One of the most important topics covered in the Designing Learning certificate program that I teach for ATD is the neuroscience of how humans learn. Thanks to breakthroughs in medical science, we now know much more about how the brain functions when in a state of learning. Applying this to instructional design and delivery of training promotes natural learning methods that tap into the way our brains are programmed to learn from the moment of our birth until our last breath.
So, what has science taught us about how humans learn? Learning begins with our five senses and their ability to experience the world around us. Those experiences are filtered through our short-term memory, which processes and assigns meaning to the sensory information it receives. Some of that information is transferred to our long-term memory, where it joins the repository of everything we know and have experienced in our lives. When we need a piece of that knowledge, we use memory and references to help us recall it from our long-term memory bank. The process is illustrated below.
Based on Memory Model by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin (1968)
Note that as information enters and is processed by the brain, it can either be forgotten or passed along to our long-term memory, where it becomes a permanent part of us. We forget for a number of reasons. First, our senses may become overloaded by too much stimuli. If we try to process a rapid series of images, we are likely to forget much of what just passed before our eyes. Second, our working memory is also subject to overload. While it is a marvelous processing center, it has limited capacity, typically no more than 7-9 discrete pieces of information. Once we go beyond its capacity, the working memory can no longer process new information without getting rid of what it currently contains. For example, imagine someone quickly reciting their telephone number in a voice mail message. What is the likelihood you will remember that 10 digit number without writing it down? Unless we encode new information in our long-term memory for future use, the information that we never use is forgotten forever and must be relearned. Finally, our long-term memory can also cause us to forget when we are unable to retrieve (remember) a piece of knowledge when we need it. We’ve all had the experience of having the name of something on the tip of our tongues, yet we can’t recall it.
What causes us to remember? One important factor is rehearsal or practice. The more often we repeat something, the more likely we will remember it and be able to use it on demand. That’s why we easily remember our own phone number, one we have likely had a long time and use frequently, while we don’t remember the phone numbers of acquaintances we rarely call. Other key factors which contribute to remembering are:
Interest in the subject – we tend to remember what fascinates us and to forget what bores us
Effort – learning requires our full attention and considerable effort. When we fail to give it our all, we learn less.
Recency – we tend to remember what just happened better than events in the distant past.
Sensory integration – the more senses that are involved in the memory, the more vivid it becomes and the more likely we will remember it later. Our visual sense is the most powerful for learning.
Emotional element – we tend to remember events with a high emotional component, such as births, marriages and deaths.
Physical well-being – we learn best when we are rested and well-nourished. Stress and sleep deprivation make learning even harder than it already is.
Besides applying these fundamental learning principles, we can also promote more natural learning by tapping into the way our brains work in processing new information.
Robert Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction
According to educational psychologist Robert Gagne, the process of learning involves nine key events as shown above. Let’s now explore each of these in more detail to see how they help participants learn.
1. Gain attention
We need to prepare learners by giving them reasons to learn the subject at hand. We can appeal to self-interest (WIIFM) or point out the importance of the knowledge and skills to be acquired.
2. Orient the learner
We learn best when we see the big picture and meaning of the subject before diving into the details. Providing a list of learning objectives and the requirements for successful learning helps learners orient themselves and gauge the amount of effort required to succeed.
3. Stimulate recall of prior learning
It helps us learn something new if we can relate it to something we already know or have experienced in the past. So it’s a good idea to ask learners about their past experiences and to use analogies to relate new content to familiar knowledge. One thing to watch for is when prior knowledge contradicts the new knowledge. In those cases, the prior learning will actually be a barrier to learning something new. It may be necessary to first unlearn the old way before learning the new way.
4. Present content material
Presentation is the most obvious process of instruction, although it is often done through passive lecture which leads to forgetfulness. To make presentation more effective, it should organize and chunk knowledge into meaningful bites that working memory can process. This lowers the cognitive load on the learner. It is also helpful to use multimedia to engage the senses and to engage learners in discussion and Q&A to deepen their understanding.
5. Provide learner guidance
Make the learning process simpler at first by providing instructional support and models. Use case studies and examples to illustrate the application of knowledge.
