Disorienting Dilemmas and Your Aging Brains

Design Considerations for Your Training Deployment

January 06, 2010

As another year slips past, we're once again faced with the uncomfortable truth: our brains are aging. True, we know more (and are perhaps wiser), but when it comes to learning new stuff, studies show that our adult brains absorb and store knowledge differently from when we were in grammar school or even college. Does your adult training account for this factor?

We know from recent studies on Blended Learning — those courses that use a combination of online and classroom delivery — that the blended model is better suited for adult learning for many reasons, including flexibility, control, and time for reflection. This morning, in a New York Times article title "How to Train the Aging Brain"(Jan 3, 2010), I found an additional argument for employing blended training: by the nature of its design, a blended model places students into unfamiliar and ambiguous learning situations, which is how adults learn best.

In the Times article, researchers discuss the value of designing learning activities in a way that prevents forgetting. Researcher Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary's College of California, maintains that in order for the older brain to retain new information, it must be challenged in a variety of contexts. She states: "…we need to move beyond (stuff) and challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you're not going to wrestle with your established brain connections."

Jack Mezirow, a professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers College, adds that adults also learn best when they experience "disorienting dilemmas," which he uses to force students to question "the assumptions they've acquired." While the experience may be uncomfortable, it is in that bewildering space that long‐term learning occurs. Well‐planned blended models make use of this approach through complex simulations and realistic exercises. These scenarios incorporate uncertainty and press students to make decisions and explore consequences, but still within a safe practice environment — not the actual back office or factory floor!

Is your current training designed for adult learning? Here are some questions to ask yourself, especially if you're considering the transition from a classroom‐only model to a Blended Learning model:

  • Are you challenging your adult students' assumptions and perceptions, or just throwing facts and figures at them?
  • Do your exercises, simulations and quizzes contain ambiguity, or do they simply re‐state the materials presented in the lessons?
  • How often are your students thrust into situations where they can use the "stuff" (i.e., Lean Six Sigma tools and techniques) in a variety of environments rather than the comfortable ones?
  • Do your training lessons foster enough discussion and help students to challenge the current process state?

Your 2010 resolution: Dare yourself to make your training more uncomfortable and ambiguous, and as a result, completely unforgettable.

Kathy Miller