Worker training has been around since Ogg first said, “Come on, kid, I’ll teach you how to make a flint spearhead.” And from those early days, we’ve been forming and sharing beliefs about the best ways to teach job skills.
But many of the traditional practices, generalizations, and assumptions don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. And we’re left with a collection of myths that could lead to wasted time and poor results.
Just in case any of these debunked doctrines are cluttering your training program, here’s a list of the most common myths.
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We have to learn according to our preferred “style.”
A research review by Hal Pashler at UC San Diego found that people do not have tendencies to learn better by reading, hearing, or doing or some other way. We learn best when the channel matches the task. For example, most people learn to operate equipment by doing it rather than reading about it.
People love to think of themselves as logical left-brainers or creative right-brainers, but their brains don’t agree. A recent study of 1011 people found no greater levels of connectivity in either hemisphere. Turns out, we all just use our whole brains. (Good thing!)
Speaking of the whole brain, remember when you were told that we only ever use 10% of our brains, except for Einstein? Well, sadly for Einstein, Barry Gordon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine demonstrated that most of our brains are active most of the time.
Except that it doesn’t. Neurosurgeon Dr. Steven Novella’s review of the research found that “Brain-training was generally found to be as effective as traditional book and pencil training, but less labor intensive.” Overall, brain games designed to develop better short-term memory or processing speed simply helped people get better at the games.
If you’ve ever given a presentation, someone probably told you to include lots of graphics because we only remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, etc. But as Will Thalheimer explains, this neat little metric has never been grounded in science. People remember what they use – whether they read it, heard it, or drew a picture of it.
This myth has kept old dogs from trying out new tricks for entirely too long. It’s well-understood that the brain continues to change and develop all our lives.
But social norms expect adults to “know it all.” And some adults don’t enjoy being beginners. So we’re still reluctant to learn as we age. Just don’t blame it on your brain.
Here’s another metric that has no grounding in science. It comes from a plastic surgeon’s observation that most of his patients took about three weeks to get used to their new faces. Research into habit development has found that it takes 18 to 254 days for a habit to form, depending on the degree of change involved and the environmental circumstances.
If your attention span has been compared to that of a goldfish recently, fear not. The goldfish comparison comes from a non-peer-reviewed study done by Microsoft and aimed at giving advice to advertisers who have just a few seconds to capture mindshare.
But other research has shown that people are still capable of deep focus for long periods. Even members of the famously distractible millennial generation have shown improved focus and short-term memory capacity when engaged in tasks that require it, like gaming.
While there are physical factors that can help people get better at specific skills, such as height for a basketball player, most of the abilities we want to acquire for work don’t depend on innate talent. As Anders Ericsson demonstrates in his book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, focused practice with feedback helps people with no unusual gifts develop extraordinary talents.
Many work training programs focus on distributing information, but most skills require application before we’ve really learned them. Memorizing facts and procedures doesn’t automatically translate to ability. People need to practice over time.
It’s always a good idea to examine assumptions. If there’s an adage or generalization that’s been floating around your industry for a while, dig a little deeper and see whether it has a real foundation. You may be amazed and relieved to find out the truth.
Management and HR alike may call for training as soon as performance lags, but the real solution could be better resources, performance aids, or employee perspective. If you’d like some good examples of common problems that can be fixed without training, take a look at Training Industry Magazines’s recent article on the topic.
Although a classroom presentation or video can communicate a lot of new information in a short time, employees will still need help applying what they’ve learned to their work. Training World Magazine recommends manager coaching and refresher courses to help employees turn knowledge into ability.
While many learning and development experts today think people should take more accountability for their growth, employees still need guidance. Not everyone knows how to learn, what they need to learn, or even why they need to learn it. And we all need support and reminders when acquiring new skills.
Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens, reveals that our “good” study techniques don’t work very well. Re-reading materials or highlighting doesn’t help us remember what we’ve read.
What does work? After you’ve been introduced to new information once, wait a day and try to recall as much of it as you can without looking. It makes you feel pretty stupid, but struggling to remember something actually helps cement it in your long-term memory.
Many of us in the L&D world have just accepted this assumption as fact. But the truth is that we choose to spend the time in ways we think are more valuable. If you can demonstrate the value of training, the time will become available.
Educators spend a lot of time arguing about the best way to learn, but with all our years of research, no one method has stood out as the undisputed best. More often than not, a combination of approaches works well.
Managers want to hire for experience, so they look for people who’ve done well in similar positions with other companies and expect them to perform immediately. But great performance doesn’t necessarily translate from job to job.
Harvard Business School professor Boris Gorysber found that star investment analysts who moved to another company rarely did well in their new positions. Their strengths at one company depended on their networks, resources, and colleagues, not pure ability. If you’re paying a lot for experience, make sure you help people learn how to be a star at your company.
Employees will claim over and over that they can’t learn a new skill because they’re just not good at numbers or technology or writing or whatever. But Carole Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, has demonstrated that learning has more to do with attitude than talent.
According to Dweck, People who learn well don’t necessarily have more intelligence or ability than others, but they believe that with hard work, they can get better at most skills.
Similar to myth #18, this mistaken belief stops many people from making real progress with new skills. Erika Andersen, author of Be Bad First: Get Good at Things Fast to Stay Ready for the Future, reminds us that if you’re going to be good at something, you have to start by being bad. She recommends helping people push through beginner frustration by redirecting their self-talk from “I’ll never get better at this” to “I’ve gotten better at lots of things; I can get better at this, too.”
Motivation comes from several sources, such as support from management, understanding of the purpose of training, or feeling that learning will make your life easier. Anyone can get motivated to learn if they see a benefit in it. Giving learners a larger role in the process from training development to skill application can help get them excited about it.
There’s plenty of advice about how to successfully train a workforce, and some of it is not well-grounded in reality. But as L&D professionals, we can stay aware, open our minds to new ideas, and test assumptions with our employees. The worst that can happen? We’ll learn something from the experience.