Desirable Learning Conditions for Development & Creativity
One of the most important factors with learning is the conditions of learning, or more specifically the learning environment.
I remember watching a sports star talking about being in a learning environment in an interview. My eyes were telling me this seemed off, the exact same issues seemed to be occurring for a few years. I felt he was rehashing a phrase that didn't have a lot of substance.
Not long after, when losing a big game I noticed one of the management team essentially saying "we worked on it, the players didn't carry it out". Alarm bells always ring with this. Blaming the players would not indicate a learning environment, not my understanding of it at least. Another member of management later bemoaned "all the mistakes we made".
In time I would find the Manager didn't do video reviews, didn't feel the need. So, a lack of reflective practice.
This definitely was not a learning environment. You could say it was the opposite. No reflection, a culture of blame, over-emphasis on mistakes, not seeing mistakes as learning tools, and more.
You can tell me its a swan, but if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...its a fucking duck.
People listen, and even if it's not that obvious or we are not totally tuned in we can feel something is off. We may not totally understand what the Manager or Performance Coach is talking about when saying "learning environment," but when it's clearly not and we are not learning, then anyone is going to cop that, and it does affect motivation.
Deep down you feel short sold. You may even subconsciously merge into "this guy is a bluffer" mentality. No matter how fair that is. Once you are there with a team or in a workplace it's all over. It may not be that incredibly obvious, but it is.
I worked in an Aussie Rules club once, it was just below Elite, semi Pro/Pro kinda level. We made a belter of a start. Pre Season was great, won 5/6 of the opening games and play offs were becoming a possibility for the 1st time in 25 years.
The alickadoos were getting shifty. As the strength coach I was getting these strange, clearly very wealthy, men coming up slapping me on the back (literally) saying how great a job I was doing. As it was a decent level there was media cover, so I would read the odd article or watch tv interviews around our games.
Took no notice of much of it for a while, the usual boring stuff we all get these days. Then we lost a game, something about the Head Coaches' Interview threw me...I couldn't re-watch at the time, but it alerted me. The next loss at Game 7 was a poor loss, but I was looking out for reaction. And it hit me. He changed from "We" to "the boys" depending on whether we won or lost.
We won (Me, the great coach in charge). They lost (The players didn't listen to me, the great coach).
No learning there. No humility there. No Reflection there. No team there.
Although there was learning for me. Watch your language around such things when talking to or about players. If I copped that surely out of a squad of 50 players, others did too. In the following weeks he would lay it on the fitness and medical team - "not fit enough", "should have been allowed to play" and so on. Leadership is not easy, it takes practice. But it also takes humility.
As a very smart sounding Greek man once said "power doesn't corrupt, it reveals".
What has this got to do with Learning?
A lot - A psychologically safe place might be a newish term. Some may even see it as "some new bull shit makey uppy term". That can sometimes be my reaction also to a term like this when I hear it at first. But this one has real value, in work, school, and in sport.
It's been around since the early 2000's when a Occupational Psychologist called Amy Edmonson coined the phrase and described it as this "a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes". It is seen as one of the big reasons for the success of Google's workplace atmosphere and development.
Do you feel like that at work or at training? Do you act like this, without the fancy term, as it is as a leader? Because there is so much value in this approach for everyone.
The learners, the people we want to help get better, learn better and will be more creative when they feel they are allowed to explore and mistakes are allowed.
Let's say you meet an athlete or an employee or student that might be a little shy, comes from a more autocratic background, or is low in confidence. Then we can have our psychologically safe place but we also may need another underpinning supportive approach. We may need to frame and outline the plan first. The player might be looking for guidance, but one clever way to bring them from that place to a more creative and autonomous position is to co-create.
Build the plan in tandem with them. It might be very simple things like having 80% of the program or job planned, but just getting their input on a few simple aspects. This will be a starting point to start building trust and afford them the opportunity to build confidence.
Co-creation can start off slow. When I work with coaches and clubs to support them with S&C or game design, I take a co-creation approach. This is slow and cumbersome at the start. Many expect me to give them games or solutions. However, if I give them everything they want to just slot into their training sessions there will be limited learning and I am of limited value.
While there is a struggle at the start, the struggle is always worth it. But I try to co-create. I will use what the coaches already have, the games they use or have stolen from somewhere and tack these to the objectives they want from their sessions and we will create together. This is undoubtedly a better long term approach.
As we discussed last week, learning happens best when layered onto something we already know. So if the coaches have been using a game, they will have observed the reactions to this by their players. I can then layer on constraints, progressions, and regressions to help them broaden their design knowledge.
This is laying the foundation for a psychologically safe place, and when we reach that, creativity and confidence grows.
So that's it for this week, next week we will discuss the Optimal Learning Theory. A really nice piece of work that will in particular help sports coaches allow for deeper learning with their players.
Have a great week.
Good is better than perfect
The value we put on the benefit of the learning will have a massive influence on what exactly we learn and retain. If you buy a guitar, the probability of making an effort to learn some tunes increases. If you see a module in college as really interesting, you will make an effort to learn and it will be easier to retain.
