Psychological theory is learning theory. To understand people, behaviour, thinking and how the brain works a little more is to understand how people learn, how we are likely to act, to make choices, to automatically think.
There’s a lot of ‘neuroscience of learning’ around, complete with the neuro-bollox label. Neuroscience isn’t bollocks. Neuroscience is actually fascinating (especially if you’re a bit geeky about bio-psych like me) and continues to help us go beyond serotonin, dopamine, cortisol and oxytocin to understand the minute complexities of all the neurochemicals in play. It has remarkable potential, for example we still don’t fully understand mental health or have sound medications to support imbalances. There is also a caution, because for real world application neuroscience needs social, biological and psychological context to make sense in a useful and helpful way.
And then… the stuff I am reading and hearing that is titled neuroscience for learning is familiar because it’s Psychology 101. Not rocket science, not neuroscience, just psychology – the most interesting and curious subject of all. So here are my top 10 things that psychology has taught me about my L+D practice.
- Emotion is always present and is required for deep, long-term learning. We are in a constant state of regulation and balance within our nervous system; some of us do this more easily than others. Learning that shifts us to change and do something different taps into our beliefs and values, that guide our learned processes. As these are usually long held-foundations, accessing them with new information that doesn’t quite fit is threatening; it’s emotional. If you’re not feeling something, you’re not learning. It also means change isn’t an overnight event.
- To learn is to change and do something different. For change to happen, first there has to be full unbiased acceptance, validation, appreciation and understanding (yes all of those, genuinely) of the current status quo. Then we can look at new, different, moving it, altering it. On average a permanent change will occur after 7 attempts at the making the change.
- Well designed gamification models maximise the principles of addiction. There is no addictive personality, and therefore we can all experience these tendencies. A milder model of behavioural addiction would mirror a standard learning theory.
- Maslow matters. The opportunity to self-actualise is essential for learning that engages the whole person. Setting challenging tasks that utilise skills, knowledge and attitude combined are important.
- The environment matters. The Harlow monkeys didn’t choose the wire-monkey-mummy that had the food (seemingly the priority for survival). They chose the wire-monkey-mummy that was covered in cotton wool; the one that gave the best hugs. As per no.4 the basics are important too: a safe environment without judgement where error is accepted, building self-esteem through achievable steps, belonging via involvement in own learning. Furthermore (as I’m not linking you up and Harlow is not direct evidence) spatial awareness is a environmental contributor. Spending time expanding our peripheral awareness using visualisation can positively impact learning by providing space for more open and broader thinking – useful when we learn in a boxed square space/office hoping for creativity.
- Learning happens all the time, whether there is a L+D professional there or not. Look for it, seek it, notice it, and help it along a little.
- Learning something new and/or doing something different is a needs response to fulfil a function. If there is no need, there is unlikely to be any learning. Even if the end function or reason for learning isn’t obvious. If there is no clear need – don’t proceed with trying to get people learning. You’ll need to fully understand the need as starting point for facilitating any learning.
- We are much more likely to accept and fully assimilate (learn from) new information when it’s offered from our peers, and/or a setting of mutuality with the other person/people. An authoritative expert approach (e.g. I tell you this information is true and factual, and I’m credible, therefore you will now go away and use it) is likely to impact immediate and superficial change. However, new information presented as an offering for discussion and consideration before choosing to uptake or disregard is much more likely to be accepted.
- Reflective practice is learning in action. Do it. For everything and anything. Find a tool/model of reflective practice that suits you and push yourself to go on a reflective journey after a challenging day/conversation/experience.
- Learning cannot be done to. That isn’t learning, it’s something else. “Just do this and that will happen” is not enough. We are not purely behavioural, and we don’t go directly from A to B. We go swiftly and often automatically (learnt behaviour) from A to C and there is always a B in-between A and C, whether situated in our consciousness or subconsciousness. Learning with lasting application works on B; the belief, the automatic thought (see no.1).