Did you ever wonder why training fails more often than not? Why important material, meant to improve or educate, is not learned or acted upon? Why perfectly smart people keep doing the same things that didn’t work the first time when they have the opportunity to learn something better?
The problem isn’t the value of information or the eagerness of the learner but a problem with both the training model itself and the way brains learn. In this article, I’ll explain how to design training to facilitate learning.
BRAINS (MIS)TRANSLATE INCOMING MESSAGES
Learning is a systems/change problem, and our brain is in charge. While certainly a complex set of unconscious activities, I’ll break it down simplistically: our brain automatically translates and filters incoming messages as per our history of what we already know. This is how we make sense of and understand what we hear. It’s also how we restrict our worlds.
When new/unique content enters our awareness, our brain has no circuits to translate it and we end up mistranslating, misunderstanding, or resisting the new without realizing that what we think we heard might be inaccurate. It’s a brain thing, and we’re the unwitting victims of our lazy brains.
Our brain circuitry makes sense of our worlds for us based on our unique mental models (our personal norms, beliefs, history etc.) that form the foundation of who we are and determine our choices. Our behaviors are the vehicles that represent these internal systems- our beliefs in action, if you will. Everything we do, hear, or notice comes from instructions our brain sends us from existing circuits that have already been programmed and accepted by our system to represent us. And herein lie the problem.
When new knowledge enters our brains, it’s likely we have no circuits to translate it into meaning. Nor has our system approved it, making it a potential threat to our previously programmed system of neural pathways, cell assemblies, and electrochemical activity, (regardless of the efficacy of the new knowledge).
The result makes learning something new challenging: With no choice but to consider something not approved a threat, we automatically (and unconsciously) resist, misinterpret, or ignore what we have no circuits to translate! In other words, with the best material, the best trainer, and motivated minds, new material will be resisted unless there is a neural set-up to interpret it.
BRAINS MAINTAIN OUR STATUS QUO
Because our brains automatically resist anything that hasn’t been approved, regardless of the efficacy, learners given information before they have new cell assemblies may not be able to make the required change the new material requires: information in and of itself does not create new circuitry.
The other problem is a pure brain thing. Because the new doesn’t enter with an existing infrastructure to receive it, our brains have no place to store it uniquely. Hence learners practice well during the experiential portions of a program, but they can’t continue their proficiency after they leave because they have no neural capabilities to make the new knowledge permanent.
But there’s a way to design training programs that incorporates change with new neural circuit development. Let’s begin by examining the standard training model itself.
HOW WE TRAIN
The design of most training is information-transfer based and potentially poses problems when
- learner’s brains don’t recognize the need for anything new,
- the new material may come up against long-held (sometimes unconscious) beliefs and put the learner’s system out of balance,
- there are no existing circuits that accurately translate the incoming information.
The current training model assumes that if new material is important and useful, offered in a logical, informative, interesting way, and offers experiential learning, learners will accept it. But this assumption is faulty and largely responsible for the 80% failure rate of most training programs.
Standard training offers new content based on the trainer’s goals and knowledge, using their own verbiage and language structure, and assume that a learner’s brain will be similarly configured and know what to do with the content they’re offering! In other words, current training models attempt to push something foreign (i.e. new knowledge) into a closed system (the learner’s status quo) that is perfectly happy as it is and has no circuitry to translate it.
Effective training must first enable learners to design new circuitry that will accept, then translate the new information.
Training must enable
- buy-in from the belief/system and status quo;
- the system to discover its own areas of lack and create an acceptable opening for change;
- the system to develop new circuitry to ‘translate’ and hold the new material so it will be available when called upon
before the new material is adopted and available for habitual use.
I had a problem to resolve when designing my first Buying Facilitation® training program in 1983. Because my content ran counter to an industry norm, I had to help learners overcome a set of standardized beliefs and accepted processes endemic to the field.
Since change isn’t sought out until the system, the status quo, finds an incongruence, I eschewed offering lecture or new ideas and instead began by helping learners first recognize that their habitual skills were insufficient and higher success ratios were possible by adding new ones. For this I designed a series of exercises to help learners self-recognize where they had gaps in their automatic choices, then try to resolve the problem with their current skills. Where this failed, they were eager to seek out new learning as their best option. From there, I helped them create new, approved, neural circuits.
I called this training design Learning Facilitation and have used this model successfully for decades. (See my paper in The 2003 Annual: Volume 1 Training [Jossey-Bass/Pfieffer]: “Designing Curricula for Learning Environments Using a Facilitative Teaching Approach to Empower Learners” pp 263-272).
Here’s how I design courses:
- Day 1 offers exercises and self-study questionnaires that help learners recognize the components of their unconscious status quo while identifying skills necessary for greater excellence: specifically, what they do that works and what they do that doesn’t work, and how their current skills match up with their unique definition of excellence within the course parameters. Once they learn exactly what is missing among their current skill sets, and they determine what, specifically, they need to add to achieve excellence, then they know exactly what they need to learn.
- Day 2 enables learners to create a route in their brains that carry the core beliefs of the new content to be added and then tests for, and manages, acceptance and resistance. Only then does new information and new behaviors get introduced and practiced.
- Day 3 practices and integrates the new material. Learners leave with new circuitry for new, automatic, permanent behaviors.
Courses are designed with ‘learning’ in mind (rather than content sharing/behavior change) and looks quite different from conventional training. For example because ‘information’ is the last thing offered, Day 1 uses no desks, no notes, no computers, no phones, and no lectures. I teach learners how to enlist and expand their unconscious to facilitate buy-in for new material, then when there are new circuits in place, offer the new information.
Whether it’s my training model or your own, just ask yourself: Do you want to train? Or have someone learn? They are two different activities. To enable learning, it’s necessary to first facilitate brain change before offering content. I’m happy to discuss my training model or help you develop training programs that enable learning. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharon-drew.com She can be reached at email@example.com.