Modern Box Ticking, False "Learning" - When education fails
One of the problems I feel with the typical approach and feel of learning is there is now so much box ticking and so much "learning" and "testing" in the world. It's seen as necessary that we are so sick of "learning" as it's so hard we jack it in as soon as we finish that Masters. It's seen as a means to an end. This is a tragic waste of interest and ability.
Another major issue with learning across many areas is the search for perfection. Perfection is the enemy of good.
The Leaving Cert in Ireland has become one of the most bizarre, illogical and damaging pursuits and exams not only in Ireland - but anywhere. Very few countries come anywhere close to the ridiculousness of our Final State exams. You cannot get into multiple 3rd level courses like Medicine now without 6 A1's or even more for some specific subjects.
What this has led to is a systematic approach to getting through it, very little actual learning and a heap of unnecessary stress.
If you want to do well at your leaving cert, forget about learning anything much. In other countries at least, there are openings for people who may be suited to a subject to make a side door or backdoor entry to the field. They just need to show competency in related subjects, and not just state exams.
This box ticking approach hurts Ireland as a country as we get so many "Professionals" who are not that particularly passionate about their job and are in it for money and/or status.
Unfortunately this type of thinking infiltrates our arts & sports pursuits as well, turning many, children in particular, off. Something that's fun is more easily learned, and stuck at.
Desirable Difficulties returned
In the last article we spoke about desirable difficulties and some unusual difficulties. Some that seem like an annoyance at one level can actually be of benefit, a positive interference so to say. For instance, when text on a page is in a font that's blurry or we are not familiar with and we have to look a little harder, we retain the information in the text better. How about that for interference!!
Another clever learning trick that some teachers have been at for years is to jump around the chapters and not deliver the curriculum in the chapter by chapter way. This approach has also been shown to help academic retainment. It won't make your Netflix binging more enjoyable though, so do that in a linear fashion!
In sport we now have coach education which is a linear - learn this technique first and then we will let you play the game - kind of approach. Any bit of depth of thought here, though, makes us realise kids don't pick up sports in a linear fashion. And then there is the interference of other sport and home life.
Each individual is learning in a different way because of all their own environmental differences - like having siblings. Maybe they play Frisbee in the big park they live beside, so overhead catching may come easier from them compared to the kid who lives rurally and has less interactions and practices alone with a lot of striking.
These are all learning interferences so as coaches we need to go in with an open mind and observe before we jump in because we don't know what's needed yet.
Generative learning is another interesting, but in ways familiar to us, form of learning. Essentially, this is us putting some new material with a bunch of old stuff we already know. That linking process helps create signposts for ourselves for the future. Slowly but surely, the more we are around the new information, in the journey so to say, the less we need those signposts.
That might be one reason analogies and cuing can be so helpful in motor skills. Generative learning helps us learn with understanding. If we can associate it to something we already know then it puts us at ease and we will open our brains to taking more on, and in a smoother way.
Another element of generative learning is finding incorrect answers to solutions. Basically trial and error. Sticking to the task and having the determination to find an answer helps greatly. This makes sense to us as we can all agree nothing worth learning comes easy, if it's easy we would already have it, and so would everyone else. But unsuccessful attempts at finding answers leads to a deeper embedding of the right result when we finally get there.
Practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes good learning .
While we will go into a bit deeper in later weeks, the practice of reflection is a powerful tool. Reflecting on a new chapter in a book, on a lecture you did at college, on your performance at Hockey training - they all help deeper our appreciation of the recent activity and allow for deeper learning. in some cases. Especially with new stuff. But reflection and generative learning have important connections and work well together.
Somewhat related to our faulty education systems, allied to an actual attempt at "errorless learning" from the 60's. The idea of errorless learning is a very narrow and dangerous approach. One thing it is based on is taking very small bites of a subject, reading/practicing them, and then testing them straight away.
It would be like taking 7 days of driving lessons twice a day, with assessments as you go, doing the State test on Day 8, passing, and then thinking you were ready for the road.
There is this purveying belief that if we allow learners make mistakes, it's the mistakes that they will retain. This has led to people attempting perfect practice in sports. Even writing this, and you need no research for this, it sounds insane. And it is. But it's real and it exists.
If we give supportive feedback, and allow further exploration, the learner will not only finding better solutions, the learning will be deeper.
Again, research around this tells us that asking someone to solve something without any possible solution-giving first, leads to better learning and retention. Much like my well worn approach to coaching children sports now - let the game be the teacher, and we can support from afar then.
Also another important aspect of all this is, is framing. If we can frame for the learners that the difficulty is part of the fun and process, then not only will the learning of that task be deeper - we are supporting a learning for life and embracing difficulties as a human.
A social example we may all understand - Have you ever winced and bit your tongue when a new mother repeatedly goes over and helps a toddler with absolutely everything? In that case she is reducing that child's ability to learn for themselves and take on challenges possibly for LIFE.
Think about that for a second, and the potential impact of helicopter parenting for instance.
So this stuff is real, it's important and it will help us every day.
So that's it for this week, next week's topic will be "Optimal Learning Conditions."
Have a great week.
