Learning is the mother of prevention

With a quick show of hands, or just a mumbled ‘yes’, let’s see how many of us have watched a video compilation of ‘The Ultimate Fails’ on WhatsApp or social media and have ROFL only to have the “learning” off it embedded into a subconscious part of our brain. Which miraculously saved us from tripping over/ slipping off/ jumping into and engaging in that potentially dangerous activity.

Amazed? Sample this.

As per the findings in Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, the unconscious processing abilities of the human brain are estimated at roughly 11 million pieces of information per second. Compare that to the estimate for conscious processing of ~40 pieces per second!

That’s not to say our conscious mind is incapable of learning or reproducing the information gained.

As per Forbes’ article, Your Brain Sees Even When You Don't, ‘Our conscious processing capacity isn’t insignificant, but clearly it’s just a retention pond compared to the ocean of the unconscious.’

In How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching, author Joshua R. Eyler notes, “Even on good days, teaching is a challenging profession. One way to make the job of college instructors easier, however, is to know more about the ways students learn.”

Why? Because the understanding of it will uncover ways to how the educator or, in our context, the L&D professional can design situations and interventions that facilitate that.

Decoding the human learning process

One of the profound ideas regarding ‘the how’ of human learning is a cluster of ideas about behaviorism, the central concept of which is that learning always produces a change in behavior. Example: If you want a line manager to grow into C-suite executive, the behavioral change that you are looking for is on the lines of ‘this person can manage the company's strategy, make higher-stakes decisions and ensure the day-to-day operations align with fulfilling the organization's strategic goal.’

However it’s worthwhile to take a trail down human evolution for a possible answer. It’s Curiosity! ‘Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines, and the ultimate learning machines need to be oiled by curiosity’, reads BBC’s 2012 article ‘Why are we so curious?’ Turns out the roots of our peculiar curiosity can be linked to a trait of the human species call neoteny. Neoteny is a short-cut taken by evolution – a route that brings about a whole bundle of changes in one go, rather than selecting for them one by one.

Neoteny or not, Standford’s documentation on How Do People Learn? Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning pulls ideas together to produce a highly coherent working model, which has the below beliefs at its core:

  • Learning is a social process conducted, either more or less directly, with other humans.

Possible implication: Encourage social learning and knowledge collaboration between learners either through tools or technologies or both.

  • People begin to learn by trying peripheral activities, then take on more complex activities as they grow in confidence and see other people perform them.

Possible implication: Provide opportunities to put the learning into action while creating a culture of sharing (experiences/ knowledge etc.)

  • Individuals will repeat actions that are associated with a reward, including the approval of peers.

Possible implication: Facilitate Gamification and R&R programs.

  • Even if the aim of the learning is not behavioral, having an associated behavioral outcome can make it easier to communicate and assess.

Possible implication: Plan training interventions to meet behavioral changes, not to cross check learning modalities/ activities.

  • People learn most, and most profoundly, when faced with a dilemma or need to understand something relevant to them.

Possible implication: Account for learning in the flow of work.

Learning and Prevention

While training employees on key skills and behaviors is an important component of the L&D program, it should not be the use case for building the learning program. That said, Compliance Training and other mandatory training (like Induction/ Onboarding) should not be underestimated too. These trainings are critical not just from the organizational POV - safeguarding the business from legal issues, compliance training programs equip employees with the necessary awareness and knowledge for “preventing” and action-ing, if the need arises, too. Case in point - the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) calculated that over 30 million working days were lost to the economy in 2017 due to Health and Safety issues.

So much so is the importance of “prevention” in Sexual Harassment at Work training that the 2019 published India’s Law on Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace dedicates an entire chapter to “Prevention is better than cure” under ‘EMPLOYER’S DUTIES AND OBLIGATIONS’.

It’s interesting to note that prevention is not applicable to compliance and other mandatory types of training alone. It could also encompass prevention of burnout in employees amongst other lifestyle-related factors.

In general, prevention-focused approaches help in avoiding unpleasant scenarios and are more cost-effective in the long run too.

However, for most of us, the inability to incorporate our new learning – related to ‘prevention’ or compliance - leads to lack of information retention. As Matthieu Boisgontier, of the University of British Columbia’s brain behavior lab put it, “Conserving energy has been essential for humans’ survival, as it allowed us to be more efficient in searching for food and shelter, competing for sexual partners, and avoiding predators.” As a result, our brains quickly forget what we don’t use.

But this scenario changes quickly when we make learning personal, relevant and contextual.

As we, a global community, stand precariously on the tenterhooks of COVID-19, that’s exactly what we need. Learning that not just ticks off all your requirement boxes, but is sticky and can be accessed while respecting the social distancing norms. Like the 15,000+ videos and courses on a diverse range of competencies and proficiencies available in the Plethora library.


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Speaking of Plethora library, aligned to our commitment to our customers and new users of Plethora Free Trial, we, with the support of our amazing partners at LearningPlanet, have made a video on Pandemic Awareness available to all. The 10-minute video explains what a pandemic is and five specific things you can do to help yourself and others. We told you ‘Learning is the mother of Prevention’.

So while the coronavirus outbreak has left little to no time to organizations and individuals alike to prepare and plan, ensuring employees are empowered with the necessary knowledge and awareness which enables them to exercise caution and prevent infection is not just good-to-have, it’s what you owe to your people. Get the video access now.


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