The better we learn the better we live. Successful learners are better able to cope with the demands of life, they usually experience carer success, they grow into their best selves, and they live more enjoyable, more fulfilling lives.
One of the secrets to successful learning is mixing things up by incorporating variety into our learning and our lives. I’ve noticed that people whose lives are the same every day are less likely to stretch and learn. On the other hand, people who are involved in a wide range of different experiences continually stretch and learn.
Peter Drucker, the influential management thinker, said, “to be a better manager learn to play the violin”. I love the way this quote so deftly captures the benefits of a life that incorporates lots of different elements. Managers who access the creative sides of their brains will experience broader development and are very likely to be more effective in work and in life.
To be a better manager learn to play the violin – Peter Drucker
Recently, I read an excellent book called “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”, by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel. The authors put forward a number of practical suggestions on how we can improve our learning. One was that we should “mix things up” if we want to learn well.
They relate a study which involved a group of 8-year-olds practiced tossing beanbags into buckets for a period of 12 weeks. Half of the children practiced under just one condition – tossing the beanbag into a bucket 3 ft away. The other half practiced over 2 different conditions – 2ft and 4ft distances (but never at 3ft). After 12 weeks the children were tested on performance from a distance of 3ft. Guess what? The children who practiced at 2ft and 4ft distances (but never at 3ft) significantly outperformed the children who practiced solely at the 3ft distance.
The advantage of practice over varying conditions is that it forces us to think more deeply and gain learning at a deeper, conceptual level, rather than just at a simplistic level. This conceptual learning enables us to better assess context and discriminate between problems, and then apply the best solution from a range of possibilities. This turned out to be very helpful for children tossing beanbags into buckets, and it helps greatly in the very sophisticated tests that life throws at us every day.
So how do we use this knowledge that variety is good for learning?
For learning professionals like me this finding underscores the importance of designing programs which incorporate a range of learning experiences. A recent leadership program I led incorporated no less than 9 distinct modes of learning, and I believe this was a major ingredient in the positive outcome.
For organisations this finding emphasises the importance of designing jobs which contain variety. It also implies that it is best to help people find their own approaches rather than always following a pre-determined script, and that it is good practice to give people exposure to a range of different projects and different roles.
Finally, for all of us, this finding means we should try to live lives that are rich and varied, and expose ourselves to a rich variety of new experiences, rather than making ever day similar to the one before. Fortunately, life offers an abundance of variety and an abundance of learning possibilities. We just have to be open to it.
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