Difficult is good
Struggle is the mother of learning. And not in the "I'm never drinking again" moment of hangover pain kind of struggle and learning - cos we know that doesn't work. More in the struggle to understand a subject that we are intrinsically motivated to learn - be it for the information itself or as a means to an end. The means to an end one is far, far harder, but still works.
Rather counterintuitively walking away and leaving the struggle after some effort is a good idea. Intuitively I think we get this. A writer needs a walk after an hour of writing. We all understand the 'clear the head' mentality, yet so often we don't do it. Walking away and spacing your information gouging attempts allows you to digest what you have been eating up from the books or internet or classroom.
We see this in coaching for instance when using deliberate practice methods. If we really want to excel or even learn a skill in sport we need to put a lot of focus into it. Deliberate practice has to be focused, intense and has to have difficulty. Then it pays to walk away for a period of time (as in a couple of days) and go back to it, or add a slight variation. We will talk about it down the road, but that need then for retrieval is absolutely critical to the learning process.
In real life I have applied this to reading. After finally deciding to stop buying books and start reading them all I came up with a bit of a system. Up to 4 books on the go at any one time. One in the car, one in the laptop bag, one by the bed, and one at work. But I would stick to one chapter at a time, as in finish a chapter of whichever book, before moving to another.
For most books, but not something like a biography, I will take notes as I go. At the end of the chapter I write down what I can remember of the chapter, then go back to the notes and see how well I remembered. It is slower, and it does stretch the brain at times when I have stopped for 3 days due to work or life and I return half way through a chapter - but it works.
I have adopted similar approaches to coaching, and have seen an accelerated learning of things like principles of play, strategy, new skills. I don't assess the players in the same way, it's far more casual, but I am using those methods.
That is retrieval practice. And the harder the retrieval, the harder you have to think about it, the better the consolidation.
In our rush to satisfy the demands of the ever-so-wonderful Instagram and life healers on Twitter tell us “10 pages a day”, “a book a week” kinda nonsense. Is anybody actually reading all the books? And what’s being retained? Learning science would suggest not as much as we might think.
New learning is shaky. Different theories have slightly different takes on it but basically we need some form of consolidation. In sport skill development we talk about motor learning versus performance and interestingly there are some references worth noting here, too, in relation to exam study:
Studying for exams is similar in that if we cram for exams we can scrape through our assessments based on cramming, but we won't retain much or any of the crammed material. Where as if we steadily studied all along using spaced, interwoven, and retrieval practices (could be small tests) then we will much more readily retain the material.
But we also learn deeper when we attach our learning to other knowledge we have picked up in the past. That is going to give even more rootage to our learning.
Its weird, but forgetting is good, as long as we reach back again for the learning before its too late. But sometimes forgetting is part of learning something new. Like if we try to learn French late in life we may have to try and forget the Irish we learned back as a kid as there may be interference. A more probable example we will all encounter is changing from an iPhone to Android or visa versa. It's so hard, for a while, to work the iPhone because we have become so accustomed to the patterns of usage on the Android.
But if we want to master any field or excel on a subject, getting deeper with associative subjects will help our greater understanding. Like if we learn about human behaviour from the perspective of a neuroscientist, our grandad, a master coach, our school teacher, and from economic psychology - its the crossover of important and consistent information that we will retain, and be able to verify, on the subject of human behaviour. This is broadly the idea of conceptual learning. We get broad concepts of a subject from various angles.
The interweaving of all the different types of information kinda bring us to a deeper place. My experience of this would be, say, matching S&C with previous coaching field sport experience. I was quickly able to see some of the things in the text book didn't match with reality so I was able to interweave my experience with this new information.
Then I started layering skill acquisition and that started tearing off some of the old coaching practices that neither my anecdotal, trial and error coaching experience along with Sports Science had not taught me. Skill Acquisition introduced me to deeper knowledge and reading around pedagogy and learning science. In recent years I've been putting a frame on things (and actually ironically) with more information - simplifying things. That’s interleaving on a long term basis.
There might be some relation here to motor learning and tactical intelligence that occurs in athletes who play multiple sports, some ideally on a casual basis. Some players have even reported believing they figured out tactics playing FIFA for soccer. While years ago this may have been scoffed at, there might be something in that. The interruption of casual basketball, or even competitive basketball could have an influence on someone becoming a better hurler. Or even the struggle of trying to beat your older sister in 1-on-1 soccer in the back garden could help with the technical, motor skill and tactical ability to side step someone playing Gaelic football years later.
It's also brought me to books about wayfinding and how the people of the arctic found their way around, and the origins of Islam and how that emerged - but that's for another day ;)
So from this there might be a pause for us if we are studying a subject or trying a new thing, how can we relate it to what we already know?
What might we have to un-learn?
What other subject could I casually read about in tandem that won't feel too much like work or studying?
If you are a coach starting out, how does my job mirror coaching? How would I behave in the office and what might make me behave differently on the pitch? What have I read about leadership that I use in the corporate world that can help me coach?
That’s it for this week, in next week we will broaden the desirable difficulties chat to priming your mind for learning, using other strategies for creating desirable difficulties that may help coaches, discuss a generative difficulties, the myth of errorless learning, and finally undesirable difficulties.
Have a great week.