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‘I reflect, therefore I apply’: What Descartes can tell us about making elearning more applicable


Written by Toby Harris

This post is part of a sequence of articles which draw upon a book called the Six Disciplines of Breakthough Learning. This month, I’m exploring one of my favourite chapters: Deliver for application. The most prescient part of this chapter is all about reflection, a key to retention which all too often we do not retain! To understand why it’s so important, we first need to revisit some fundamentals.

Where does knowledge come from? Thinking about the origin of knowledge in a kind of chicken-and-egg relationship between mental concepts and lived experience has been fodder for philosophers since the contest between Plato (who put ideal concepts first) and Aristotle (who favoured experience).

It was Descartes, perhaps, who squared the circle with the words: Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). Abstract thought and the truth of lived experience are indivisible. The very fact that we’re able to doubt, to reflect on our own reality, provides all the evidence we need for the fact of our own existence.

Just not anybody else’s…. But let’s not reflect on that.

The troubled relationship between concept and experience divides learning professionals too. Training based on neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) tends to favour an approach that allows new concepts to arise from experiences like role-plays, simulations and case studies. The insight that ‘teaching’ as such plays only a peripheral role in learning isn’t new, of course; as George Bernard Shaw once said:

‘If you teach a man everything he will never learn it.’

But this is anathema to others, who believe (more conventionally) that concepts must come first. And that kind of makes sense too. You don’t let someone even start learning to drive a forklift until they clearly understand certain concepts such as acceleration and stopping. Or, in terms of a familiar topic, how can Barbara identify a bribe when she doesn’t know what the legal definition of a bribe is, or if her understanding of what a bribe is happens to be totally incorrect?

That sounds convincing enough, but be careful. By telling Barbara what a bribe is first, do we simply allow her to ‘game’ the interaction or scenario which follows using her short term memory, and therefore fail to test or modify her real behaviour?

At Saffron, we’ve long been practitioners of what is also known as ‘action learning’: that is, learning by doing which makes use of realistic and relevant scenarios and simulations. Learners need to understand the situation facing them and why the training is relevant (‘what’s in it for me?’) but they do not necessarily need a dictionary definition of a concept before testing it out in experience. Knowing the dictionary definition of ‘compliance’ hardly motivates you to be compliant, after all.

Of course, if we assume too much about the learner’s prior knowledge we open ourselves up to the charge of not taking due diligence. Expecting concepts to arise purely from experiences seems rather too anarchic for a compliance-driven topic. (Actually, it isn’t. But try telling your Head of Compliance that.)

Whether we adopt a concept-led or a fully experiential approach, or something in between, what we are really aiming for is a better assurance that there will be some form of learning transfer: that is, the application of new skills and behaviours. For that to take place, new concepts and behaviours need to be embedded in the brain.

But people are doomed to forget nearly everything that will ever happen to them. Our brains are designed more like ant colonies than hard-drives: we remember things based the number and density of connections, and not, alas, the ‘objective’ significance of a given idea or fact (in any case, different people tend to hold rather different notions of what is objectively important or not).

This is why most retention techniques rely on piggy-backing on the mental constructions which exist in the long term memory, as a foundation for new constructions. We can’t implant a new concept like we’re installing a new light bulb into a socket and expect it to stick. It has to grow from what’s there already through the experience we create. We’re back to that relationship between thinking and being again for, as John Holt says:

'We can give other people names, and lists, but we cannot give them our mental structures; they must build their own'. 

And the activity which fosters the growth of new connections better than any other is in fact what we usually consider a form of inaction: reflection. I don’t just mean gazing out of the window (although I’m not against a good daydream): when it involves writing, drawing or expression, reflection in fact becomes a highly productive activity. This brings us back to The Six Disciplines, whose authors point out:

'Because each person’s prior experience, knowledge and interests are unique, participants must define for themselves how the material relates to their roles and how it can be used to add value. Such self-generated connections are much more memorable than instructor-provided links. To forge the links participants must be given sufficient guidance and enough time to reflect on what they have learned'.

It goes like this: from learning experience, to concept, and then to application, all via the vital act of reflection. So, returning to the Descartes quotation we started with, we might bowdlerise his famous words ‘I think, therefore I am’ as a new mantra for learning design: ‘I reflect, therefore I apply.’

When faced with a decision or a challenge, learners will dip into a network of neural connections largely developed through reflection. Reflection is the foundation for behaviour, its inner mirror, or proof, just in the same way that cognition is the ineluctable foundation of being.  So how do we build in the space for reflection into learning programmes and online environments?

We have to bear in mind the fact that time is at a premium and we also can’t ignore the engagement crisis (or rather, the attention deficit) which any organisational training programme must overcome. MOOCs, with their open-ended and proliferate structures, provide plenty of space for reflection and user-generated content, but they also have a high drop out rate which is, in part, because of that very structure.

And we can’t afford to have a completion rate of just 7% for an important learning campaign for the sake of allowing some of this ‘reflection’ business which half your colleagues are yet to buy into. If anything, our tools for facilitating those ‘self-generated connections’ need to make the learning experience more engaging, not less. Take a look at our blog post on top tips for using neurology to improve elearning here to get you started.

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