6. Elicit performance practice
Help learners internalize new knowledge and skills through relevant practice. As much as possible, practice should model what learners are expected to do on the job. Avoid practice that only calls for rote recall.
7. Provide informative feedback
To facilitate learning, provide feedback on the practice activities that learners engage in. Two types of feedback are important: 1) confirmatory feedback that reinforces what learners did right and 2) corrective feedback that points out mistakes and ways to correct them.
8. Assess performance
To measure newly gained knowledge and skill and evaluate the effectiveness of the instruction, assessment should be included and based on the learning objectives. This can be done through traditional written exams or through performance-based assessment of the learner or a product the learner has produced. A pre-test is useful to isolate the learning gains caused by instruction.
9. Enhance retention and transfer
Learning does not become performance unless applied on the job. To encourage skill transfer, provide job aids and reference materials that are accessible to learners on the job and encourage supervisors and experienced employees to continue skill building through coaching and mentoring.
In Gagne’s books, Conditions of Learning and Theory of Instruction, he argued that these nine events should form the framework for instructional design. Each lesson, module and course should incorporate these events based on the objectives. He presented many examples to illustrate how this theory can be implemented in a wide variety of educational settings.
To learn more about the psychological process of learning and the best ways to analyze, design and develop effective adult training programs, consider registering for an upcoming ATD Designing Learning certificate program. I will be facilitating this course from December 13-15 in San Francisco. More sessions are coming in 2018.
Globalization is under attack. It is the revenge of the Nativists. Across the world, people voted for nationalistic populists who promised to save them by erecting walls and cutting off ties with the rest of the world. Transnational corporations who have benefited the most from the global economy are the new bogeymen. It remains to be seen whether this is a temporary setback for globalists or the beginnings of retreat from a world order created out of the ashes of World War II.
DSA Presidential Election
A year ago, I predicted the American presidential race would come down to a choice between hope and hate. After the most divisive election since the Civil War, the result was also divided. Clinton won the popular vote 48 to 46%, making her the winner in every other functioning democracy in the world except America. Thanks to the Electoral College, an 18th century relic of slavery and the Founders’ distrust of “We, the People,” Donald J Trump will become our next President instead. So, I guess hope and hate fought to a draw, except that hate actually gets to govern.
Trump won on the basis of a new brand of anti-global populism, which also swept the UK with the Brexit vote and brought Duterte to power in the Philippines, to name only two examples. People have had it up to here with elites living the high life while their lives are mired in perpetual debt. The populists view globalization as a threat to their economic livelihoods and their cultural identities. Trump stirred these two strains into a toxin that blamed immigrants and minorities for the economic plight of the white working class. He used the classic principle of divide and conquer to get his followers to turn their fear, anger and hate against Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, gays and anyone else who is not White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. In Trump’s DSA, you’re welcome only if you are White. “Everyone else should get the hell out and go back to where they came from!” Trump even wants Native Americans to hightail it back across the Bering Strait and take their gambling casinos with them.
In the greatest con job in the history of America (and that’s saying a lot), Trump convinced just enough people that he was their working class celebrity hero come to their rescue. This from a man born in the lap of luxury who has never had to work an honest day of manual labor in his entire life! A man who dodges his tax obligations, hates unions, stiffs his contractors, and sexually harasses his female employees. This is the man who will save the working class? Forty-six percent of Americans bought this line. P.T. Barnum was right: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Journalist H.L. Mencken’s observation also comes to mind: “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” Judging by the Billionaire Boys Club that Trump has assembled for a Cabinet, the working class better not bend over, to use one of Trump’s favorite campaign rally lines.
Are Americans really as divided as our politics suggest? Let me count the ways:
Democrat vs. Republican
Progressive vs. Conservative
Urban vs. Rural
Free trade vs. Protectionism
Pro-choice vs. Pro-life
Christian vs. Muslim vs. Jew
Raise taxes vs. Cut taxes
Public vs. Private Education
Public Health vs. Privatization
Black Lives Matter vs. Police Unions
Carbon vs. Renewables
Environmentalists vs. Polluters
Organic vs. GMO
Peaceniks vs. Hawks
Conservation vs. Consumption
Developers vs. NIMBYs
Football vs. Soccer
Rock vs. Country
Mini vs. Maxi
Paper vs. Plastic
Boxers vs. Briefs
We disagree about virtually everything these days and do it more vehemently and profanely than ever before. We have huge bullhorns weaponized by social media and the entertainment industry to dispense our hateful opinions for all to hear.
