How we think we learn vs. how we actually learn.

Dr. Robert Bjork has a huge body of research around scientifically-backed learning and much of it is counter-intuitive to what we've been taught. One myth he has uncovered is about how valid our idea of learning styles actually is. So, what's the problem with the idea of learning styles? How is it not serving us?

Dr. Bjork says this myth leads people to underestimate their learning capacities - and in fact, it is counterproductive and limiting, as it causes people to opt-out of certain domains of learning under the false belief that they aren't capable. Hear more from him here:

Even though the idea appeals to people there is no evidence to support it! So, how do we actually learn something? Think about something you would consider yourself an expert in (Harry Potter Trivia, Gardening, Motorcycles, Art History, Sports). Now as you consider those topics consider how you've learned all you know about that topic. Was it by reading a bunch of text-book information about the subject? Almost definitely not.

Gardening is a good example for me. When I first started gardening years ago I didn't know how to tell swiss chard from beet greens, or that purple potatoes put off purple flowers and white potatoes have white flowers (I didn't even know they flowered at all). The way I learned those things was through repeated, spaced out, trial and error practice being a gardener. The cyclical nature of gardening requires that you pick it up and put it down throughout the year. In the spring when the seed catalogs come out you start to daydream about what you will plant and put WAY TOO MANY seeds in your cart, and then eventually land on some and buy them. Each year you are revisiting the information about when to plant what, and how much to thin your carrots and when, and usually it's all happening in between the babies napping and a little work here and there and making dinner, etc. It's not a linearly planned learning event.


In learning to garden I unwittingly followed many of the ideas about the science of successful learning presented in Make it Stick by Brown, Roediger & McDaniel. Illustrated here in the infographic to the left (used by permission and retrieved from The Education Cogitation).

Most of what I learned was through trial and error. I never sat down with a book about gardening and crammed or highlighted large sections. I just started doing it, and made mistakes and learned from my mistakes and kept trying, and almost without noticing I developed a huge amount of information about what it takes to grow food. This naturally led to learning about food preservation. Since the stakes are a little higher *ahem -botulism* I actually read online about how to properly can food and watched a few youtube videos - and then asked my Mom for a lesson the first time I actually wanted to can some of my overwhelming quantities of food.*

As an aside, my friend's Dad runs a large garden for the Oregon Food Bank and he once said if you have to buy zucchini in the summer in Oregon then you don't have any friends. 😆

I can look back and see that I utilized most of the 10 steps outlined while becoming a gardener: I solved problems I didn't know that answers to, I had a growth mindset, I spaced it out and mixed it up, I made connections and reflected.

*The truth is I quickly got bored of the meticulous and controlled approach that preserving food requires and handed it over to my husband - who loves that sort of thing - and got back to the messy and organic business of pulling weeds and thinning plants, which is much more forgiving when done wrong.


What does that mean for organizations and the learners that haven't been doing it right? What about all the wasted time spent spinning our wheels on the wrong approach to organizational learning. Combine science-based learning strategies with a growth mindset. In the words of Carol Dweck (the growth mindset expert):

instead of luxuriating in the power of yet, [we are] gripped in the tyranny of now.

Quit being tyrannized by right now and set your mind to what is yet to come. Motivate yourself and your employees by praising the process, difficulty, and complexity of learning. Innovation is not birthed from a desire to get it right the first time. And, as is often the case, choosing the road less traveled can make all the difference. There is no easy button.


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