Deliberate Learning Through Dynamic Design
Learning new ways of doing things can be invigorating. It can also be incredibly difficult and stressful as we grow older. Old dogs can learn new tricks…but only if we are deliberate about it. Despite the kitschy lines about ageing, researchers have found that our diminishing learning capacity is not directly attributable to our numerical maturity. Rather, it is associated with a reduction in our brain’s plasticity, or the flexibility and resilience, of our brains. As we age, we become increasingly comfortable and certain in what we know, more resistant to new ways of doing things and our neural connections and plasticity declines. This decline can profoundly affect our ability to learn those new tricks. But what if we deliberately unbalanced our certainty and normal learning patterns? Might that have the affect of accelerating the ability to learn. Here’s a couple of real and practical experiments that I ran that incorporated dynamic design.
Let’s start with my father, Monte, who is nearly 80 years old. Last year I tried to teach him how to use a smart phone. He was extremely resistant and clearly uncomfortable with the idea of using this “toy”. He provided me a plethora of compelling arguments about why he would never use it. But when we got down to the heart of the matter, he was fearful of learning. He admitted that it had been a long time since he had last put himself out on an intellectual limb to learn something new and couldn’t bring himself to stretch his mental faculties. So I decided to run a mini-experiment. Rather than conduct a lengthy tutorial about everything he would need to know about using a smart phone, I chunked the instruction into a few short intervals. Each learning interval had a subtle learning objective, practical problem or challenge to solve and then a step-by-step way of practicing it.
After teaching each application interval and him practicing it, I purposefully injected a “mental palate-cleansing” activity such as playing a card game or getting a cup of coffee. This form of activity shifting, or dynamic design, served several purposes. First, it allowed him to recover from the cognitive load of learning something new. Second, it afforded him time to process and reflect on the last activity which often leads to permanence. And lastly, it whetted his appetite to learning something else new. In the past, I would’ve impatiently crammed in every detail I could about using the phone and the result would be him shutting down and me growing frustrated. However, from this small experiment I quickly saw that his retention and recall increased and his motivation to continue learning and using the smartphone also increased. Today, he still is an avowed analog-man but has grown increasingly comfortable and familiar with using a smart-phone device. Next step is setting up his own Instagram account. Maybe not.
Maybe this could work for my father, but it begged the question of whether this approach could work well in the workplace with a team of high performing and ambitious professionals. So, a few months ago, I decided to try out this approach with a group of 20 professionals that were focusing on a learning-intensive topic: agile and lean experimentation methods. The session was scheduled for 8 hours and although the participants elected to be there, there remained the challenge of maintaining their attention and ensuring their learning despite the presence of every day work stressors. During the first half of the workshop, I intentionally designed the agenda to serve as a control, extending the length of teaching intervals and providing only a couple of short breaks. Not surprisingly, there was a high degree of engagement at the outset but a marked decline as the morning progressed. As important, there was a noticeably high level of distraction and a corresponding decrease in the level of learning and proficiency with the techniques.
After that unceremonious start in the AM session, I than ran the experimental 2nd session. This session was entirely different from the first. It was dynamically designed by dividing the session into numerous, varied time intervals, incorporated game mechanics into the teaching and infused interactive competitions amongst the teams. In addition, I also injected several, short “mental palette-cleanser breaks (e.g. a 3-minute improv game, a 5 minute walk). During the afternoon session, no single interval lasted more than 20 minutes and forced the participants to constantly shift their gears, keeping them unbalanced, highly engaged and stretching their learning response. This approach was used over a 4-hour period and the results were staggering in terms of the observed levels of engagement and learning. The body language, subject-matter recall and overall level of capability skyrocketed across virtually every participant as compared to the morning session. This result was even despite the disadvantage of running the test session after lunch, knowing that we would face the usual troughs of energy due to post-meal lethargy. Participants self-reported survey results supported the findings that using short, varied, time intervals and a steady rate of activity-shifting improved their overall experience, and more importantly, the learning experience.
The lifeblood of innovation and entrepreneurship is our ability to constantly remain curious and to learn. Learning keeps us mentally youthful and invigorated. But it is far from easy. By using dynamic design and regularly shifting intervals and introducing “mental palette-cleansers”, we can deliberately design for faster and more permanent learning.
Here’s a Challenge for You:
Take a topic or skill that you know well. Find someone who you feel might be open and interested in learning that skill or idea. Rather than teach it as a full module, design a first lesson with a few short intervals and incorporate a game. Watch and reflect on how it positively effects their learning and builds positive momentum for them wanting to continue to learn.