In generations gone by, people often learned from other people, perhaps by sitting with a colleague who was doing something, and then having a go themselves. This has gone out of vogue somewhat of late, with the many technological solutions available to support learning, it’s easy to see why.
I was therefore intrigued recently to read some information about neuro-science and what it had to say about making sure that learning new behaviours sticks. It was pointing out the limitations of learning something when you're not in the situation or context where you will need the skill. This is because when we learn something in one context, it’s easy for us to apply it in that context, but harder for us to translate it into another context. Apparently, the brain struggles to make the read across, this is why so much of what is learned in a training course is not applied when we get back to work, or why addictions seem to be overcome in rehab only to reappear back at home. The techy term for this is ‘generalization decrement,’ in simple terms it means you’re best of learning something in the context you want to use it in, or learning it across a range of contexts so that it can be applied to any of them.
Added to this, 25 years ago Giocomo Rizzolatti discovered ‘mirror-neurons,’ the mechanism by which we learn from other people. When we see someone do something, the part of our brain that performs the same action is activated. You can see this happening with children, they learn by imitation, how many times does a child imitating an adult’s actions raise a smile in family life? If you want to learn a new skill, watching other people do it begins to lay down the neural pathways in your brain that you will need to go on to do it yourself. It is of course important that you then practice the skill for yourself to consolidate what you’ve seen, there is no substitute for practice because this is how habits are developed.
What’s the relevance of this? Two things. Firstly, don’t think you need to go on a training course, or do endless research to learn something. Look around you for someone who has the skill you want, and take careful note. How exactly do they ‘do’ confidence? How are they relating to the people around them? Whatever it is you want to learn, the world is rich with teachers if you keep your eye out.
Secondly, learn in the context you want to apply a skill, or mix up your learning so that it becomes less context dependent.