The Natural Learning Actions – Episode #3

In this episode we are digging into new research that has lead to the development of the Learning Actions Model and here are our Big Three Takeaways:

  1. Much of what this community has come to believe about Adult Learning Theory is based on an assumption
  2. By demonstrating that this assumption is false – we have identified a critical new opportunity to mitigate the extraneous load of learning and optimize educational outcomes
  3. The new instructional design framework known as the learning actions model provides a roadmap for how to effectively leverage this new understanding in your educational planning

We tend to see learning as an entirely cognitive process – information appears in our sensory memory, if it intrigues us or confuses us it moves into working memory – which is quite limited – and then we struggle to create our own schema connecting new information to prior experience and knowledge so that we can create the networks that form the long term memory.

There’s been decades of adult teaching theory that’s been designed to explore how to make this cognitive process more effective. But what if it’s not enough?

What if all the time and effort and research that’s gone into understanding the cognitive parts of learning is overlooking a critical assumption that we are ALL making that undermines that process of teaching and learning? The assumption is… that our learners know how to learn.

Do they? Do Learners Know How to Learn?

Stated another way, what if after decades of research and millions of hours of instructional design efforts it turns out that the cognitive parts of learning are necessary but insufficient to ensure real learning and eventually real behavior change happens?

To address this question I developed a fairly simple and unassuming research project about 3 years ago – my goal was to better understand what the true “process of learning” really entailed. What I uncovered was what I’ve come to refer to as the Natural Learning Actions.

My research was designed around three questions:

  1. What are the actions that learners physically take as information begins to bubble from sensory to working memory?
  2. How and when are these various actions employed by learners in the process of learning?
  3. As learners explore the actions they take while learning, do they believe that these actions are taken effectively and efficiently?
    In other words: What are the actions? How and when are they employed? And, do they work?

By interviewing over 300 clinician learners and guiding them through a semi-structured exploration of what actions they take while consuming new information, four actions emerged:

As learners consume your educational content they acknowledge to need for 1) taking notes, 2) setting reminders, 3) conducting searches and 4) reacting to external nudges that support and guide their attention.New Learning Actions Graphic

But importantly, how learners leverage these actions is almost completely due to convenience and habit and not trial-and-error; meaning that these actions are often unevolved and therefore the educational planner must accept that without supporting these actions the impact of their interventions is likely to fail to meet their needs.

So what should we each take away from this work? First, is the recognition that simply being smart, does not make one a skilled learner. Each of us must commit to evolving the physical actions we take as we attempt to consume new information and transfer new lessons to positive behavior changes. And second – we can’t assume that just because our learners are some of the smartest folks in the world; that they are adequately equipped to effectively or efficiently learn. It is our job, as educators to create the environment in which the learning actions can be optimized.