To illustrate how divided we are, Americans in California voted for the first Afro-Indian-American Senator in history, banned sales of military-style ammunition and legalized recreational cannabis, while voters in Alabama elected candidates endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, legalized open carry of weapons and banned a woman’s right to abortion. Californians actually have more in common with Australians than Alabamans, and arguably, the Aussie accent is easier on the ears.
Perhaps that’s why a nascent Cal Exit movement has started in California in Trump’s toxic wake. We would become the sixth largest economy in the world and if we could persuade Oregon, Washington and Hawaii to join us, we would rival Germany for the fourth largest economy in the world and become the Chile of North America. Of course, I’m dreaming, but what a fantasy!
Despite all these differences, however, I notice that when I travel around our nation, as I frequently do for business, the people I encounter daily do not act like my hostile opponent. For the most part, Americans mind their own business and treat others politely. It is only when we feel threatened that the deep divisions that sunder us come into play. Economic anxiety leads to anger which leads to hatred towards a scapegoat which leads us to the Alt-Right and Trumpism. You might think that the working class would reject an oligarch like Trump, but instead they worship him. They reserve their real contempt for those they perceive to be below them on the social ladder. The Russian author Pushkin explained this best when he observed about the serfs of feudal Russia, “The poor are miserable until they find someone who is even more miserable than they are, and then they are happy.” So Trump supporters are dancing in the streets and committing hate crimes smugly assured that at least they are better off than the people Trump promises to run out of the country.
I realize this is purely wishful thinking, but here are a few of my modest proposals to reform the broken electoral process in the DSA:
Abolish the Electoral College and have a direct popular vote for President, just like every other elected office in America and the rest of the world. What can possibly be wrong with majority rule based on one person, one vote? What’s the valid argument against this principle?
Guarantee citizens the right to vote
Believe it or not, our constitution does not include a guaranteed right to vote, despite describing elections. The reason for this was that back in 1787, only white males who owned property were allowed to vote. They constituted less than 20% of the population, but had all the power. Voting rights were left to states to decide, encouraging more of them to abridge voting rights for political advantage, leaving millions of Americans without representation. Photo ID and restricted voter registration laws, coupled with antiquated voting systems, have thrown millions of citizens off the voting rolls or relegated them to a provisional ballot that never gets counted. We could make voting as simple as paying a bill, but the politicians won’t do it. You have to ask yourself why they are so hell-bent on preventing people from exercising the most precious right granted by a democracy?
Get money out of politics.
The obscene sum of money spent on a two-year presidential election represents real government waste and fraud. Over a billion dollars to listen to candidates insult each other and the electorate’s intelligence on the public airwaves? It’s no wonder we abhor politicians. Elections should be confined to no more than 12 months and dark money and legalized political bribery must be outlawed.
Require politicians to adhere to Truth in Advertising laws.
Advertisements on the public airwaves must comply with laws that require advertisers to tell the truth about the products they pitch. This prevents someone from claiming that their snake oil cures cancer. But politicians exempted themselves from these laws. Political ads are the only ones on TV that can lie with total impunity, under the fig leaf of free speech. If political ads had to comply with truth in advertising, we would clean up the worst abuses of our election process. For that matter, so-called “News” programs should also have to conform to Truth in Advertising instead of propagating fake news and one-sided opinion. Fox News should be required to rebrand as GOP TV (GOPTV) and MSNBC should have to rebrand as the Democratic News Channel (DNC). At least that way, the public would know what they are watching.
Free trade was a big buzz word in 2016, with a decidedly negative connotation. From both the left and right, free trade came under attack for the loss of American jobs and the sluggish recovery from the Great Recession. Calls for a return to protectionist tariffs abounded on the campaign trail.
