Do you educate or just provide training?
“You know around here, training isn’t just about being in a classroom, we educate people, and help them learn. It’s important that our team understand ‘stuff’, we don’t just train them. We get to know people and understand how they learn best, because if we want to make sure they know how to do their job the way we’d like them to, they need to learn, not just be trained.”
These are the words of Jan, a Training Coordinator at a large industrial site where I was working last week. Jan and I met as part of a review of safety culture where we talked to people about how they go about dealing with safety and risk at the site. Jan very proudly told me that she is an ‘educator’ and that her role was to help people understand how to do their job, not just put their name on the list of ‘competent people’.
Jan’s got it right I reckon. Far too often in safety and risk we tend to focus on making sure that we ‘tick the competency box’ and ‘get the ticket’, rather than supporting and helping people to truly learn and understand.
Instead, when we focus on helping people learn through experience, trial and error and by ‘play’, people are more likely to understand, and take into their unconscious mind the experiences they have been a part of. This is where true learning occurs, when we are able educate the unconscious mind, not just pass a test of memory through conscious thinking.
To believe in this approach first requires us to accept that most of our decisions and judgements about risk (and most other things for that matter!) occur in our unconscious mind. John Bargh, in his excellent paper The Unconscious Mind (2008) explains that the field of social psychology understands the importance of the unconscious mind in decision making. Bargh has written extensively about experiments that he and many other social psychologists have conducted which highlight how so many everyday things that we do and experience, ‘prime’ our unconscious mind. You can see some of Bargh’s work at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vI0fFEffDd8
If you accept the importance of the unconscious mind in decision making, we can further explore how this works in relation to educating and learning.
A great read on this is Bernie Neville (1989) in Educating Psyche: Emotion, Imagination and the Unconscious in Learning. Neville writes about learning and education. In particular, he argues that if we are really going to help people learn and understand, getting into the unconscious mind is critical.
To do this, we need to focus on the learner, their learning preferences, and the learning experience, rather than on the person who is delivering the learning. Neville puts this well when he notes:
I have come to believe that we learn very little by being told the answers to questions we have not asked. It seems to me that learning originates in the experiences of the learner, not those of the teacher. A great deal of what we learn, we learn by a sort of absorption, or we just “pick it up” through experience, as we go along, without the need for teaching. (Neville, 1989, p.9)
I’m not sure if Jan knows of Bargh or Neville’s work, but I do know that she understands and realises the importance of their key themes. Jan knows that people usually learn better when they experience things, when they can trial things and make mistakes along the way. The reason for this is that when we learn this way most information is taken in through our unconscious mind, the mind where most of our decisions are made.
I don’t know if Jan understands the detail of the psychology behind it, and she may not know that what she is doing is educating the unconscious, but she does know that learning is so much more than just a training event. She knows that people learn little by being told what to do in a classroom, or by being ‘flooded’ with instructions during ‘on the job’ training.
I wonder whether it may be time to take a leaf out of Jan’s book? I wonder if too often in safety and risk, we are concerned about compliance, competency, and training as an event? Instead, should we focus more on learning as a journey? I do think there is a place for some of the training that we do and I have seen some creative and fun ways to get our message across. I’m not so sure that we focus our attention enough on educating our unconscious mind. What do you think?
If you are looking for a way to review the effectiveness of your safety and risk education program, I recommend that either you seek out and talk to people like Jan, or think through these four tips provided by Bernie Neville (Neville, 1989, p.11):
1. The mechanisms of the brain are such that indirect “unconscious” learning is more permanent than learning through direct verbal instruction.
Jan might remind us, that just telling people stuff has limited impact
2. Indirect teaching methods involve emotion, intentionality and the handling of concrete objects, all of which reinforce learning.
Jan might call this experiencing stuff in real life, being able to make mistakes as part of learning and making sure that we people ‘feel’ and ‘experience’ as they learn, not just listen to someone
3. Learning through indirect methods often involves conscious or unconscious processes that lead to insight. Insights immediately become part of one’s knowing rather than something to be remembered.
Jan might call ‘getting it’ rather than ‘remembering it’
4. Indirect methods, including genuine dialogue, are open-ended as far as content is concerned. If they are not closed down at the limits of the teacher’s present knowledge they can generate entirely new understandings. Even the teacher can learn something.
Jan might say that “I learn as much by doing the teaching as the learner does by being taught”
I enjoyed meeting Jan, she taught me a lot!
Bargh, John A. (2008) The Unconscious Mind Yale University. Association for Psychological Science
Neville, Bernie. (1998) Educating Psyche: Emotion, Imagination and the Unconscious in Learning. Melbourne: Collins Dove