Tip #628: How What You Know Can Curb Learning

“Two quite opposite qualities equally bias our minds- habits and novelty.” Jean de la Bruyere

There is a lot that can interfere with a willingness to learn new things. This includes cognitive bias, which Kendra Cherry defines as “a systematic error in thinking that affects the decisions and judgments that people make.”

Andrea May, VP of Instructional Design Services for Dashe & Thomson, has identified what she considers to be the top ten cognitive biases that adversely affect learning and posted those on the Dashe & Thomson Social Learning Blog.

Let’s look at the first two cognitive biases and discuss how we can counter their effect through our training design and delivery. The titles and descriptions of the biases are Ms. May’s. The commentary is mine.

  1. Confirmation bias:The tendency to easily accept information that confirms your point of view and reject information that does not support it.

Once we have decided what is “right,” we will stick with it even in the face of information that categorically invalidates it.

An established trainer attended my five-day train the trainer program designed to move trainers from lecturing to facilitating participatory learning. Each day’s activities demonstrated the limitations of lecture and the effectiveness of participant-centered activities. The last day focused on having the participants facilitate an interactive learning activity they had designed themselves.

The instructions emphasized that lecture would not be allowed and that the learning objective had to be comprehension or above. However, this trainer chose to disregard the entire week’s work. He gave a lecture anyway and was very satisfied with himself!

However, his peers, all of whom had successfully designed and delivered participatory learning activities, did not let him get away with it- and neither did I. Our feedback was diplomatic but pointed- and I think he heard it.

  1. Anchoring bias: The tendency to place excessive weight or importance on one piece of information – often the first piece of information you learned about a topic.

Let’s take the concept of learning styles. David A. Kolb published his learning styles model in 1984 and we have taught about learning styles for over 30 years. There are scores of disparate learning style models and inventories, and more every day. If one doesn’t resonate with you, there are many others from which to choose.

We have used learning style inventories to help our participants discover or confirm how they learn. We have expected curriculum designers to make sure that their training programs meet the needs of different learning styles.

Then in 2006, Ruth Clark, Frank Nguyen and John Sweller published their cognitive load research and blew the lid off learning styles. Their book was titled: Efficiency in Learning-Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load.

They found no evidence to support the idea of different learning styles:

“Learning styles are one type of unproductive instructional mythology pervasive in the training profession. At best, most learning style programs are a waste of resources, and at worst, they lead to instructional methods that actually retard learning.”

So the word has been out for over 10 years and yet trainers continue to teach about learning styles! (I’ve partially capitulated and now refer to learning “preferences,” because I have personally observed them in action.)

If you have recognized and addressed these biases, it would be wonderful to know what you did.

We’ll address the next two cognitive biases in our next Tip.

May your learning be sweet.


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