According to economists, the data says that free trade has been a boon to the global economy, enabling the free flow of goods and creating a burst of development in Asia, Latin America and Africa, which had been left behind in the past. The problem is that free trade did not benefit nations equally. Some came out winners, while others lost. For America, the real problem with free trade, dating back to its origins with Richard Nixon in the 1970s, is that we were not trading goods with other nations, but trading American jobs for cheap imported goods. Transnational corporations, who largely wrote the free trade agreements under which we operate today, allowed themselves to trade high-paying factory jobs in America for low wage labor in China and then import those cheaper goods back to America duty-free, with only the shipping charges to pay. This policy has cost America over 15 million manufacturing jobs.
The result is that America is running a $750-billion-dollar trade deficit with the rest of the world. No other nation comes close to this deficit, nor would any other nation tolerate such imbalance. So why does the DSA? Because it benefits powerful U.S.-based transnational corporations who operate global businesses to maximize profits at all costs by searching for the cheapest sources of labor, the lowest cost producers of raw materials and the most sheltered tax havens, all while bequeathing the disasters they leave in their wake for governments to clean up at the public expense. It’s called privatizing the profits and socializing the costs. They actually teach how to do this in some of the leading business schools these days.
Trump’s call to renegotiate trade deals like NAFTA and TPP and to slap a 5-15% tariff on imports played well during the campaign, but it may never happen. If we did impose new tariffs, it is certain our trading partners would retaliate with their own tariffs, causing prices of imports to rise and risking a trade war that would send the global economy into another deep recession.
A better idea would be to impose the social costs of lost jobs on those companies that choose to dump their American workers in search of cheap labor. Like most European countries currently require, America should force companies who engage in mass layoffs in order to ship jobs overseas to pay the full cost of unemployment insurance for as long as it takes for their laid off workers to find new jobs. They should also be forced to pay for retraining these workers to help them find new careers. If companies knew they were financially responsible for the livelihood of their displaced workers, they would rethink their desire to chase slave wage labor around the globe.
As always, cultural trends continued to evolve in 2016. Here’s a run-down of some of the most significant ones.
My sons introduced me to this phenomenon with their enthusiastic embrace of playing video games and watching pros play in tournaments in front of thousands of cheering fans. Steven even joined his university’s e-sports team, which competed in tournaments against other colleges. Some universities are awarding e-sports scholarships, like they do for traditional athletes. This is a trend that promises to explode in popularity as millennials embrace this new form of entertainment.
Exterminating Life on Planet Earth:
With no fanfare and little notice, several hundred species disappeared in 2016, a growing trend that shows no signs of stopping. From disappearing bees to extinct fish to alarming declines in large mammal populations like elephants and rhinos, we are witnessing the beginning of another mass extinction on Earth. The last time it happened, we humans weren’t around, but the dinosaurs disappeared after roaming the Earth for over 100 million years. If we do not wake up and start to address the causes: global warming, rampant overdevelopment, pollution and animal poaching, we will suffer the same fate as the dinosaurs.
In 2016, we crossed another deadly threshold when carbon dioxide in our atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (PPM). For those readers who are not science geeks, the last time the atmosphere contained that much carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat, over an extended period, dinosaurs inhabited the Earth, Canada was in the tropics and sea level was 25 feet higher than today, due to the melting of polar ice caps. Can you imagine what life will be like when sea level rises 25 feet? Every major port and most of the metropolitan areas of the world will be under water, displacing billions of people.
The world’s population crossed the seven billion mark in 2016, at least according to the best estimates. We are actually reproducing like rabbits these days, more quickly than demographers can keep up with the numbers. In my lifetime, world population has grown from 2 billion to 7 billion. We are on pace to hit 12 billion by 2100. This rapid increase in population is unsustainable. We already have cultivated over half the arable land on the planet and have little place to put the five billion people who will join us over the next 85 years. Back in the 70s, Paul Ehrlich warned of this impending disaster in his book The Population Bomb. We didn’t listen then and probably won’t listen now either. Family planning is opposed by too many of our institutions.
