Learning is hard – and it’s not your fault

“Learning should be easy”.

This seems to be the plaintive cry of many in the talent and learning industries.  The thought process appears to be:

  • Learning is (self-evidently) a “good thing”
  • People should, therefore, want to do it
  • They are not, so there must be some problem
  • It must be because something (or someone) is making it difficult and/or we are not good enough
  • And this is what we must change

I wrote a few years ago about my experience becoming qualified as a football coach (at the very lowest level, I should add) and just how hard I found it.  Hard as in uncomfortable and unenjoyable – not hard as in “difficult to master” (although it was that too).

Being exposed for being significantly less competent than I thought I was; having to mentally wrestle with multiple new concepts while having to consciously disown habits pre-conditioned over many years; experiencing low status in a new (albeit extremely supportive and friendly) hierarchy – none of this was “fun”.

And now I understand a bit more why.

My first source is How We Learn (The New Science of Education and the Brain) by Stanislas Dehaene, published in 2018, and my second is Andrew Huberman via his excellent podcast series, The Huberman Lab.  Both outline in superbly accessible detail how the human brain learns and develops.

The human brain is built for learning up to about our mid-twenties – it literally, physically, grows and explores new connections, happily experimenting and cutting out those connections that turn out to be unhelpful, while remaining undimmed in its enthusiasm to keep creating new ones.  At this stage and age, there is also literally more room in the brain and greater flexibility of synapses to grow and try out new connections.

But during our mid twenties, the brain starts to settle on the arrangements it has reached: the linings of our neurons firm up (and protect the learning that’s there) and there is literally less room for neurons and synapses to develop and make new connections.

There’s a good evolutionary reason why this amazing environment for learning comes to an end: we reach a point where evolution has determined that enough learning has been done – it is at this stage and age that we now need to apply whatever we have learned in the pursuit of survival and reproduction.   Learning can still continue – but it is much less easy.

However, this evolutionary ‘decision’ about when to dial down the learning for human did not have to contend with life in the 21st Century, where information and learning is desirable way beyond one’s mid-20s.  Given how rapidly technology and society changes, what we learned in our mid-20s may well become irrelevant.  But our neuro-evolution does not know this.

So there may be a much simpler reason why learning & development programmes are not consumed with the enthusiasm and vigour that their sponsors want: learning is intrinsically hard.

I would love to see the talent and L&D communities acknowledge this more – and I think it would be a huge step forward.

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