Exploring How People Learn?

How People Learn

“My model for business is the Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other, and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That’s how I see business: Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.”

-Steve Jobs (“60 Minutes,” 2003)

The Ideal Learning Environment

What makes people learn? I’ve personally facilitated numerous hours of in-class instruction as well as designed multiple online learning experiences. During the construction and participation of these learning experiences, I have found that every successful experience has had several things in common. First, learners were excited to engage in the challenge at hand. Second, learners were encouraged to engage with their peers, rather than siloing their efforts by working alone. Finally, learners were given a safe environment to actually experience learning, rather than be fed information.

Perrone’s research into successful classrooms found that when the topic was presented in a new and interesting way or had a “strange” quality to it, learners were much more successful in learning (Perrone, 1994). Learners who had agency and a voice in their pursuit of knowledge were consistently more engaged and more successful in the classroom (Patall, 2010; Perrone, 1994). In Patall’s (2010) research, showed that the perception of receiving autonomy and support from facilitators, increased learner’s intrinsic motivation for work. This was due to the learners’ perception of receiving choices from their learning facilitator. Patall’s research underscores a fundamental truth to the learning experience, to learn you must do.

I’ve facilitated and participated in numerous learning experiences during my career. I believe and have found personally that true transfer of knowledge occurs when the instructor acts as a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage” for learners. As a learner, I know that facilitators who created interesting challenges, made me a part of a team, and gave my team the ability to create something together are the instructors and facilitators I truly remember. As discussed above, in order to demonstrate real knowledge transfer, a learner must progress beyond the simple recitation and recall of facts and dates to the creation of rational arguments to support or defend a position. Looking at Bloom’s hierarchy of taxonomy, we see that the foundation of knowledge transfer is the ability to remember, but the pinnacle is being able to create and produce original work (Bloom, 1956). Perrone (1994) found that learners got much more out of the learning experience when they did something. Whether it was writing a letter to a politician in a civics class, or participated in a live scientific experiment, Perrone (1994) found that the acts of participation and creation were central to the success, enjoyment, and true transfer of knowledge to the learner. Perrone (1994) also found that student reported engagement was greater when students were asked to create original work and were encouraged to express their knowledge in a unique form.

Empowering learners to succeed by making them confident and accountable

Developing an environment where learners can flourish and succeed is difficult. In order to facilitate great work from learners, they need to feel empowered. Perrone and Patall’s research into successful learning environments found that giving learners agency in the classroom led to significant improvement in learner engagement, participation, and success in creating and retaining knowledge. This sounds great in theory, however where Perrone and Patall’s research falls a little short is the description of the amount of effort required to create this authentic learning experiences. It takes a considerable amount of time, money, and effort to create activities that engage learners. During her research Julia Minson, a psychologist at Wharton School of Business found that the creation and execution of a collaborative learning environment was very costly, in terms of financial capital as well as a significant time commitment (Association for Psychological Science, 2012). All this time and effort will be wasted by the facilitator if the learner does not understand why they are doing it. There needs to be a sense of accountability in the classroom. But how can we create this sense of accountability?

The learning environment must be a place of nurturing and caring, where learners are encouraged to take risks, and whether successful or not, their achievements and hard work are celebrated. Kotter’s 8 step model of change can be applied to successful learning outcomes(Kotter, 1996). The facilitator creates a sense of urgency, not through high stakes testing, but by presenting new, challenging ideas or new problems to be solved by the learner. Then the facilitator facilitates coalition building by providing the tools and platform for groups to be created, either by design or naturally. As the learning group forms and a vision to solving the problem at hand emerges, provide source materials and relevant support tools and scaffold to support the learner. Show learners where the tools to create and record ideas are and how to use them. Give learners a sandbox to play in, to experience the tools. Once familiar with the tools and resources available to solve the challenge- facilitators need to allow learners to experience the challenge. Learners are there to learn, not given answers to recite. Sahlberg’s (2007) research into education policies outlines how a productive, risk taking learning environment can be created. Sahlberg (2007) found that successful environments were created when schools were allowed to experiment with creative problems and challenges. When teachers allowed students to take risks while seeking to reach their goals, often-positive outcomes occurred. When taking a risk, that means something can be lost. Putting that something to lose, that “skin in the game”, and coming out the other side intact is what makes learning happen. The experience, not the textbook. By celebrating the experience of learning, whether the outcome was positive or negative, learners can sustain and adopt new behaviors and attitudes regarding learning.

As a facilitator of learning, I want to make sure that I acknowledge the experience of the learners, whether that be clients, students, or colleagues, and be able to clearly articulate my goals for the learning experience. I firmly believe that learning is a synergistic process. Learning doesn’t occur alone, and neither does success. The learner and the facilitator want to succeed. By following Kotter’s model in my facilitation, I believe that I can empower my learners to collaborate and find success, both inside and outside of a classroom.


60 Minutes [Television series episode]. (2004, November 10). CBS.

Association for Psychological Science. (2012, March 6). Two heads are not always better than one. ScienceDaily from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120306131533.htm

Bloom, B., Englehart, M. Furst, E., Hill, W., & Krathwohl, D. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: Longmans, Green.

Patall, E., Cooper, H., & Wynn, S. (2010). The effectiveness and relative importance of choice in the classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 896-915. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0019545

Perrone, V. (1994). How to engage students in learning. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb94/vol51/num05/How-To-Engage-Students-in-Learning.aspx

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Sahlberg, P. (2007). Education policies for raising student learning: The finnish approach. Journal of Education Policy, 22(2), 147-171. doi:10.1080/02680930601158919

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