Training Education Management LLC continued a string of strong years, with steady employment at Southern California Edison couple with work from American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and Association for Talent Development (ATD). Training and human development are hot right now. Savvy business leaders recognize that their human capital is their best competitive advantage. ATD’s annual State of the Industry for 2016 showed healthy increases in investment in training and talent development. I expect this will continue for at least the next ten years, as 300,000 baby boomers retire every month and are replaced by about 150,000 millennials. When companies are hiring, they also tend to be training.
I continued volunteer work through Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), where I counsel budding entrepreneurs at the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce and serve on their Economic Development Council. As Volunteer of the Year for the Redondo Chamber in 2015-16, I have redoubled my efforts to give back to my local community, especially in encouraging youth to consider careers as entrepreneurs.
On a personal note, my two sons, Vince and Steven, had very good years as well. Vince is working in the video game industry for one of the top firms and developing his own entrepreneurial plans to launch a business focused on a Better Legacy for the future. And to think, I kept telling him as a kid that he was wasting his life playing video games all day! Steven is a junior at Cal State University Fullerton and manages to be a student, worker and father simultaneously. Granddaughter Jade is our pride and joy. She is four going on forty, learning Chinese and English, and can actually carry on a more logical conversation, in two languages, than I ever managed to have with a Trump supporter. My mother, Harriet Hurlburt, now lives with me most of the year. It’s been a real pleasure to spend so much time with the person who gave me life and knows me better than anyone else in the world. Tania and I had the pleasure of visiting Hearst Castle on the central California coast and Santa Barbara this summer. I also made separate business trips to Abu Dhabi and Edmonton, Canada this year.
No year in review is complete without a look back at some of the memorable moments we won’t soon forget, even if we wished we could.
To Hillary Clinton:
You came so agonizingly close and yet could not shatter the thickest glass ceiling of them all. As the first female candidate for President, you had to run against a misogynist celebrity, the FBI, the Russians, and even your husband’s twenty- year old infidelities. Thanks for trying so relentlessly and for going high when Trump went so very low. My disappointment is that I will probably never live to see a woman become President.
To Bernie Sanders:
You gave voice to 40 years of progressive frustration over the corporatization of America and came oh, so close to pulling off a bigger upset even than Trump. I hope you lead the fight against the privatization of our country; I’ll be right there with you.
To Donald J Trump:
Since we share a given name in common, I have a very personal interest in your performance as President. Depending on how you do, my name will either gain a sudden burst of popularity (no one in America has named a son Donald in 40 years) or it will go down in infamy, never to be used again, like he who must not be named. Gulp!
To American Women:
I confess I do not fully understand the female mind, as the women in my life will testify. But this year I am utterly baffled that so many White women voters supported a confessed serial sexual predator instead of the first female candidate for President. Trump trounced Clinton by 30 percentage points among White males, which was completely understandable, but Trump also won the vote among White women by 11 percentage points. That’s like African-Americans voting for the KKK, Native Americans voting for General Custer, or Mexican-Americans voting for Sam Houston. In an attempt to understand this, I turned to the wisest woman I know, my mother. She explained that women don’t stick together like men do and too many married women just go along with whatever their husband wants. If this is true, I despair that America will ever elect a woman president.
To Outgoing President Barack Obama:
Thank you for your service to our country. You took over during one of the darkest moments of modern times and managed to rescue us from the Great Recession, extract us from the quagmire of Iraq, give Americans universal health care, reestablish relations with Cuba and negotiate treaties to ban nuclear weapons in Iran and to combat climate change across the globe. You did all this without a single vote from Republicans in Congress, who fought to obstruct everything you attempted. When the history books are written 100 years from now, you will not only be recognized as our first African-American president, but also as one of our greatest Presidents. In my lifetime, I think you rank right up there with John Kennedy as one of the two best Presidents I have every personally witnessed.
