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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Lessons from the ancient past


I was flicking through the radio channels on a long dull, fogbound drive the other day when I came upon the Radio 4/British Museum programme on "The History of the World Through 100 objects". In this series, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, talks about objects in the museum’s collection and charts human history, and indeed evolution, from the secrets that they help us to uncover.

One section of the programme about the Olduvai Stone Chopping Tool, found in modern Tanzania and now the oldest object in the British Museum’s collection at 1.8million years old, was particular intriguing for me as someone who thinks about how people learn and develop.
I have long contended that the first humans with larger brains than the other primates with which they shared the savannahs and gorges of Africa provide a blueprint for how modern humans still think, process information and learn. We are all aware of the flight or fight syndrome – the response to danger which was first hard wired into our beings when we faced daily danger from predators and competitor humans. You also may be aware that our initial reaction to information and being able to subconsciously filter out things we consider irrelevant is based on an ability first developed when we walked the savannah and had a split second to respond to movement – instantly working out whether the other life form we encountered was food or whether we were. 
In the programme, Neil MacGregor described what differentiated early humans from other apes. 

What sets us apart from them at this moment in our evolution is that, unlike them, we make tools before we need them. And once we have used them we keep them to use again. It's the beginning of the tool box.”

I was intrigued by this thought that we are human because of these two abilities – to anticipate need and to have a toolbox of resources which enable us to deal with the circumstances that we have envisaged.
Isn’t that what we do in the training and development world? 
Increasingly the creation of learning resources – e-Learning modules, workshops, guides and performance support tools – is a process of anticipating future needs and providing fit for purpose tools which are specifically designed for the situations our people will encounter. Building tools that provide a clear advantage apparently has a long, long history - about 2 million years!
It is when we fail to make evident the link between the needs that our people have and the training interventions we have made available that we get organisational indifference. Further, the creation of materials which are not fit for purpose – too difficult to use, difficult to access or too time consuming for the perceived benefit created - means we create insufficient value to properly engage our learners, their managers and the wider organisation.
As we help our organisations to evolve to new situations – providing the right tools, at the right time and in the right formats – we need to consider: How evolved is the training we offer?

2 Responses

  1. Imagining the future


    Thanks for an interesting insight into the use of tools. It would appear then that because we can re-use tools we can imagine a future which differentiates us from most animals (and all animals if we make it a long-term future). This is an extraordinary skill in that the perception of the passage of time is temporarily suspended. Coupled with the ability to reflect on the past – which I assume is an identical cognitive skill – maybe this also enabled humans also to be aware of cause and effect and all that followed from that skill. 





  2. Imagining the future

    Hi Kevin

    Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you found the article interesting. 

    I think you have hit the nail on the head (if you’ll pardion another tool analogy).  The challenge of placing 21st century L&D in the context of human evolution is to ask whether we create sufficient opportunities for learners to imagine the future, as you say.  From my experience, the training and learning interventions which have really had an impact have been those in which the natural creativity of the participants has been harnessed to create a compelling, realistic vision of the future in which they can clearly see that they will need new behaviours, skills, attitides and tools.

    Kind regards



Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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