Learning and Change

Atul Gawande, author of influential books such as The Checklist Manifesto and Better, writes a column “The Annals of Medicine” in the New Yorker magazine. This week’s issue has an article titled “Slow Ideas”. In it, Gawande explores why some innovations, such as surgical anesthesia, caught on quickly, while others, such as  antiseptics, take many years, or never get traction.

His observation is that change can only occur with learning, practice and a personal touch. In the programs he has studied, people learn best when they perform the new activity themselves, and describe it in their own words, with guidance from a trainer. It may seem cheaper or faster to just have a trainer demonstrate the activity, or have people watch a video, but the hands-on approach produces real, sustainable change.

Of course, this is nothing new. I’ve learned a bit about learning theory from such sources as Sharon Bowman’s Training from the Back of the Room. In the past few years, when I’ve given tutorials and training classes, I spend less and less time lecturing, and more time facilitating hands-on exercises. Participants leave with much more enthusiasm and real experiments to try back at work.

Group working on experiments to build trust
Group working on experiments to build trust

Yet in the software profession (as in many others), it seems to me that people forget that it takes a lot of time to learn and practice a new skill. They also often neglect to have that trainer alongside to guide the learners. This just reinforces for me how essential a learning culture is to a long-term success in just about anything.

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