To the 2016 Word of the Year: Surreal (adj. strange because of combining elements that are never found together in reality)
It certainly was a surreal kind of year. At times, we couldn’t tell reality from fiction, with all the fake news and bizarre pronouncements. Among the more surreal moments for me was watching the Republican Party choose its nominee based on the size of his hands instead of his brain. (I’m still trying to figure out how I’m going to explain that to my 4-year-old granddaughter). The Cubs finally winning the World Series after a 108-year drought and the Cavs finally winning their first NBA Championship for Lebron were also pretty surreal moments for sports fans.
To Pokémon Go:
The year’s hit game featured the first world-wide adoption of augmented reality, in which digital elements are superimposed over real places, leading hordes of Pokémon players to wander around with their heads buried in their smart phones, trying to catch them all. Like many innovations, augmented reality came to life as a game, but it has huge potential to change much more as it develops. Many experts predict that augmenting reality will be a bigger deal than the virtual reality goggles that hip trendsetters were seen wearing in public this past year. Watch for 3-D holograms to be the next big thing on the horizon.
A colleague of mine recently asked me to contribute my views on the future of training. I thought this was a tough assignment, since I have no magic crystal ball to predict the future of anything. But as I thought about the request, several themes kept rolling around my brain.
The future of training will be tied to three key megatrends – the future of work, of technology and of our planet. I will briefly describe each in this post.
Future of Work
The nature of work is undergoing dramatic changes that will change the way people earn a living and develop skills over a career. We are moving from the industrial model of work which has dominated our lives over the past century to a post-modern world of independent freelancing. While our parents and grandparents went to work in mass lock step formation for corporate behemoths which assembled employees by the thousands in towering offices and cavernous factories, our children and grandchildren are more likely to work for themselves in small businesses that they help found or in a gig economy that treats everyone like an independent contractor.
The implications for training and development are profound. Today, most training is paid for by employers who want their people to be more productive on the job. In the future, companies will not make the same investment in independent contractors who may not stay around long enough to pay their employer’s investment back in increased productivity. Instead, freelancers will have to develop themselves to keep their skills sharp and competitive. How that will happen and who will finance adult training and education is an open question at this point in time. Possibilities include government financing of adult training, much the way that public schooling is now financed, or individual training accounts that grant a sum of money that individuals can use to acquire needed training.
Future of Technology
Technology has already dramatically altered the landscape of learning through the rapid introduction of e-learning over the past several decades. Today, nearly half of all adult training is delivered online over the Internet. This is expected to increase, although the classroom will never totally disappear. As technology becomes more pervasive, we will see increased reliance on its accessibility and ubiquity to deliver training just in time to whomever needs it wherever they happen to be. Mobile learning will become second nature, much like Internet searching is today. Need to know how to operate a complex piece of equipment or how to prepare for an upcoming meeting? There will be an App for that and for every other thing that human beings might need to know. Building this online encyclopedia of human knowledge and skill will occupy instructional designers for a very long time, perhaps forever, as new knowledge is created and catalogued on a scale previously unknown in human history.
Future of the Planet
We are living in the era of globalization, where events in one part of the world have ripple effects across the globe. As the world evolves into a single marketplace, national borders will have less significance. Indeed, we are already seeing that transnational corporations have evolved into more powerful institutions than the nation-states who gave them birth. Global brands like Apple and Google already have more money and clout that most national governments and they grow stronger every day. Simultaneously, a backlash against globalization is emerging, led by populist nativists who oppose the growing power of the corporate elites. This struggle will continue for the foreseeable future and the outcome is uncertain, but one thing that is clear is that we will work in an increasingly diverse world that requires cross-cultural skills that do not come naturally to humans. Our instinct is to trust those that are like us and to distrust those that are different. If we cannot overcome our instincts, we are in for more bloodshed and war.
To complicate things further, we are in the process of destroying our planet through pollution and destruction of all other forms of life except ourselves. As the consequences of global warming become more dire, we will be faced with the prospect of learning to live in harmony with nature or seeing our very existence on this planet threatened by mass extinction. I’d like to think that education and training can help us overcome the existential threat to our species, but I’m also pessimistic about our willingness to recognize and confront the future before it consumes us. We tend to have perfect hindsight, but can’t seem to see what is right in front of our noses.
What do you think? Will education and training save us or will we wake up too late to save ourselves and our planet?
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