Priming the Learning Appartus for Future Learning

Most of what we call "training" is designed with the intention of improving people’s performance on the job. While it is true that much of training does not do this very well, it is still true that on-the-job performance is the singular stated goal of training.

But something is missing from this model. What’s missing is that a learning intervention can also prepare learners for future on-the-job learning. Let’s think this through a bit.

People on the job—people in any situation—are faced with a swarm of stimuli that they have to make sense of. Their mental models of how the world works will determine what they perceive. I’ve noticed this myself when I walk in the woods with experienced bird watchers. I hear birds, but can’t see them, no matter how hard I look. Experienced bird watchers see birds where I see nothing. The same stimuli have different outcomes because the expert birders have superior mental models about where birds might locate themselves.

The same is true for many things. As a better-than-average chess player, I will understand the patterns of the pieces better than a novice will. Experienced computer programmers see things that inexperienced programmers do not. Experienced lawyers will understand the nuances in someone’s testimony more than a novice lawyer.

Experience enables distinctions to be drawn between otherwise ambiguous stimuli. It enables people to perceive things that others don’t perceive. It helps people notice what others ignore.

Learning can be designed to provide amazing-grace moments, helping those who were once blind to see. If we’re serious about on-the-job learning, we ought to begin to build models of how to design formal learning to facilitate informal on-the-job learning.

Dan Schwartz, PhD (a learning psychologist at Stanford) has written recently about a concept called Preparation for Future Learning or PFL. Schwartz argues that generally poor transfer results may be due to the common practice of assessing what was learned but failing to assess what learners are able to learn. This makes a lot of sense given how complex the real world is, how learners forget stuff so quickly, and how much they learn on the job.

Schwartz and his colleagues are working on ways to improve future learning by using "contrasting cases" that enable  learners to see distinctions they hadn’t previously noticed. This concept might be used in formal training courses to prepare learners to see things they hadn’t seen before when they return to the job. For example, a manager being trained on supervisory skills may be taught that some decisions require group input, whereas other decisions require managers to decide on their own. Cases of both types could be provided in training so that relevant distinctions will be better noticed on the job.

A different way to prepare learners for future learning is to prime them with questions. In my dissertation research, I included one experiment that I asked college students questions about campus attractions. For example, I asked them what the statue "Alma Mater" was carrying. A week later, I suprised the students by asking them some of the same questions again. The results revealed that simply asking them questions (even when no feedback was provided) improved how much they paid attention to the items on which they were queried. Between the two sets of questions, learners apparently paid attention to the statue in ways they hadn’t before. By being asked about an item, the learners were more likely to spend time learning about that item when they encountered those items in their day-to-day walking around.

There are likely to be other similar learning opportunities, but the point is that we need ways to design our learning interventions to intentionally create these types of learning responses. I’m going to be thinking about this for a while. My hope is that you will too.

Perhaps these meager paragraphs have prepared you for future learning. SMILE.