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John Wenger

Quantum Shift Ltd.


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What learning process should I use?


Paul is an experienced and competent manager.  He manages a staff of eight scientists who are each technical experts in their fields, more experienced and in some cases better qualified than Paul himself.  He has a friendly, consultative management style and places high value on developing and maintaining good working relationships with his staff.  He does not shy from having those essential but sometimes difficult conversations with his staff when they are necessary, and his staff respect him and value him for this.  

However, in the course of a recent performance related conversation with a staff member, he was taken aback by her vehement reaction to the decision he had made about her remuneration for the coming year.  She felt disappointed and undervalued and did not hesitate to let him know this.  In his effort to respond professionally to what was, in his opinion, an unjustified attack he became somewhat wooden and mechanical as he outlined his reasons for the decision.  The incident left Paul feeling dissatisfied with the conversation and aware that some relationship repair with this staff member was now necessary. 

As he later reflected on the incident he recognised that the content of his response was absolutely appropriate for the situation, it was more the way that he delivered it that was unsatisfying for him.  The thing he wanted to learn was: how to manage his own emotional response to what he perceived as unjustified criticism, and respond in a manner that felt more true to himself?         

Broadly speaking, there are two types of learning in a professional development context; transactional and transformational.  Transactional learning approaches operate from the view that skills or information are things to be transferred from the knower to the learner.  While transactional learning can undoubtedly teach us invaluable skills that allow us to complete tasks efficiently, it does not usually generate long-lasting or profound shifts in people’s behaviour or attitude when it comes to leadership development, communication skills or managing cultural change.  

Transactional learning has tremendous value to us when we want to learn technical or analytical skills such as how to write a report, balance a budget, repair a car engine or plan a drainage system.  Such skills as these are learned by the neo-cortex, the so-called ‘thinking’ part of the brain.  Transactional learning methods activate this part of the brain, and the neo-cortex processes new analytical or technical information with extraordinary rapidity; thus transactional approaches are extremely efficient when we want to learn such material.  Transactional learning often feels very satisfying because the ‘results’ are the new bits of conceptual information or knowledge that we leave a training event with.  When we attend a training event that we are actually interested in, that sense of satisfaction is increased because we have got something that we actually want. 

Similarly, the sense of dissatisfaction that arises from many training programmes related to communication, leadership or culture often occurs because there is little or no significant or long-lasting behaviour change after the training event.  For these skills, transformational learning methods are most often best applied.  Thinking back to Paul’s story, if he were to learn something like ‘how to have a difficult conversation with a staff member’ in a transactional way, this may result in him having more ‘top tips on difficult conversations’ but it would be unlikely to result in actual shifts in how he behaves with his staff.  Furthermore, research shows that the half-life of knowledge that is simply transferred is very short.  This means that any positive benefit of Paul learning what he needs to in a transactional manner would be neither deep nor long-lasting.  This is simply because material such as this requires the involvement of both the ‘thinking’ brain AND the limbic brain; the part of the brain that governs feelings and how we manage relationships.  Research indicates that skills based in this part of the brain are best learned through motivation, practice and feedback, rather than simple transfer of information.  In other words things that involve the “F” word (feelings) require a transformational learning process.  As Emotional Intelligence guru Daniel Goleman, states, “A brief seminar wont’ help, and it can’t be learned through a how-to manual.”  

Transformational learning processes can often be frustrating for some people because the ‘results’ are not evident in lots of notes, handouts, facts or ‘step 1, step 2’ processes.  The results most often do not appear until we are in the situation in which we need to apply the newly learned skills.  This is compounded by the fact that the limbic brain learns more slowly and requires more practice and rehearsal than the ‘thinking’ brain, especially when the challenge is to shift deeply ingrained attitudes, behaviours and habits.

While transactional learning focuses on providing the learner with a new ‘toolkit’, transformational learning focuses on developing the user of the tools.  Its aim is to improve the competency of the learner by transforming beliefs and values, underlying assumptions and ingrained habits.  Transformational learning methods uncover issues that we may not have previously aware of and gets to the ‘nub’ of the thing to be learned.  It takes us to the areas of our work performance where we are less than excellent.  It shines a light on those areas of our work performance that we need to grow, extend or improve upon and it is a necessarily uncomfortable process.  This can involve the use of action methods, which uncover the unconscious feeling reactions that stop us from performing as well as we would wish in our work.  Such an experiential, interactive and action-based approach causes us to be ‘conscious’ and ‘awake’ during the learning process.  It also presents opportunities to actually rehearse the thing to be learned and for real-time coaching to ensue. 

Illustrating these two learning approaches, transactional methods are those with which we are probably most familiar and comfortable.  They are generally the preferred teaching approaches in our schools and workplace training situations.  They are conducted through one-off learning events and tend to involve presentations, ‘chalk and talk’ and handouts or worksheets which provide good reference material that can be accessed again and again when the situation requires.  Transformational approaches, however, apply new learning over time, using rehearsal, reflection, coaching and follow up, and require high levels of motivation and concerted effort on the part of the learner.  They are more experiential and action-orientated.  Transactional learning tends to be more focussed on content to be learnt, while transformational learning views learning as a process. 

Transactional learning is a learning approach which generates practical and conceptual understanding of ‘what to do’ and transformational learning generates increased capability in ‘how to do it’.  Therefore, transactional learning appears more methodical, logical-sequential and step-by-step, while transformational learning approaches can be much more divergent and unpredictable.  A great degree of the discomfort with learning in a transformational way stems from the fact that feelings and relationships are involved to a greater extent than when learning in a transactional manner, which places more emphasis on the factual.

To reiterate, there is tremendous value in both transactional and transformational learning approaches, and the two are complementary to each other.  The key point is to be clear about the learning outcomes.  It is useful before applying any approach or methodology, to do a good analysis of the kinds of things to be learnt and what one is seeking to achieve in a training or development programme.  Then, the most effective and strategic teaching and learning approaches can be employed and learning can be maximised. 

Finally, back to our case study; Paul realised that he had all the ‘tools’ necessary for him to manage the situation and he was really looking to expand his ability to respond to ‘surprise’ in a way that he felt satisfied, AND that got the outcome he was looking for.  Participation in a transformational learning process, which facilitated him to examine his values and attitudes about being a Manager in this type of situation, enabled him to make an enduring and sustainable quantum shift in his performance.  

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John Wenger


Read more from John Wenger

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