What is learning?

This series of posts is about how to learn people skills, and dialogue skills in particular.  So what does it mean to learn something?

I fear our education system gives us the wrong idea of what learning is about.  It’s easy to finish one’s days as a student, and leave with the impression that learning is about knowledge acquitistion. But it’s not really.  Does a baby learn to walk by acquiring knowledge?  No, they learn by practicing.  Does a teenager learn to drive by acquiring knowledge?  Not really.  Although knowing the rules of the road is important, the key ingredient in learning to drive is practice.

If you can recall learning to drive, do you remember how difficult it first seemed?  How there seemed to be too much going on around you?  How, even with all the concentration you could muster, it seemed almost impossible to do the right thing at the right time?

But what about now? On an empty road, do you find yourself driving on “automatic pilot” – thinking mostly about something else?  An activity which once seemed almost impossible has now become so easy that, in simple cases, you scarcely need to think about it.  What made the difference?  Practice.

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman wrote an absolutely wonderful book that explains what is happening when we practice.  How the powerful “automatic” part of our brain slowly acquires the skill in question, freeing up the “effortful” part of our brain to direct its attention elsewhere.   This transition, from effortful thought to automatic and unconscious pattern recoginiction, is essential to true skill or expertise.

So how do we “train” this powerful automatic part of our brain?  By exposing it to lots of relevant experiences. For a baby first learning to stand up, those experiences consist largely of not standing – i.e. falling – in almost every possible way.  Slowly, and largely unconsciously, the brain learns the difference between “standing” and all the different kinds of “not standing”.  James Bach described the same thing for learning to fly an aeroplane.  Failure – within the limits of avoiding serious damage to plane or occupants – was a key part of the process. The impression I took away from his talk, and which has since been reinforced by reading Kahneman’s book, is that success only becomes ingrained in us if we also experience the various kinds of failure that lie at its fringes.

Learning dialogue skills will be no different.  Yes, learning some knowledge is important. And there is plenty of knowledge to learn.  But the real difference comes from practice.

For me, it seems to have worked like this:

  1. Learn a few pieces of knowledge that are relevant to my current needs. For instance, when I read Crucial Conversations several things stuck in my mind because they seemed relevant to situations I was in at the time.  Many other great things in the book didn’t “stick” on first reading, but that’s fine because there’s too much to digest all at once anyway.
  2. Consciously practice applying those things that I’ve learned.  Generally, each bit of practice has been only a small step, just enough to slightly stretch the boundaries of my comfort zone.  My hunch is that it’s best not to seek perfection (how would you recognise it anyway, in an area you haven’t yet mastered?) but instead to delight in finding opportunities to practice.
  3. Once some of the practiced skills start to become second nature (“automatic”), that frees up headspace. So, even though I may be continuing to consciously practice some things, I can let the others run on “autopilot” and look around for something new to learn.  (E.g. re-read Crucial Conversations and get something new out of it).

This series of posts will contain a mixture – both pointers to useful knowledge and tips on how to practice. In the next two posts I’ll talk about practicing when you are expecting the conversation to be difficult (this can be good, because you can prepare for it) and also about creating useful practice from those situations that catch you by surprise.

Footnote

I suspect the misconception, that learning is primarily about knowledge acquisition, is fairly widespread.  I presume it comes from the education system’s emphasis on recalling knowledge in formal tests.  It’s ironic that our biggest misconception about learning comes from the education system!  Yet it needn’t be that way.  Educators do know the value of practice – that’s why they made you work out the answers to so many maths problems!  They were getting you to practice! Perhaps it would help if the value of practice was simply talked about more.  If we could talk about it more than we talk about testing students, that would be even better!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Answer this to prove you are human *