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Spices & Code

How People Learn

The School of Athens by Raphael
The School of Athens, Raphael, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Learning in organisations is at crossroads. While some manage to establish a culture where employees are enabled to explore, learn new abilities and share, others fail to set cornerstones. This multi-part series seeks ways to put these cornerstones in place so organisations and people can thrive. In this first article, we review the book "How People Learn" by Nick Schackleton-Jones and his affective context model theory.

Why is a software engineer writing about learning?

This topic has been bothering me for years from multiple angles. I struggle to learn sustainably. Exciting subjects are everywhere, but choosing the right one for the right time is almost an art. The other difficulty is keeping gained knowledge at a useful level. With the sheer amount of technology, it's easy to forget.

Organisational learning is the process of aligning individual challenges with the organisation's overall interests and goals. Ultimately this approach should lead to improved employee retention through higher job satisfaction and enhanced organisational results. That's at least my definition.

But how does learning happen? Working as a technology consultant for an e-learning producer and not knowing a thing about learning got me thinking.

I sought advice, and an acquaintance recommended "How People Learn" by Nick Schackleton-Jones. In this book, Nick provides a historical perspective on learning, exposes educational flaws, and offers valuable insights for effectively implementing learning design in organisations.

In this first article, we will investigate the critical role of feelings, talk briefly about the current state of learning and then dive into the affective context model. In the second part, we try to put the theory into action.

If you're looking for a shortcut, read the tl;dr below and jump straight to the Conclusions.

The power of feelings and stories #

According to Wikipedia, the first educational system was established in the region that is now Egypt and the Middle East. However, this system was limited to a small minority of aristocrats. What about the rest of the population and those who lived before that time? How did they learn, share, and pass on knowledge?

There's no need to open a textbook; we can observe today's children. They learn by watching their parents, friends and through social media. They imitate, play, and share remarkable events. Our ancestors were not so different. However, for them, learning was a matter of life and death. Did someone eat the wrong berries? Probably dead. Got injured or ill? The same.

Sketch of Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks
Sketch of Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, Ilya Repina, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A significant milestone in this evolution was the ability to tell and listen to stories. These stories formed a collective memory, an orally transmitted library of experiences that served as the foundation of knowledge within societies. After all, the person knowing all the stories is the wise one. But what gives stories meaning? Aren't they simply a sequence of words? To explore this further, let's turn to Nick.

The ability that enabled humans to compose our stories and leapfrog other species was something like song: more specifically, a capacity for making sounds that reflected what we were feeling. And not just any feeling; an extraordinarily subtle kaleidoscope of feelings – feelings for every occasion.

He tells us that our brain maps feelings to sounds and vice versa. This ability is not exclusive to humans; even dogs can be trained to recognise objects by name. Your pet probably knows when you're angry; some may even sense when you're sad. Certain emotions and expressions transcend cultural boundaries as well as across different species.

Because feelings play a central part in our life, Nick identifies them as a critical factor for survival. Survival encompasses more than just avoiding physical harm, such as being attacked by a bear or hit by a car. It involves everything invoking concerns. As social beings, our primary concerns are related to relationships rather than purely logical matters. We engage in activities that we perceive as valuable within society. That's why many of us dedicate significant time to socialising in person and online.

Like any other activity, learning is only possible with a genuine concern for the subject. Similar to how we need emotional engagement and investment in our relationships to thrive, we also require that sense of concern and importance when it comes to learning. Without concern, our learning experience becomes ineffective.

When did education fail us? #

Education is content-centric, not human-centric. … It is based on forcing people to try and remember stuff that doesn't matter to them…

Before the Industrial Revolution, learning for the common people primarily occurred through close relationships between experienced individuals and those eager to learn a specific craft through mentorship or apprenticeship.

Although introducing free education may seem like a significant achievement, according to Nick, it was primarily implemented so parents could work in factories. On the other hand, children spent their time in school preparing for a life as factory workers. The focus shifted from genuine learning to knowledge transfer, dumping information into children's minds without meaningful impact.

In the classroom by Jean-Paul Louis Martin des Amoignes
In the classroom, Jean-Paul Louis Martin des Amoignes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In today's world, our approach to education remains highly formalised. We attend classes, courses and take exams to prove our value to society. Even after graduating, we continue to enrol in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), participate in expensive on-site training programs, or create PowerPoint presentations without value. We have grown accustomed to the practice of content dumping rather than critically evaluating its usefulness.

What is the affective context model? #

You don't think. You have no thoughts. What you call 'thinking' is feeling; 'thoughts' are just fancy feelings.

As simple as it's hard to understand, every interaction in our brain is an emotion we express through feelings. There is no soul, thoughts or whatever, only emotions and feelings. The saying, "Don't let emotions affect your thoughts", is nonsense because thinking is an emotional process.

As mentioned earlier, we map feelings to sounds. When communicating, we attempt to transmit our feelings to the listener, who may or may not fully understand our intention.

Misunderstanding happens because we cannot control the listener's emotional interpretation. That is why culture plays a crucial role in communication. It provides a shared foundation for understanding. Cultural and social circles exist on various scales, ranging from larger entities like nations and tribes to smaller ones like professions, family units, and friendships.

Two robots reading books
Two robots reading books, AI generated with Stable Diffusion v1.4

Furthermore, Nick distinguishes between machines, which operate based on pure logic, and animals (including humans), who are emotional beings. Computers are predictable to a certain extent based on how they are programmed, but individuals shape their knowledge and memories through experiences. These experiences are not stored as pieces of information but rather as emotional reactions.

Therefore, we tend to remember extraordinary or impactful events that make our day memorable. Consider listening attentively to an exciting story. If you were to retell the story to someone else, which parts would you recall? Most of us would remember specific emotionally significant moments. When retelling the story, we would emphasise those parts while our brain would cheat and fill in any gaps.

