stop “learning” so much. Don’t make “knowledge retention” your primary goal. Move from a mindset of acquiring knowledge to a focus on accessing and applying it. In L&D speak, this means shifting from a training delivery mindset to a performance support mindset—from a “push” content perspective to a “pull” perspective.
“Training should teach people where and how to find information rather than seeking to have them retain that information in memory.”
Eduardo Salas, PhD

Use data to learn faster and smarter

Intrigued? A rich body of empirical knowledge is increasingly available for CLOs and learning leaders to sharpen their learning strategies. Other professions are being transformed by elevating the role of data to inform practice. Just think of Moneyball’s impact on baseball or Freakonomics’ impact on economics and social behavior. L&D’s turn is coming. Armed with this science you can help your organization learn faster—and smarter.

Peter Talmers

Peter Talmers is a Chicago-based solution principal in Slalom’s Organizational Effectiveness practice. With deep experience in human capital management, he helps organizations achieve their goals through strategies that help people be and do their best. Follow him on LinkedIn.