Thursday, June 2, 2011

What you believe affects how you learn.

The headline says, "Disbelieving Free Will Makes the Brain Less Free." And the story line is simple... get people thinking about the possibility that their own unique ability to choose is compromised by genetic determinism, and they will do poorly on a "readiness" test. There are several interesting questions to be asked here, and several profound implications for learning.

1. What you believe affects how you perform. Want to enhance performance? Want to change behaviors? Start with your learners' underlying beliefs. And not just any beliefs, but their beliefs about themselves--particularly the "I can't do that" sort of beliefs. Don't waste your breath teaching them what to do or how to do it if you haven't focused on who they are, or who they will be, once they have mastered the knowledge and skills you're teaching. They have to see themselves as someone who can and will and wants to go where you're leading.

That may sound overly philosophical, or even arrogant. After all, you're not in the belief business. But think about it. Coming to a new belief about yourself is not necessarily a big deal or an enormously difficult process. Take a close look at something that may seem impossible right now (getting that next degree or learning to fly a fighter jet or defeating the dragon-monster on level 6), and then focus on whether or not you can see yourself as a PhD, or a fighter pilot, or the master of that video game. If you can catch a new vision of yourself, you're halfway there. You're motivated to do what those sorts of people do. Like the Marine Corps says, maybe you really can be one of them, but you first must identify with the outcomes. That's all a change in beliefs means. Who you are always drives what you do.

2. Some beliefs are clearly more helpful than others. I don't want to be Machiavellian any more than you do, but the fact is that some people's beliefs drive them forward and some people's beliefs dry them up, shrivel them all into themselves. The genetic determinism of Francis Crick, which was the bedtime story inflicted on the participants in the study, is a mind-numbingly thorough proposition that we are only the products of our genes, and there's nothing we can do about it. Not only your free will, but your very consciousness, your sense of self, is "no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." What you think of as being "me" is nothing but neurons firing. These kinds of beliefs are clearly not helpful if you want to accomplish anything in life--or to teach anyone anything.

Well, you may ask, so what? Truth is truth, whether it is helpful or not. We have a duty to believe what is true. Yes, of course. But without getting too far off the point, let me just ask, doesn't it make sense to seek truth in the direction of life, not stupefication? In the direction of activity, not helpless inaction? This world, our universe, everything we see and feel and know to be true, is bursting with life and activity. Traveling down some dark and lonely path, away from what is robust and fertile and sunlit and active, away from the endless possibilities of life, just because someone with a high IQ once said that the Truth, capital T, is to be found in that direction--that's foolish at best, tragic at worst. When in doubt, I say, go with what works.

And besides, it's your job to make it work.

3. You don't have to change someone's underlying philosophy to change their beliefs about themselves. I was privileged to lead the charge in building an online nursing master's degree program with a great team of designers, developers, and content experts. Our audience research revealed a startling fact: while most of the candidates wanted to move up, to make more money, to get off the floor where the hours are long and the work is backbreaking, they also felt guilty about it. Their shared value system, what it means to be a nurse, was tied up in being a care-giver, in advocating for patients. They feared that by becoming managers or educators, the two career paths opened to them by our degree, they would lose this.

So we spent the first part of the orientation course showing them that in fact their reach would be extended. Far from abandoning their mission, they were now on a path to expanding it. This simple effort, probably no more than twenty required minutes of a two-plus-year degree program, made all the difference. We addressed their identity. We gave them the opportunity to see themselves with a new, improved identity, having a greater impact by reaching more people than they ever could before. We showed them they could stay true to their original mission and then some. And we played that theme out through the entire program. Measure that nursing program how you will--enrollment, retention rate, student satisfaction--it was an enormous success.

One more example: the military. Why is military training so effective? In many ways it is the gold standard for training, whether it's complex and computer-guided, or grunt-simple, they seem to know how to do it all well. My belief? It's because of basic training. It's that six to twelve weeks of rigorous, sometimes nightmarish activity, the purpose of which is to make you a soldier. Or a sailor. Or a marine. What is that but a very careful reformatting of the identity? I'm not saying the actual training isn't great. I'm saying that soldiers obey orders, and when the orders are to learn something they learn it. This is why applying military training to civilian operations sometimes leads to less-than-stellar results. It's not the training so much as the people being trained. You and I don't get to start with 6 weeks of boot camp for all our learners (unless, of course, you do). But we can all tie whatever our learners learn into their basic belief systems.

So whether you are training people to put widgets together or educating them to generate ideas to save the planet, focus first on how they think of themselves. Let them see themselves as a widget master, or as an idea generator. Take the time to make sure they have fully identified with their own outcomes. It will pay off enormously. What they believe strongly affects how they learn.

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