What happened to logic? #

Logical relationships are features of our world, to which our feelings may or may not correspond

Nick perceives rationality merely as an ordered representation of our world, where even mathematical equations, such as 2+2=4, are tied to an affective context. While one could resolve that equation to 5, it would be illogical. It would undermine the foundational systems upon which we built this world. Computers, on the other hand, would not question the equation at all. They follow the instructions to solve it, as that is their purpose. Computers are designed to be rational.

Knowledge transfer treats people as rational, content-consuming machines. Expecting them to swallow the content and playback like a computer would.

When you reflect on your experiences as a student, you may recall teachers who would deliver monologues during every class. However, some professors delivered captivating lectures, presenting content as a savoury cake, revealing layers of knowledge that grew more intriguing with each passing moment.

Whether you are a sea-snail or a human, there are just two systems to consider: the pattern of things that you care about, and the world you find yourself in. These two things interact, shaping each other throughout your life. That's what learning is for.

With that being said, if knowledge transfer is deemed ineffective, why does it still manage to have some level of success? According to Nick, it works because students know they must take an exam or suffer the consequences. Some students see it as an opportunity for competition, while others experience the fear of failure. In both cases, the exam creates a concern.

The Cardsharps
The Cardsharps, Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Concerns act like triggers. When students are confronted with an exam, they show a reaction. Does operant conditioning ring a bell? It is a process of shaping behaviour by punishing, rewarding, or not showing any consequences in response to the subject's actions. For example, we train dogs to sit by rewarding them with a delicious treat or how cruel owners may use electroshocks to punish misbehaviour.

This concept also applies to humans, as we are not fundamentally different from other mammals.

Behaviourists have discovered an intriguing fact: we are drawn to randomness. Unpredictable rewards stimulate our behaviour the strongest. That's why gambling provides highs, even though we know that losing is inevitable[1].

Behaviourism and the affective context model go hand in hand. While behaviourism explains what happens, the affective context model explains why.

Where is the rational mind? #

Human beings, like other creatures, process experience instinctively. But we also have a 'what if' ability – the ability to offset feelings about the right now, with feelings about hypothetical states

Speaking from an economic perspective, humans are not rational beings. In his conclusions of "Thinking, Fast and Slow", Daniel Kahneman states, "The only test of rationality is not whether a person's beliefs and preferences are reasonable but whether they are internally consistent." And further, "The definition of rationality as coherence is impossibly restrictive; it demands adherence to rules of logic that a finite mind is not able to implement."[2] Suggesting that the human mind is inherently limited in its capacity to be entirely rational.

Pop Art Cubism Mind
Pop Art Cubism Mind, David S. Soriano, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In case you are unfamiliar with "Thinking, Fast and Slow", Kahneman introduced two systems of thinking: an intuitive and fast System 1 and an effortful and slow System 2. In short, System 1 provides information intuitively, making it susceptible to errors. System 2 is slower and validates decisions made by System 1 and provides critical thinking, reasoning and memory recall.

However, System 2 is unable to rationalise every output from System 1. Kahneman discovered that our ability to remember memories is biased, favouring short periods of intense joy over long periods of moderate happiness. In my opinion, this implies that System 2 is not rational at all[3].

Nick disagrees with the instinctive system, rational system model. I reached out to him, and he expressed, "We do not have an instinctive/emotional system working alongside a rational one. We have two emotional systems (if you want a conceptual mode) - one immediate, the other abstract". According to him, our touch of rationality lies in our ability to balance feelings and make sensible choices.

Conclusions #

At the beginning of his book, Nicks warns that the affective context model is challenging to grasp. It might 'feel' weird at first and requires flexibility. Is the thought of fixing my broken roof because it might rain into my home a feeling?

Honestly, it doesn't matter too much. But it's not a chicken and egg problem, either. Thoughts are at least sparked by feelings. We make changes because we feel unsatisfied, unhappy about the status quo. One tiny change in wording can move mountains; reflect your words before you spit them out. It is proven that emotional enhancement boosts our memory[4]. Further, where would logic be without feelings anyways? Where would science stand now if nobody had the curiosity[5] to formalise the state of the world?

How powerful would feelings be if we would not possess the ability to express them? Language and mimic drive our daily lives. Think about ChatGPT or image-generating AIs like Stable Diffusion (our cute robots further up). The resulting output depends on how specifically we formulate our prompts. But why? Because our words are mapped to context, the AI can find relations to other words within or close to that context. If the context is vague, the AI cannot understand our desire.

Why does learning in organisations fail so often?

  1. Denial of individual concerns
  2. Lack of trained staff

In many cases, the onboarding process outright sucks. Get a notebook, a few training and off we go. Employees have no clue what's happening around them; there's no guidance.

While schools employ professionals, aka teachers, organisations lack persons/groups dedicated to supervising learning success. Either HR has that responsibility as a side role, or there's a learning department throwing around e-learnings. The point is, if learning is critical, it should be treated with the attention it deserves.

How can this be achieved? Stay tuned for part two!

  1. OpenStax. (n.d.). Reinforcement Schedules. Pressbooks. ↩︎

  2. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. ↩︎

  3. Kahneman uses the term 'bounded rationality' which he talks about in further research ↩︎

  4. Kazui, H., Mori, E., Hashimoto, M., Hirono, N., Imamura, T., Tanimukai, S., Hanihara, T., & Cahill, L. (2000). Impact of emotion on memory. British Journal of Psychiatry, 177(4), 343–347. ↩︎

  5. Curiosity is an interesting word that can associated with a positiv feeling (explorer spirit) or a negativ one (rule breaker) ↩︎