Cognitive Learning Cannot Envision Novel Solutions

May 22, 2018 by Robin Poppe

After university and a career to study and practice adult training, I realised that a process appealing only to the cognitive dimension of learning is too limited and does not provide sustained results. Factual, data and evidence-based learning is necessary but other factors matter equally when we make decisions. Cognitive learning is limited in the changes that it triggers.

The obvious question then is ‘what else needs to be considered in training and learning processes in order to achieve deep and lasting change?’

Methodologically, most activities that are intended to activate participants’ learning are designed in a format that is suitable to impart content to a group of learners. This is usually how data and facts are shared, using methods that are more or less engaging. This approach may be effective to contrast perceptions and impart completely new information. However, most adult learning aims at personal or organisational development beyond acquiring new content. One’s learning needs are usually very personal and contextualised. Organisations whose aim is to adapt and develop need independent not formatted learners who will feed them with new thinking and ideas.

The personalisation of the learning approach and process is a necessity but it also represents a real design challenge for institutions with a training mandate. It is often difficult to highly personalise the learning process, in particular when its emphasis is on transferring knowledge. Individuals have to construct knowledge and this is done based on one’s unique frame of reference as well as prior experience and motivations. It has to be embedded in a unique organisational environment and a fast evolving surrounding context.

Fundamental although often neglected in our learning processes is the emotional dimension. Emotions have probably been neglected because they differ from person to person; no two persons have the same interests, fears, joys, disgusts and surprises, as none have the same personal and family history. And above all, no two brains are equal and evolve differently over time to adjust to circumstances.

Our emotions constantly impact our life and the choices and decisions that we make. Learning processes that aim at deep transformative change must provide space for analysing emotions and the opportunity to recognise, name and make them explicit – to oneself and possibly to others.

Emotions can also be an integral part of the learning process design. As an example, pedagogy by astonishment is powerful as we never forget the circumstances in which we have been surprised. I remember our professor of non-verbal communication when I studied at the university. He was facing the corner of the room and suddenly turned around shouting as loud and long as he could to introduce a lesson about Arthur Janov’s “The Primal Scream”. We were all astonished and still remember the message.

A third factor to consider in the learning process is the use of all our senses. Traditional learning mostly activates the visual and auditory senses but neglects all the others which play an equally important role in the sequence of capturing, understanding and memorising new inputs. Not for nothing are important contracts negotiated over a nice meal, preferably in a conducive environment where all our senses are being stimulated contemporarily. Our senses are also the ones that activate and support imagination, and as Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” Transformative change is closely dependent on the capacity to envision novel solutions. Cognitive learning alone does not provide such powerful results.

When personalisation, emotions and the use of senses are embedded in learning processes, the possibility to achieve deep transformative change at the level of the individual and the organisation considerably increases.

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